DURHAM, N.C. - Brandon Braxton knows he'll find plenty of openings while defenses focus on fellow Duke receivers Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon. He must make good on those chances if he wants to keep up with the veteran duo.
Two seasons ago, Varner made a big jump between his freshman and sophomore years before ending up as the Atlantic Coast Conference's receptions leader. Last year, Vernon did the same thing. Now it's Braxton's turn to keep the streak going as the Blue Devils prepare for Saturday's opener against Richmond.
"His confidence level is high," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday. "His competitiveness has increased, which I like. When a guy gets confidence, you like to see him pick that competitiveness up a notch. Brandon thinks every ball is his."
Braxton played all 12 games and started five as a true freshman, finishing with 14 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers are similar to Varner's rookie stats (21-164-1), and Varner upped his totals to 65 catches for 1,047 yards and eight scores as a sophomore. Vernon went from 55 catches as a freshman to 73 last year.
Cutcliffe said he joked recently with Varner and Vernon that they might as well go ahead and congratulate Braxton before he ends up as the league's receptions leader, too.
"I know about their stats and all that stuff," Braxton said. "At the end of the day, yeah, I'm trying to have as good a season as I possibly can, but also I want our team to do really well this year. I'm not too worried about myself. I want everybody to play as well as they can and get to a bowl game."
Duke quarterback Sean Renfree said he thinks the 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore from Charlotte can make a leap similar to Varner and Vernon.
"He's just a worker. I can't stress that enough," Renfree said. "Whether he had a bad day or a good day, you couldn't really tell a difference from his attitude. He just keeps fighting and trying to get better, which I like as a quarterback."
Braxton said he's added about 5 or 10 pounds to his frame to help him better withstand hits while his understanding of the offense has improved with a year of experience. He recalled moments last season when Renfree would shout an instruction or give a hand sign that briefly stumped him and forced him to think through the call.
Now he hears it, processes immediately and begins to think ahead to the snap.
"I expect myself to play really well," Braxton said. "Go out and execute, connect with Sean and have a good season by myself and as a team."