From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Duke Blue Devils. We all know the Duke Football program has had it’s struggles, and David Cutcliffe and his staff are still searching for a bowl appearance. They’re hoping that 2012 is the year, but I’m not sure it will be right now. They return a 3rd year starter in Sean Renfree at QB which is certainly encouraging, but he hasn’t ever had a very reliable run game to support him and that led to him throwing 434 passes for only 2,891 yards last season. The offensive line should be a solid but unspectacular group, and if they can help Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson run the ball more effectively it should pay dividends for Renfree and the passing game. That would certainly please Conner Vernon as he attempts to chase ACC records as a wide receiver. The offense should be solid but not spectacular, but the real question mark is the defense.

The Duke defense actually has a few pretty talented players, but they have struggled to stay healthy and there isn’t a lot of quality depth to speak of. Two of the defense’s best players, defensive end Kenny Anunike and outside linebacker Kelby Brown, both suffered knee injuries last season and Duke just didn’t have the talent to replace them. I’m not convinced this is going to be the year that Duke gets to a bowl game, but I’ve been wrong before and I hate to doubt a team that’s been an underdog for so long like Duke has. Regardless, here are the prospects to keep an eye on for the Blue Devils:

Sean Renfree, QB- Renfree is a 6’5”, 230 pound quarterback who returns for his 3rd season as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback with 23 career starts. Last season he didn’t exactly blow the doors off the ACC as he passed for 2,891 yards, completed 65% of his 434 attempts and threw 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. It’s a positive trend from his first season as a starter as far as efficiency (18 TD’s, 19 INTs and 62% completion) but he threw for 570 less yards as a junior. He’s not a top prospect, but his combination of size, arm strength and football IQ will make him an attractive developmental prospect. I think Renfree is a near guarantee to get an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, and if that happens I will very much be looking forward to seeing him in person. If I’m lucky I’ll be at the Duke-UNC game this year to see him play well before that. Renfree is a draftable player, so it will be interesting to see how much he can boost his stock as a senior.

Desmond Scott, RB- Scott is a smaller, speedier back who is listed at 5’9”, 190 pounds. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with that frame since he has a respectable amount of weight packed onto it, but Scott has had a lot of issues staying healthy and durable throughout his career at Duke. He’s a talented back with plenty of speed and burst, and he catches the ball well out of the backfield, but unless he can stay healthy this year he won’t get drafted.

Juwan Thompson, RB*- Thompson filled in quite well for Scott while he was injured last season, rushing 110 times for 457 yards and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore. Thompson is a very different back than Scott, as he is listed at 5’11” and tips the scales at 230 pounds. He’s the thunder to Scott’s lightning, and I’m interested to see him play more this season. He really stepped up for them as a sophomore, so hopefully he can build on that as a junior.

Conner Vernon, WR- Vernon has been Duke’s most reliable pass catcher for what feels like forever, and now he enters his senior season with 32 career starts and is coming off a 70 catch, 956 yard, 6 touchdown season as a junior. He’s Renfree’s top target without a doubt, and runs good routes despite his lack of elite burst or acceleration. He has very reliable hands and catches the ball well outside of his frame which is critical for any receiver in my opinion. He’s a very fundamentally sound player, and while he won’t blow you away with his 40 yard dash time or any of his measurables he will come to play and offer a reliable pair of hands for anyone who throws a ball his way. That might not get him drafted very early, or perhaps even at all, but I think he will make a NFL roster.

Laken Tomlininson, OG**- Tomlinson is one of Duke’s best offensive linemen if he isn’t already the best. He’s young, and is entering his redshirt sophomore season this year, but the 6’3”, 315 pound right guard has plenty of upside. He’s nasty and aggressive which I love, but he is still raw and needs to improve his hand placement and his overall technique at this point. He’s got the upside though, so it will be interesting to see how well he takes coaching because if he works hard he could improve a lot and be one of the highest draft picks Duke has had in two decades.

Takoby Cofield, OT**- I know nothing about Cofield other than the fact that he is listed at 6’4”, 310 pounds, he started 2 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman, and his name is actually Takoby.

Kenny Anunike, DE- Anunike is a converted tight end and despite getting a medical redshirt after starting only 3 games last season he still led the team in sacks with 4. That should paint the picture of how desperate Duke is for a pass rush, and that’s why Anunike coming back healthy is so critical for them. If he can stay healthy for the entire year he could turn his raw athleticism into 6-8 sacks or maybe even more if he’s worked on his technique. He’s listed at 6’5”, 255 pounds and if he stays healthy this year he has a chance to get drafted. Whether he does or not depends on how well his knee injury has healed and whether he is still just an athlete playing defensive end or a defensive end with a lot of athletic ability.

Kelby Brown, OLB*- Brown is one of Duke’s best defenders and it showed as he had 65 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks and 3 pass break-ups as a sophomore. He injured the ACL in his right knee on November 20th against Georgia Tech but reinjured the knee again in Februrary. I’m not sure what his status is for this upcoming season, but I think the best choice would be to sit out the year or to take a medical redshirt. He is just now 6 months removed from the injury and that’s definitely not enough time to recover from an injury that severe, especially since he reinjured it just a couple months after the original surgery. We’ll see if he plays this year, but if he does he absolutely won’t be at 100%.

Ross Cockrell, CB*- Cockrell is Duke’s best cover corner and is likely their top returning defensive back overall. Cockrell is listed at 6’0”, 180 pounds and has 4.5-4.55 speed according to the listing I found, but he has quality ball skills. As a redshirt freshman he totaled 7 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions and followed that up with 56 tackles, 1 TFL, 9 pass break-ups and 1 more interception as a sophomore. Now he is entering his junior season and while he may not be an athletic freak I think he has some potential as a NFL corner. He has to add weight in my opinion and work on his technique, but he has some fairly intriguing tools.

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