DURAHM, N.C. – As two-time 3,000-yard passer Sean Renfree and wideout Conner Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leading receiver, exit the Duke football program, the Blue Devils will look to complement their established air attack with a run game that returns its top six ground gainers from a season ago.
Duke’s top three returnees – Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson – combined to rush for 1,403 yards on 283 attempts, good for a 4.96 yards per carry average. The group is bolstered by Shaquille Powell, who saw spot duty last fall as a true freshman. In addition, returning quarterbacks Brandon Connette (8) and Anthony Boone (2) combined to rush for 10 touchdowns in 2012.
“There has never been a team in the history of football that had too many running backs,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “College football, and in particular the Atlantic Coast Conference, is just too physical to think you can have one primary back for an entire season. So, in that regard, it’s an interesting problem to have. It’s a good problem. As a group, it might be the best group I’ve had … certainly the best group we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
in 2012, Duke ranked eighth in the ACC by averaging 125.2 yards per game on the ground, a marked improvement after ranking 12th in the league the season before with an average of 94.1 yards per contest.
“Obviously, the numbers show that we made progress last year,” Cutcliffe noted. “But it is still not where we want it to be. We’ve got work to do, but we have the pieces in place to do so.”
Thompson, the lone rising senior of the group, is the seasoned veteran having played in 35 career games. The Fairburn, Ga., product has seen his yards per rushing attempt average increase each year from his freshman season (3.48) to sophomore campaign (4.16) to junior year (4.69).
Snead, a rising redshirt junior from Smithfield, N.C., rebounded after missing the 2011 season due to injury to rush for 496 yards this past fall. In Duke’s 33-30 win over North Carolina that clinched bowl eligibility for the Blue Devils, he rushed for 99 yards and later picked up a career-high 107 yards on the ground in the Belk Bowl defeat against Cincinnati. Snead will enter the 2013 season with a career yards per carry average of 4.98 on 144 attempts.
As a rookie in 2012, Duncan was a pleasant addition to the rotation and became the ninth freshman to lead Duke in rushing yardage. After gaining 50-plus yards in six games last season, the Charlotte, N.C., native joins Duke Johnson of Miami and James Wilder, Jr., of Florida State as the only three returning ACC running backs to have rushed for 500-plus yards, averaged 5.00 or more yards per carry and caught 15-plus passes last season.
“We have all the confidence in the world in our running backs,” said Boone, who is expected to start under center, replacing the graduated Renfree. “All four of them have shown they can be productive, and we’ve got an experienced offensive line. We expect to be successful running the ball.”