Chris Douglas has become as much of a famous name in Duke football lore as an infamous one. The running back was the last one to scamper for a thousand yards in a season, celebrating his tenth year with such claim, and may very well hold on to that a few more years.
However, it won’t be for an impotent running game.
With Coach David Cutcliffe shifting to a zone read offense, like Vince Young at Texas years back, the Blue Devils are expecting a more balanced offensive playbook. Last season, Duke ran the ball on 44% of their offensive plays. That split is going to go up this year to something closer to 50%.
Now, if the Duke running game weren’t to improve AT ALL, this likely uptick in play calling would result in an extra 200 yards over the season. Of course, they will improve. Returning is the third most experienced offensive line in the country, anchored by Laken Tomlinson and Perry Simmons. On top of that, you’ve got Duke’s top six rushers returning; four running backs, Anthony Boone, and Brandon Connette.
The top three backs consist of varying amounts of experience. Jela Duncan, the leading rusher a year ago with 560 yards on just 110 carries, returns for his true sophomore year. The 5-10, 210 pounder runs downhill as if only God could stop him. While some backs like to cut and dance around tacklers, Duncan prefers to dare them to bring him down. He uses this to end every play falling forward for an extra two yards almost every rush. It was actually a big piece to his success last year. His relentless motor often saw him shed not one, not two, not three, not four (sorry, Lebron) but more tacklers on his way to the pylon.
Of all the Duke horses in the stable, this colt has the best chance of breaking Douglas’ streak but it won’t be this year.
Joining him again this season is redshirt junior Josh Snead. Duke fans won’t soon forget what could have been in the Belk Bowl as Snead fumbled the ball on the 5 yard line in the closing minutes of the game for what would have been the go ahead touchdown. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be and Cincinnati would score two fluke touchdowns in the final minute and a half to cover the 9 point spread.
Yet, it’s a new season for the Smithfield (coincidentally, my hometown as well) native and Snead has no doubt used that motivation to further his abilities this offseason. In high school, Snead was part of one of the better triple option attacks in the state with UNC commits Justin Dixon and D.J. Bunn (no relation) so sharing carries has never been a problem. He will be counted on to bring top end speed (I still have memories of him blowing past Alabama on a few runs) and, probably, act as a receiver on swing passes. He, too, was a five yard per carry back and will look to build on that this season.
The third of the returning leaders is Juwan Thompson, a true senior returning for his last shot at a bowl win. Thompson is built like a bull but possess soft hands, which allowed him to lead all running backs in receptions last year and the third leading returner of all receivers.
Thompson started all but one game ast season and has become one of the most versatile backs in the conference. The mack truck in the backfield has increased his yards per carry each season and will look to be the third rusher with over five yards a tote. With Thompson lined up beside Boone, the offense becomes a bigger threat because defenses can’t key in on one option.
The fourth key member of the stable is yet to be determined. Shaq Powell was actually more highly touted than Jela Duncan coming out of high school but with such a competitive backfield, was unable to find the snaps required to show off his skills.
Powell is the leading candidate to step up when those ahead of him get injured or need a breather but, truthfully, he might be the most complete back of them all. He won’t be without competitor though. Joseph Ajeigbe will push for snaps as a true freshman. The #61 running back in his class according to ESPN.com, Ajeigbe is another stout and powerful runner that dashed for over 4,500 yards and 48 touchdowns for Norco High School in Riverside, California. While it is probable Ajeigbe takes a redshirt this year, don’t underestimate his skill as he could very well push his way up the depth chart after practice starts.
That is what’s most impressive with this years Duke team. What was one of the worst rushing teams in the country last year, should be one of the best in the conference in terms of yards per game. In fact, I’m calling for the Stable to run for over 180 yards per game this season.