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Golden Panthers plan to ground Duke’s fast air attack in season opener

FIU’s defense didn’t regain the ability to rush the passer last year even as it righted itself after midseason unsteadiness. How well the defense has done over the offseason will be revealed in Saturday’s season opener against Duke.

Duke averaged 41.08 passes per game last season and, traditionally, its rush offense resembles a Yugo. Even if that’s improved, the Blue Devils proven quantities involve the passing game. Quarterback Sean Renfree and first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver Conner Vernon return as do four members of an offensive line that allowed only 19 sacks last season (11 of them in losses to Stanford and Florida State).

“They protect the quarterback very well,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “Their quarterback gets rid of the ball very quickly. Schematically, they have ways for him to find his outlet throws quickly.”

But that one new starter, redshirt sophomore Takoby Cofield, lines up at the prime protection spot of left tackle. Though Cofield led all Duke linemen in the vertical jump and squat lift this spring and started two games last season, he doesn’t possess the football maturity of 2009-2011 starter Kyle Hill.

Cofield, 6-4, and Perry Simmons, 6-5, both possess the long arms coaches love to see on pass-protecting tackles. The matchup of Cofield and Simmons against FIU 6-4 senior defensive end Tourek Williams, 6-1 junior Greg Hickman and 6-9 junior Paul Crawford could go a long way in determining how much will be needed from FIU’s offense in redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock’s third start.

FIU finished 2011 with a Sun Belt-high 36 sacks. But it’s a bit of a cosmetic number — 15 sacks the first three games, 21 over the last 10. Of that 21, nine came against FAU and Louisiana-Monroe. FAU (five sacks) finished 1-11. Monroe (four sacks) called a mere four running plays over the last 38:10 in attempting to scramble back from a 21-7 second-quarter deficit.

Last year, FIU put in an inexperienced secondary against Duke. The situation should have been a cue for FIU’s pass rushers to help their secondary.

Instead, the 6-5 Renfree, with all the height and mobility of the campus statue of school founder James B. Duke, was allowed to stand in the pocket, throw 43 passes and scorch FIU for 335 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-27 FIU loss.

“We put it on ourselves,” Williams said. “We didn’t do a good job of getting after him the way we were supposed to, how we practiced. We’ve done a better job in camp this year of working on pass rush, just getting to the quarterback, doing a better job of harassing the QB, keeping his feet moving.

“The main focus is to get to him as the last time we played, we had zero sacks against him.”

They should be helped in that regard by a secondary more experienced in the defensive scheme, which might make Renfree hold the ball longer occasionally.

And although Duke runs some of the quick slants most teams like with their speed receivers, Renfree does take some deep drops — the 19 sacks he took last year lost 142 yards or 7.47 yards per sack.

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