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Duke’s Running Game Is Promising

When it comes to running backs, David Cutcliffe has lots of options

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Chick-fil-A Kickoff - Duke v Alabama
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Anfernee Jennings (33) brings down Duke Blue Devils running back Brittain Brown (8) during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Duke Blue Devils on August 31, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Duke used three running backs against Alabama, Deon Jackson, Brittain Brown and Mataeo Durant carried the ball 21 times for 102 yards. That’s an average of 4.9 yards per carry. There was one turnover, a fumble lost by Brown.

Quentin Harris threw 22 passes, completing 12 for a modest 97 yards. That’s 4.4 yards per attempt. It gets worse when we factor in the eight yards Harris lost on a sack, dropping the average per play to 3.8. And Harris threw two interceptions.

No big surprise here. Combining veteran running backs with a new quarterback and lots of new faces in the receiver corps, we all expected Duke’s running game to be ahead of its passing game early.

But that doesn’t mean Duke is going to go all in with the run. For all the talk about his being a quarterback guru David Cutcliffe has always sought a balanced offense. Even with Daniel Jones last season Duke ran the ball 480 times and threw it 476 times, with some of the runs coming off called pass plays. Still, it’s hard to get much more balanced than that.

The plan this year is to build on the running game and use it to help grown the passing game.

“A quarterback’s best friend is the run game,” Quentin Harris said this week. “We’re going to have a balanced attack moving forward but having a solid run game makes it easier to set up the pass, play-action, RPO [run-pass-option], that sort of thing.”

There were a couple of interesting wrinkles against Alabama.

We expected returning studs Jackson and Brown to be workhorses. But it looks like we’re going to see more sets with both in the backfield.

“We’re both pretty agile and pretty quick,” Jackson told the media Tuesday. “I’m bigger than Brittain but he runs bigger than he is. He’s going to hit you. We complement each other pretty well. I’ve seen times where we both line up in the backfield or one of us lines up in the slot and you can see some confusion in the other team’s faces. That’s something that can be an advantage, just lining up in different places because we’re both threats in the running game and the passing game.”

Four of Duke’s completed passes were to running backs.

Duke even ran some triple-option sets against Alabama. Duke is playing it coy. But practice time is too valuable a resource to spend on putting in a system for just one game.

“We’ve worked a bit at it and are very capable at it going forward,” David Cutcliffe said. “I think it depends on the opponent. The difficulty is the amount of time in practice. But we’re not going to just let it go.”

That’s fine with Harris.

“It’s a different offense but we’re excited to execute it. It’s something different but it’s a difference we’ve embraced. The more versatile we are, the harder we’ll be to defend.”

Jackson agrees.

“It’s definitely something we threw in to give them a change of pace, a different look, something that we figured they weren’t prepared for because it’s not something we’ve shown before. Who knows? We might see it later in the year, maybe not.”

Jackson says Duke had some slippage against Alabama. What does Duke need to do better?

“Lock in, pay attention to the smaller details; little stuff, like alignment. Lining up a yard off, even a half-yard off affects a run more than you think.”

There’s another variable. We know all about Jackson and Brown. But true sophomore Mataeo Durant had seven rushes against Alabama, the same as the two veterans. And they weren’t all mop ups. Durant was in early and often.

Expect to see him stay in the rotation.

“Right now we have a first-teamer, a second-teamer, a third-teamer,” Cutcliffe said. “But like in most circumstances with backs everyone has been beat up at some point.. At some point you’re going to need all three of them. I think Mataeo is an outstanding--I think he’s a big-time back. He certainly needs to play. To keep all three healthy and to play all three will be to our advantage.”

The rotation could get deeper when redshirt sophomore Marvin Hubbard returns from Achilles surgeries or true freshmen Jaylen Coleman or Jordan Waters makes it impossible to keep them on the sideline.

There’s no question that Duke can run the ball. Can the ground game carry the offense until the passing game catches up? Will it have to? Hopefully, the passing game will quickly develop to the extent that Duke will not face that question. Balance is still the name of the offensive game. But Jackson, Brown, Durant et. al. seem ready to hold up their end of the deal.

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