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Jela Duncan (25), Josh Snead (9), Juwan Thompson (23) and Shaquille Powell (28)
Establishing the Running Game
Courtesy: Al Featherston,
Release: 09/06/2013
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David Cutcliffe is a quarterback guru.

The Duke coach mentored Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Ole Miss. The two Super Bowl MVPs still return to work with Cutcliffe in the offseason. Cut’s first two starting quarterbacks at Duke have thrown for 14,636 yards in five seasons — an average of 2,927 yards a year.

Cutcliffe’s offense features the passing game. At least it always has.

There are strong indications that the 2013 Blue Devils will feature a more balanced attack. On paper, Duke appears to have the weapons necessary for an effective running game. This was on display in Duke’s 45-0 win over N.C. Central in the season when the Blue Devils rushed for 257 yards, the most by a Cutcliffe-coached Duke team. That’s not to say that Cutcliffe is going to abandon the pass, but if all goes well, the ’13 Devils will run more than ever before in the Cutcliffe era.

“Usually, we’ve been probably 70-30 pass to run,” redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Boone said. “I think this year you’ll see 60-40, leaning more toward 50-50. We have four great running backs. They’re going to punch guys.”

Duke’s new-found focus on the running game is a product of three factors: (1) The presence on the roster of four extremely talented, experienced running backs; (2) the maturation of a deep, powerful offensive line; and (3) the transition at quarterback from Sean Renfree, a superb passer but a reluctant runner, to a new generation of multi-skilled quarterbacks, starting with Boone.

The 6-0, 230-pound redshirt junior is not the passer than Renfree was, but he’s a bowling ball of a power runner. And backing him up will be 6-2, 225-pound redshirt junior Brandon Connette, whose forte at Duke has been as a short-yardage quarterback, running for 18 TDs in 27 games and converting numerous first downs. Behind that veteran duo are a collection of youngsters who are as well-versed in the run as in the pass.

“Whoever is in there now is a threat to run it,” Cutcliffe said. “With Anthony that’s certainly the case. I’m praying that there’s more run game for us. It’s going to be important to this team’s success that we run it.”

Last year’s team averaged 125.2 yards a game on the ground. But the Blue Devils provided a hint of the future against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. The Bearcats came into the game ranked No. 24 nationally against the rush, allowing an average of 130 rushing yards a game. Duke slashed the Cincinnati defense for 200 net yards.

“I think it’s what we’re capable of being,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that is when we played our best. Look at the North Carolina game. We dominated for most of the game because we ran the football.”

Duke rushed for 234 yards in the victory over UNC.

Most of the rushing yardage against the Bearcats and Tar Heels came out of the zone read. That’s a system that adds the option to the spread formation. The quarterback lines up in the shotgun with a running back beside him or behind him (in the “pistol” variation). After taking the snap, the quarterback will put the ball in the belly of his running back, at which point he can hand off and allow the runner to carry the ball; pull the ball out and keep it himself for a run; or pull the ball out and drop back and pass.

While Duke ran the zone read last season, the second option was usually off the table, because Renfree was rarely going to keep the ball and run.

“With Sean sometimes it was window dressing,” Cutcliffe admitted. “He could run okay and at times we gave him the option. With a guy who can run it, understand it and get the practice time with it, we think we can be effective in it.”

Boone appears to be that quarterback.

“With the zone read, I’m going to have the ball in my hand, both passing and running,” he said. “The ACC has some great defensive ends. To help our offensive line, it’s going to be key to slow them down. Leaving one guy unblocked for me to read gives us a chance to get a hat on another guy downfield. Being able to read those guys and make them slow their feet down on the pass rush, that’s going to help our offense out.”

Ross Cockrell, Duke’s All-ACC cornerback, talked about how a running quarterback stresses the defense.

“Boone adds an extra dimension to our offense,” he said. “You need to take a guy away from what you would regularly do to watch him. That’s the toughest thing about it. When you play a guy like (FSU’s E.J.) Manuel or (Clemson’s) Tajh Boyd, who can run as well as throw the ball, it makes your offense very tough to stop.”

The Four Horsemen

Duke has not had a running back rush for 600 yards in a season since Chris Douglas broke the 1,000-yard barrier in 2003. A year ago, freshman Jela Duncan gained 553 yards on the ground — and that’s the highest total for a Duke back since Douglas.

No Duke running back is likely to threaten 1,000 rushing yards this season because Cutcliffe is planning to rotate four runners: senior Juwan Thompson, redshirt junior Josh Snead and sophomores Duncan and Shaquille Powell.

