Photo by Chase Olivieri/Chronicle File Photo
On her ESPN blog yesterday, ACC blogger Heather Dinich anointed Georgia Tech’s backfield as the conference’s best, but not without mentioning that “the running game appears to be an early strength of the ACC—Duke included.”
We know Duke’s opening game against Richmond Sept. 5—mark it on your calendar!—is still more than six months away, but why not take a look at Dinich’s claim? Is Duke’s running game going to be a strength next season? Absolutely. The evidence:
- The only downside for the backfield is the loss of senior Clifford Harris, the team’s second-leading rusher last season. Harris, however, gained more than 50 percent of his 356 yards in Duke’s first two games of the year. By the end of the season, freshman Jay Hollingsworth and sophomore Tony Jackson had emerged as Duke’s best running threats.
- Harris’ departure should be completely eradicated by the return of fifth-year senior Re’quan Boyette, who was first on the depth chart before he went down with a knee injury in preseason. Boyette was Duke’s leading rusher in his sophomore and junior seasons, and his first spring under head coach David Cutcliffe offered glimmers of greatness. The Blue Devils might be better for Boyette’s injury—Jackson and Hollingsworth wouldn’t have gotten the experience they did if Boyette were healthy—but Duke will certainly benefit from the captain’s return to the gridiron.
- Hollingsworth, for his part, finished as Duke’s leading rusher as a true freshman. He totaled 415 yards on 108 carries in his rookie season and also paced the Blue Devils’ backfield with 25 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Listed at 5-foot-11, Hollingsworth runs low to the ground and is tough to take down, a fact that ACC teams learned last season. With a full offseason of conditioning and strength training, he could be more of a force than he was just months removed from his senior prom.
- Jackson, a converted cornerback, was an unexpected ray of hope at running back, too. The sophomore gained more than 60 yards in games against Miami and Wake Forest and ended the year with 304 total rushing yards. In Duke’s 10-7 win at Vanderbilt, Jackson caught three passes for 74 yards and notched Duke’s lone touchdown off a pass from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.
- Duke’s returning core—Boyette, Hollingsworth and Jackson—is strong as it is, but it won’t be complete if four-star recruit Desmond Scott has anything to say about it. Scott, a Durham product who reneged on a verbal commitment to Rutgers, was the Blue Devils’ most-lauded prospect and might see time right away.
What do you think: Will the backfield be one of Duke’s strengths next season? And are you even thinking about football yet?
UPDATE, 2/25, 7 p.m.: We were reminded by a friend that while next year’s stable of running backs is strong, we can’t talk about a running game without mentioning the offensive line—and the line won’t be as strong as the group that lines up behind it. Duke loses its best lineman, left tackle Cameron Goldberg, as well as 6-foot-8 tackle Fred Roland and sturdy guard Rob Schirmann. All three started on the line for three seasons.
Duke’s best returning offensive lineman will be redshirt sophomore Kyle Hill, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound tackle who proved just as reliable as the seniors last season. The rest of the line will have to match Hill’s play, or else Duke might see its advantage at running back disappear faster than opposing linemen and linebackers close the gaps.