DURHAM, N.C. — Duke hopes good things keep happening when the Blue Devils give the ball to Brittain Brown.
The redshirt sophomore is entering his first season as the featured running back with a track record that suggests the whole team could benefit from an increased workload for him.
Duke was 5-0 last season in games in which Brown carried more than 10 times — but was 0-4 when his attempts were in the single digits — during an up-and-down season as the primary backup to Shaun Wilson.
“Of course, we all want the ball more — we’re all on offense,” Brown said. “Only one ball, 10 other players, 5-6 players that want the ball. I wasn’t even the starting running back, and Shaun wasn’t complaining, so I wasn’t complaining.”
Brown is spending the summer preparing for his starting role after a freshman season that included two 100-yard performances as a reserve. He’s one of just three Atlantic Coast Conference running backs who surpassed 700 yards rushing, seven touchdowns, 10 catches and 150 yards receiving in 2017.
His priorities include a deeper comprehension of the playbook and developing even more comfort with third-year starting quarterback Daniel Jones.
“It’s not just athleticism you’re using out there — you’ve got to think about things, you’ve got to think about which linebacker’s coming, how this lineman’s going to block this defender for you, and also just having better vision and being able to set up blocks during runs,” Brown said. “Having the patience to run behind the blocker and make the defender miss when he’s not faced up with you. ... I try to work on my hands every day so I can be a dynamic back, not just a one-dimensional player.”
He’s also working on putting into practice the lessons he learned during the previous two seasons from departed running backs Jela Duncan and Wilson. Brown redshirted during Duke’s dismal 4-8 season in 2016 — despite fans’ clamoring on social media for the Blue Devils to let the four-star recruit play.
“They both helped me a lot — they kept me calm during my freshman year, just said to stay and wait, it’s going to be your time soon,” Brown said. “And they were both great teachers. They have different ways of teaching me, just showing me the right way to be a running back at Duke.”
Brown’s best game last season might have been his first, rushing for a season-best 120 yards and a touchdown in a rout of N.C. Central. He had 18 carries and a season-high four receptions two weeks later against Baylor, and had 116 yards rushing and a TD and three catches for 31 yards in a November victory over Georgia Tech that the Blue Devils had to have in order to keep their bowl eligibility alive.
Making that one even more satisfying for Brown, he said the Yellow Jackets recruited him out of high school in Georgia before he ultimately chose Duke and “something went down where it didn’t end well.
“It’s weird to see the coaches that you talked to for at least a year or more, and you can show them what you have,” Brown said.
The Blue Devils’ six-game midseason losing streak seemed to coincide with a lack of work for Brown. He combined for just 20 carries during a four-game stretch in the slide, carrying just twice for minus-1 yard in an Oct. 28 loss at Virginia Tech.
That probably won’t be an issue this season, now that he’s the unquestioned leader in the backfield. He doesn’t see his mental approach to the game changing just because he’s the starter but is aware that the younger players will view him as the example to follow.
“As far as me becoming more of a leader, yes ... but as far as playing a different style or acting a certain way around the guys in the locker room, I think it’ll be the same,” Brown said. “Just got to step up, leadership-wise.”