Duke's Vernon, Renfree await Day 3 NFL Draft calls Saturday

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

 In David Cutcliffe’s six years as Duke’s football coach, he’s pushed the Blue Devils past a host of important milestones.

The home losing streak at Wallace Wade Stadium ended in his first season.

He led the Blue Devils to a 5-7 record in 2009, their best since 1994.

Last season, Duke won six games and played in a bowl game for the first time since Jan. 2, 1995.

Today, on the final day of the NFL Draft, he hopes Duke clears another hurdle.

No Blue Devil has been drafted since 2004.

But, in today’s rounds four through seven, wide receiver Conner Vernon and injured quarterback Sean Renfree both stand good chances of hearing their names called.

“Being able to finally get over that hump and put guys in the league is just another reason to come to Duke,” Vernon said. “Top football. Top degree. Now you have a chance to play in the ‘league’.”

Vernon became the ACC’s most accomplished receiver during his career. He finished with ACC career records for catches (283), yards (3,749) and consecutive games (48) with at least on catch.

At 6-feet and 196 pounds, he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine after also displaying his skills at the Senior Bowl game.

Most draft analysts project him going no higher than the sixth round.

Cutcliffe has discussed both Vernon and Renfree with his contacts in the NFL. Vernon also worked with a host of NFL players earlier this month when Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and his younger brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli, held a four-day passing camp with some of Vernon’s and Renfree’s teammates at Duke.

“One of the things,” Cutcliffe said, “in all of those guys’ comments about Conner, they were blown away by his explosiveness, how well he blended with them, and of course Peyton and Eli have always said that about him.

“I will say this, whoever gets Conner Vernon is going to get an outstanding football player and a guy that’s going to contribute to their team.”

Having thrown passes to Vernon during their visits to Duke over the last couple of years. both Peyton and Eli Manning have publicly stated they are confident he can help NFL teams at wide receiver.

“The last couple of years I’ve worked out with Conner at little bit, thrown routes with him, played 7-on-7 with him a few years ago,” Eli Manning said while visiting Duke. “He kept getting open. I noticed that I keep going his way. He’s my first read on some things, and he’s winning some post routes and go routes.”

Vernon also had a chance to learn about the NFL from Scottie Montgomery, who was Duke’s receivers coach when Vernon was a freshman in 2009. Montgomery left in 2010 to become the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers coach for the last three seasons.

In February, he returned to Duke’s staff. It wasn’t in time to coach Vernon again, but it did allow Vernon a couple of months to pick Montgomery’s brain.

“He definitely helped me a lot,” Vernon said. “I worked out with him a bunch. He’s a great mentor and even a better friend.”

Renfree’s status with the NFL is more complicated than Vernon’s due to his health. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Duke’s Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 27. Following surgery the following day, he’s been healing and rehabilitating the injury.

He was unable to throw or do any of the physical tests for NFL talent evaluators at the NFL Combine. But he was able to meet with them and go through mental evaluations.

That gave him a chance to shine.

“I did get a comment over and over that they’ve never had anybody blow them away on the board like he did in Indianapolis,” Cutcliffe said. “His understanding and knowledge of football, defensive football, coverage.”

Draft analysts like Mel Kiper, Jr., and Mike Mayock are calling Renfree a draft sleeper who could surprise once he gets into the league.

Cutcliffe has a simple evaluation.

“I think he is the most accurate passer in the draft,” Cutcliffe said.

Renfree remains less than 100 percent and is, perhaps, at least two months away from throwing normally again. His recovery time was supposed to take at least six months.

Having tutored Peyton Manning last year when Manning was recovering from a neck injury that wiped out his 2011 season, Cutcliffe sees a similar work ethic in Renfree.

Cutcliffe has the same advice for him that he gave Peyton Manning.

“Let’s get well, then we’ll worry about getting back,” Cutcliffe said.