DURHAM, N.C. - Duke is not likely to lead the ACC in rushing as long as Kurt Roper is running David Cutcliffe's pass-oriented offense.
"I think there is some philosophy in that - what do you like to do as an offense?" Roper, Duke's offensive coordinator, said. "We're a team that leans more on throwing the football. That's kind of our belief system.
"I would love to go and run the football for 150-plus yards a game. But I don't want to run it for 300 or 400 and I can't throw the ball from here to there. I don't want to do that."
What Roper does want is to run the ball more effectively than the Blue Devils have managed over the last two seasons - two years that saw Duke rank dead last in the ACC rushing statistics.
However, there was some improvement in that area between 2009 and 2010. Two years ago, Duke averaged just 63 yards a game on the ground. That was about half of what the ACC's 11th best rushing team averaged. A year ago, the Devils averaged 110 yards a game on the ground - still the worst figure in the ACC, but just a few yards short of Boston College, UNC and N.C. State, which ranked 9th, 10th and 11th.
It's no coincidence that Duke's rushing game has improved as the Blue Devil offensive line has gotten better.
"Offensively, you build your offense on what the five guys up front can do and what the quarterback can do," Roper said. "I think our five guys up front are becoming bigger, more physical guys, which I think helps you in the running game. So I think we're moving in that direction."
The offensive line was one of the program's weaker groups when Cutcliffe and his staff arrived after the 2007 season. It's taken years to not only build a solid line, but to build it the right way. Duke will go into the 2011 season with five veteran players lined up to start - fifth-year senior Kyle Hill at one tackle, fourth-year junior Brian Moore at center and three third-year sophomores - David Harding, Perry Simmons and John Coleman - at the other three spots. Four of the five have extensive starting experience. Coleman, who played 104 snaps last season, is the lone exception.
It's the first time in recent memory that Duke is not planning to start a freshman or a redshirt freshman up front, although Laken Tomlinson and Tacoby Cofield certainly have the potential to win a starting job. The difference is that if they succeed, it's because they are that good (and one or both might be) ... not that they are forced to play by circumstances.
It's a bigger - and more importantly - a more experienced line that Duke has had in years.
"Those guys usually need some marinating," Roper said. "They need to get in and learn some system and learn what it means to get hit by a college defensive lineman and learn the speed of the game, the complexity of the game. It's such a transition for linemen, especially offensive linemen. You can't tell an offensive lineman just go take your gap, come off the ball and be destructive. He's got to work within the framework of the rest of those five. It's choreography for lack of a better word. They're in a dance, in a ballet contest. They better be on the same page or they're not going to be ready and it's a physical ballet contest. It usually takes some talent for a lineman to be physically and mentally ready."
Indeed, the talent upgrade up front has been impressive. The Harding, Simmons, Coleman class (which also includes redshirt sophomore Joey Finison) was very good. The Tomlinson-Cofield group may be even better. They're certainly bigger at 6-3, 315 and 6-4, 295 respectively.
"They're great workers," Roper said. "They're intelligent guys and football is important to them. Tacoby came in at 315 or 320 and has dropped weight and gotten in better shape. He got down to 290 and is working in back with good weight. Laken is just big - big and strong and powerful. That's what you're hunting in recruiting."
And it's what Duke keeps finding. Cutcliffe, speaking to reporters about his offensive line after the spring game, noted that several incoming line prospects were on hand and pointed out, "they're standing over there looking bigger than the ones we've got. That's always a good sign. I'm excited about what I think that unit can become over the next few years."
Indeed, on paper, the strength of Cutcliffe's 2011 recruiting class is on the offensive line, where 305-pound Cody Robinson, 300-pound Marcus Aprahamian, 285-pound Lucas Patrick, 260-pound Matt Skura are among the highest-rated members of the class.
"I think the most improvement [on offense] has come in that area," Roper said. "We're getting guys who are solid football players. Your offense is going to be really dependent on those guys up front. Coach [Matt] Luke is obviously gone out and recruited guys who can help us win football games. I think the mix of experience, the mix of guys who love football, the temperament of the guys, the talent of the guys ... it's a group that's moving in the right direction."
The same can be said for Duke's collection of running backs. In both 2008 and 2009, the Blue Devils were led in rushing by a true freshman. Last year, sophomore Desmond Scott became just the team's third back-to-back rushing leader since Randy Cuthbert in 1989 and 1990. This year he has a chance to lead the team on the ground in three straight years for the first time since Mike Grayson did it in the early 1980s.
But Scott is just one of five experienced running backs that will get the call this fall. Perhaps the best pure runner of the bunch is sophomore Josh Snead, who averaged 4.9 yards a carry as a freshman last season.
"Josh is a very tough runner," Roper said. "He's got one speed. He's going to be physical at the point of attack and he's going to get downhill with the ball in a hurry. He has the ability to make a lot of long runs.
"But Snead is not as far along in the passing game as Desmond. Desmond is a very, very skilled football player all around. You could put Desmond at running back. You could put him at wide receiver. He's a very good pass protector."