“This day and time, there’s never enough of them,” he said. “It seems that there are never enough balls to go around, but there are never enough running backs either. You can lose two or three of them in a heartbeat. You’ve got to realize how hard they’re getting hit consistently.

“Even when we had Jamal Lewis (an All-American on Tennessee’s 1998 national title team), we had other people carrying the load. He wasn’t a 25-time-a-game guy. He could have been. I just don’t like the offense to get that dependent on one back.”

Three backs — Thompson, Snead and Duncan — carried the load a year ago. Collectively, they averaged right at five yards a carry. All three had their moments:

• Thompson was at his best in the win over Virginia when he had 71 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries, including the game-clincher on a 34-yard TD run.

• Snead led the way against UNC (99 yards on 15 carries) and in the Belk Bowl (a career high 107 yards in 15 carries).

• Duncan had his best game against Memphis, when he rushed for 88 yards, including a 58-yard run.

Powell did not play much last year (93 yards on 28 carries), but he earned his spot in this year’s rotation with a strong spring.
“We have a stable of running backs,” Cockrell said. “We have the guys you know — Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead, Jela Duncan…but a name that will be big for us this year is Shaquille Powell. So you’ve got four guys that all run hard…all big, physical guys I think will wear down defenses this year. Four running backs who are big and powerful and strong and aren’t afraid of contact. That’s tough for a defense.”

Cutcliffe sounds a little overwhelmed by the talent he’s collected at running back.

“You can be talking about Shaquille Powell, who played the least…I look at him some time and I’m like, ‘Wow!’” Cutcliffe said. “Jela, I look at him and go ‘My gosh, look at how he’s put together — his speed, his tenacity, his temperament.’ You wouldn’t change him in any form or fashion. I remember going to Smithfield to see Josh Snead and he’s on the track working out and I don’t think you could see anybody go from zero to sixty any faster. Then when Juwan Thompson walks in here, he gets everybody’s attention.

“They’re all unique.”

It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

Putting together an ACC quality offensive line has been a slow and at times painful process for Cutcliffe and his staff.

The 2013 front line is a product of that hard work. The Blue Devils have five players with a combined 121 career starts to their credit — and they are being pressed by a collection of talented youngsters with similar skill.

How did Duke go from having one of the worst offensive line situations in the ACC to one of the best?

“I’m going to start by mentioning one of our coaches who is gone — that’s Matt Luke,” Cutcliffe said “Matt came in and he had a plan and he had a lot to do with getting it started here. He worked hard, really hard, in recruiting a lot of these guys who are now a little older.”

When Luke left Duke after the 2011 season to return to his alma mater, Cutcliffe replaced him with the man who had mentored Luke in the first place.    

John Latina was the perfect guy, because we had all been together,” the Duke coach said. “John is the best, most experienced line coach in the country. A great mentor. He’s just built them into a unit.”

Cutcliffe said that his goal was to build a two-deep line to facilitate the fast tempo he wants to play on offense. He’s got that now.

The strength of the line are the guards, where redshirt senior Dave Harding and redshirt junior Laken Tomlinson are all-conference quality players. Behind them are redshirt sophomores Lucas Patrick and Cody Robinson, who are just as big, just as strong and just as talented as the veterans they are backing up.

Lucas Patrick and Cody Robinson aren’t going to be able to be kept off the field,” Cutcliffe said. “Along with Laken, those are probably the three most physical players we’ve got.”

The only starter without at least 15 games starting experience is the center, redshirt sophomore Matt Skura. But he’s backed up by fifth-year senior John Coleman, who has nine career starts, and if necessary, Cutcliffe can move Harding (who started seven games at center in 2011) over from guard.

That’s the kind of depth and flexibility that Cutcliffe has been striving for.

“It’s starting to really look like an offensive line,” the Duke coach said. “It’s not a place you want to get caught without. You get mismatched there and you can’t play offense.”

That shouldn’t be the case this season. The burgeoning offensive line ought to provide the key to unlock the full potential of Duke’s running game.

“It should,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got all the backs back and they’re good players. We’ve got an experienced and a talented offensive line. It’s in our defense’s best interest that we run the ball. Everything is pointing to that being extremely important.”

It’s worth pointing out that Duke’s two previous bowl teams boasted strong running games. The 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl team featured ACC player of the year Robert Baldwin at running back. And Steve Spurrier’s 1989 ACC champions averaged 178.7 yards a game on the ground, Duke’s highest rushing average in the last 35 years.

“These guys want more of it,” Cutcliffe said. “They ask for it all the time: ‘Coach, let’s run the ball, let’s run the ball’”.

They are likely to get that chance in 2013.