For the week leading up to Duke football’s 2013 Spring Game, the Blue Zone will be breaking down this year’s returning squad unit by unit to examine the key changes you’ll see for next year’s Blue Devils. Today we go through the running backs, which we explored in more depth in today’s Chronicle.
Key departures: None
Now in the mix: sophomore Shaquille Powell, freshman Joseph Ajeigbe
2012 performance: Although the Blue Devils rushed for only 125 yards per game in 2012 while surrendering over 200 yards a game to their opponents, Duke’s ground attack showed signs of promise at various times throughout the year. Often overshadowed by the shotgun spread offense and skill of quarterback Sean Renfree and his bevy of talented wideouts, the Blue Devils relied on a trio of runners to help carry the burden of the offensive load. Juwann Thompson, Josh Snead and true freshman Jela Duncan combined for more than 1,400 yards, while averaging right around five yards per carry. The offense relegated the running game to the backseat at time, though, especially late in the season when Duke often found itself down in the second half of games and was forced to rely on pass-heavy play calling.
Duncan was Duke’s leading rusher, racking up 553 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He showed little problem adjusting to the physicality of ACC play, using his bruising style to punish defenders that got in his way. Duncan also exhibited versatility out of the backfield, reeling in 19 receptions on the year. Thompson and Snead also proved to be highly versatile, catching a combined 34 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
Powell was as highly touted coming out of high school as Duncan, but saw limited action in 2012, only rushing for 93 yards on 28 carries.
Season outlook: As of now, there is no clear No. 1 option at running back, and the carries will most likely be distributed evenly between the four backs, at least to start the year. Head coach David Cutcliffe said, however, that the back with the hot hand will remain in the game as the go-to option.
Duke has been practicing the zone-read—a fast-paced, run-oriented offensive style—all spring in hopes of utilizing its depth at running back and an up-tempo offense to wear down opponents on the ground. Traditionally a pass-first team, the Blue Devils will be more focused on longer scoring drives that tire and demoralize a defense, as opposed to the quick touchdown drives that were so frequent in 2012 with Renfree taking the snaps. Redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Boone’s ability to make plays on the ground—something Renfree was not know for—will add another dimension to the running game, opening up holes for the talented running backs as defenses will have to focus on a mobile quarterback as well.
The running backs will be under the tutelage of a new position coach for the 2013 season, former Duke standout Re’quan Boyette, who graduated in 2009. Boyette spent two seasons as a team captain and racked up more than 1,200 yards in his career as a Blue Devil. The newly hired coach foresees a run-by-committee style of play, inserting different backs throughout the game to wear defenses down and establish Duke as one of the ACC’s prominent rushing teams.
Previous unit breakdowns: Quarterbacks