Scott averaged 4.4 yards a carry and finished with 530 rushing yards last season - the most for a Duke tailback since Chris Douglas topped 1,000 yards in 2003. He also added 34 pass receptions for 266 yards.
"Desmond is a different runner as a tailback," Roper said. "He's not going to be as physical a runner as Snead, but he's an elusive guy who's hard to tackle in a phone booth and he's very advanced in the passing game. He really understands pass protection and he's a good enough route-runner that he could go play receiver and do things. He's overall the most compete back that we have."
That's why Scott is likely to start, while the other four tailbacks bring different skills to the table.
"Juwan Thompson is very impressive - a heavy, heavy guy that runs physical. He gets downhill. He can really break tackles. He's skilled in the passing game. He has really good hands. I think his understanding of protection is good and improving.
"Jay Hollingsworth has great understanding and is a big security blanket all around. When you go back and watch last year, he handled most of the third downs when it became a protection-oriented game. Jay has had injury issues for a while and it has obviously set him back at a little bit. I have a lot of confidence in Jay because I know what he does is going to be right.
"Patrick Kurunwune is a thumper. He's a better runner than he is a pass protector or route-runner. He is a guy who runs the ball effectively. He is a heavy guy and a hard guy to tackle. He's a different dimension."
The Duke running game is likely to have more dimensions than a Twilight Zone episode. Not only will the Devils rotate five running backs with five different skill-sets, they have not one, but two quarterbacks capable of running the football.
Roper explained that the installation of quarterback-running packages was partially a response to Brandon Connette's skill set and partially a tactic devised to help Duke execute in the red zone.
"When you do end up with a first and goal at the nine yard-line, to say you're going to throw the ball in the end zone is not as easy thing to do because they don't have to defend much field," Roper said. "So you have to be physical. That's where the whole conversation came from - how are we going to run it in the end zone. So we've got to get our numbers right."
Connette, a 6-2, 225-pounder from California, proved to be an effective runner, rushing for 321 yards (4.1 yards a carry) and a team-high eight touchdowns as a true freshman.
"That's where that package was really, really helpful for us," Roper said. "I think that's where we really improved. If you look at our numbers, I think [Sean] Renfree threw 17 touchdown passes, but Connette had eight rushing touchdowns. All of that ends up being one number together, but that's where we were much better as an offense in the tight red zone area, because of what Brandon was able to get accomplished running the football.
"We're an offense that definitely has a different dimension. In all reality, when we need to run the football, that's our best way to run the football. It gets your numbers right and that's the biggest thing - having angles and numbers in the running game. It's a great dimension."
The biggest problem with the quarterback shuttle was that opposing defenses knew that Connette was going to run the ball and that Renfree was going to throw (or hand off).
That could change this season. During the spring, Connette showed a much improved stroke in the passing game.
"I saw the improvement you'd like to see in the passing game from him," Roper said. "Last spring, the simple coaching point was, 'When a pass is called, Brandon, let's throw the ball. Get it out of your hand.' Saying that, he leans on the ability to make plays with his feet. Now he's getting to the point that whatever pass play we give him, he's got a chance to make a good, sound decision. One thing he can do is physically throw it. But you have to know why and where and what kind of timing ... and he's gotten much better at that."
Connette suggested that his development was normal.
"It's something we've been working on since I got here," he said. "It's so much easier to say, 'Just go run the ball.' Developing as a passer in college football takes more time. I think I'm getting to the point where I'm getting more comfortable with it and starting to feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to."
He pointed out that Renfree, a year further removed from his knee surgery, has demonstrated an equal improvement in his ability to take off and run.
Put those two elements together - Connette's passing and Renfree's running - and opposing defenses will have a lot to worry about.
"I don't think there is a ceiling," Connette said. "It can be amazing ... just the changeup it gives defenses. Last year, it was a changeup still having to deal with a running quarterback. But it adds another element with me able to throw it now and Sean getting stronger and healthier with his legs running the ball. I think if both quarterbacks can pass and run, that's really tough for the defense."
And that's not all. Roper suggested that Duke will find a way to use redshirt freshman Anthony Boone, a 6-0, 240-pounder with some running ability of his own.
"He's a guy who definitely goes in the picture because he is a lot like Brandon in that he can make plays with his feet, but is capable of throwing the football," Duke's offensive coordinator said. "We're fortunate at the quarterback position right now. [Boone] obviously has the least amount of experience and with him playing, you'd probably see a lot of Brandon in him because he's a year behind in the passing game. Is he a good quarterback, yes."
Cutcliffe, who is renowned as a quarterback guru, sounded positively giddy about the prospect of working with this offense.
"If you look at us, we're going to have some fun on offense," he said. "Anthony Boone is entering the picture. We're looking at some unique packages."
Since those packages include two run-first quarterbacks, it's not farfetched to suggest Duke's running game will take another step forward this season. The growing strength, size and experience of the offensive line, the veteran stable of running backs and the talents of Connette and Boone give Cutcliffe and Roper a lot to work with.
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