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Dirty Yards: Jim Looks At Duke’s Running Backs

Duke should have a good group of backs this season

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North Carolina Central v Duke
 DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 02: Running back Brittain Brown #22 of the Duke Blue Devils runs the football against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the football game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

David Cutcliffe has a reputation as a quarterback whisperer. That’s largely because of his tutelage of the Manning brothers, as Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee and Eli’s head coach at Mississippi.

But Cutcliffe has always appreciated the rushing arts. He helped make Deuce McAllister into an NFL all-star and that 1998 national-title team at Tennessee came after Manning left but featured running back Travis Henry, who rushed for 970 yards. Jay Graham and Jamal Lewis had broken the 1,000-yard mark in previous seasons with the Vols, with Cutcliffe calling the plays.

Cutcliffe hasn’t had any 1,000-yard rushers at Duke. But that hasn’t been for lack of talent or interest but rather Cutcliffe’s preference for a deep running-back rotation, the better for keeping backs fresh over the course of a game and healthy over the course of the season.

Cutcliffe’s best Duke team was the 2013 Coastal Division champions. That team extensively used four running backs. Jela Duncan had 126 touches (rushes plus receptions), Josh Snead 113, Juwan Thompson 71 and Shaq Powell 70.

Four might be overly-ambitious for the 2019 team.

Duke begins the season with Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson, two of the ACC’s best returning running backs, with four unfinished prospects vying to join the fun.

Two veteran returnees puts the running back corps ahead of every other skill group.

Might this be the year Duke relies more on the ground game?

The people in position to make that call are playing it coy.

“You have adjust schemes with personnel,” Cutcliffe said during spring ball. “It’s way too early to say what we’re going to do. I’ve been fortunate in my career to play offense after losing a first-round draft quarterback. No offense to our quarterbacks but none of them are imminent first-round draft picks. So, we will adjust. But at what level and in what direction, remains to be seen.”

Offensive coordinator Zac Roper calls Brown and Jackson “bona-fide playmakers. A lot of what we do offensively will be dictated by the quarterback and offensive line. But we feel good about these two.”

Brown will be a redshirt junior. He was hampered by an assortment of injuries last season but still had 80 carries. In two seasons Brown has 201 rushes for 1070 yards. That’s a robust 5.1 yards per carry. The 205-pounder also has 15 receptions for 205 yards and has 11 overall touchdowns.

Brown had a healthy spring and led Duke in the Spring Showcase with 51 yards on eight carries.

He also has a new number, 8.

Jackson is a true junior. He has sprinter’s speed that belies his 220 pounds. With Brown slowed last season, Jackson had a breakout year, leading Duke with 847 yards, the highest total in Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure and the most by any Duke rusher since Chris Douglas in 2003.

Jackson also caught 26 passes. Cutcliffe has called him the best pass-catching running back he’s coached.

Jackson has 944 career rushing yards in 193 rushes, an average of 4.9 yards per carry.

“We have a lot of running backs in the stable who are good enough to make plays on the field,” Jackson says. “I will be back along with Brittain. Mataeo[Durant] will also step up. We have Marvin[Hubbard] coming back strong, too. There is a lot to look forward to next season.”

Jackson missed the Spring Showcase with bumps and bruise, but nothing serious.

About Durant and Hubbard. Durant is a true sophomore who had shoulder surgery this spring. Hubbard is a redshirt sophomore who is recovering from Achilles surgery.

Both are in fingers-crossed mode for the fall.

Redshirt junior Elijah Deveaux hasn’t played much but got lots of reps this spring. Speedy Jaylen Coleman--he’s a North Carolina state champion at 100 meters--will join the team this summer. Duke has shown a willingness to play true freshmen at running back, so he can’t be counted out.

Duke running-backs coach Re’quan Boyette acknowledges the importance of Brown and Jackson.

“They both have done it and they both have the respect of their teammates. I think that’s where it starts when you are talking about leaders, having the respect of your teammates. Both of those guys have it. They’re older and they’ve played enough. That helps with Mataeo and guys who haven’t played as much.”

Not that there aren’t things to work on. Boyette says Duke needs to improve ball security, positional versatility and running lower. “If we run lower, we can get what we call ‘dirty yards,’ or those yards after contact.”

Dirty yards. That sounds like a way to win football games. Look for Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson to be at the center of that effort.

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