There’s no reason to sugar coat it: the Duke running game has been putrid. That all looks to change this season as the Stable gets to run behind the third-most experienced offensive line in the nation. Four of the five starters return to a unit that surrendered only 19 sacks, which tied for a Duke low in the last 20 years. It also paved the way for the best yard per carry average since 2003. That number seems poised to rise as the running backs bring more skill and experience.
As I said earlier, Duke lost only one starter from last season, center Brian Moore, and one back up, also a center in Conor Irwin. However, the players remaining, including two preseason Phil Steele All-Conference players, bring 113 career starts to the table.
That group is led by Dave Harding, owner of 27 starts. The 6-4, 285 pound redshirt senior is actually the smallest of the group as the coaching staff has done a great job of recruiting size and redshirting those frames to add additional muscle. The reliable guard has been a presence in the trenches for four years, playing both left guard and center.
To his left, Tacoby Cofield joins him for his second year as a starter. Cofield made excellent strides last season, ultimately going from a target of defensive ends to a reliable protector. The redshirt junior started all 13 games last season but missed spring practice with an ankle injury. At 6-4, 305, the ankle could be an issue all season if not healed properly. Because of this and Harding’s size, expect the blind side of the line to be the more vulnerable than the right.
At right guard, the biggest bulldozer on the line, Laken Tomlinson has started 25 straight games and provides Duke a high ranking offensive line prospect. Phil Steele and Athlon both named Tomlinson to their preseason All-ACC third teams and Steele goes as far to call Tomlinson a top 25 offensive guard prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft. The 6-3, 320 guard has been one of the most reliable Blue Devils the last two years, averaging nearly 80 snaps per game.
Lining up next to Tomlinson will be 6-5, 300 pound Perry Simmons. The redshirt senior was listed as a second team All-ACC pick by Steele and a top 50 offensive tackle. Simmons has started in 37 consecutive games and played over 2,800 snaps. The coaching staff will look for Simmons to be a leader of the unit but with four members of the line in their fourth years or more, I don’t suppose there will be much reliance on Simmons alone.
The one unknown on the line is replacing the lone lost starter. Matt Skura steps into the center position vacated by Brian Moore. Skura moves over from guard and had a successful spring working with the first team unit. The 6-4, 290 redshirt sophomore was ranked as the #13 center in the country by ESPN.com out of high school but this will be his first crack at the position at the collegiate level. Still, if you have to replace a senior starter, Skura has the skill and size to fill the void nicely.
Overall, the line has improved by leaps and bounds under Cutcliffe. This year will be no different as the experience that remains happens to be buoyed by the added effort in recruiting the line from Cutcliffe and staff over the years. Of the backups that will see playing time, none stand smaller than 6-4, 290 and all are at least two years into the program.
Bottom line: this unit will pave the way for the running game to top 4.0 on yards per carry for the first time in 20 years and will, due to the zone read offense, improve upon their ratio of 29 pass attempts per sack given up.