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A Look At Duke Football’s Running Game

With a surprise, at least for now, at quarterback

Miami v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 30: Deon Jackson #25 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after rushing for a two-yard touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes in the fourth quarter of the game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke defeated Miami 27-17.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Duke football continues to practice and Duke football continues to make players and coaches available to the media.

The practices are closed to the media and the media opportunities are ZOOM only, frequently audio only.

Strange times. And I know I’m not the only one doubting the ACC’s ability to pull off that 11- game season.

But for the duration of the preseason/season I’m going to suspend disbelief and try to treat this like any other preseason and any other season, if we get that far. I’ll tread lightly on COVID-19 stuff unless events force the issue.

And preseason is always a snapshot of a moment in time even with greater media opportunities.

David Cutcliffe said something interesting last Friday. He said that Chris Katrenick was running as first-team quarterback.

Not Chase Brice.

Now, there are four reasons why this could be so

  1. Chris Katrenick is better than we thought.
  2. Chase Brice is not as good as we thought.
  3. Katrenick has leveraged his knowledge of the system into holding off the inevitable longer than presumed.
  4. It’s too early to have well-defined depth charts and it’s all meaningless.

Only one of those three possibilities is bad and Cutcliffe later disabused us of that notion.

“He’s got great arm strength,” Cutcliffe said of Brice. “He’s a natural thrower, his accuracy level is really high. He’s got a great football IQ and an understanding. He’s obviously learning a system. It’s tough as a quarterback. . . . So, he’s catching up. . . he’s getting more comfortable with what we’re doing .”

Sounds like a matter of time.

It does look like true freshman Luca Diamont is not in the mix right now.

Of course Brice or Katrenick or Gunnar Holmberg will have to have to weapons.

Devery Hamilton is an offensive tackle, a grad-student transfer from Stanford, just learning the abilities of his teammates.

Hamilton was asked which of those skill-position teammates had impressed him.

“I think the running backs have been doing a great job. All the running backs have been seeing the holes well, seeing our blocks well. That’s honestly what I’m excited about. The running game is where it all starts.”

Of course as an offensive lineman Hamilton is genetically predisposed to think that sort of thing. The first time I talked to Hamilton he referenced Russ Grimm’s NFL Hall of Fame Speech: “there’s no greater feeling than moving a man from Point A to Point B against his will.”

Offensive linemen view pass blocking as the chore they must endure to get to the joys of run blocking. Pass blocking is broccoli. Run blocking is dessert.

The list of running backs impressing Hamilton is talented but thin. Duke didn’t recruit a running back from last year’s prep class because they didn’t think they needed one. Then Brittain Brown surprisingly transferred, Jaylen Coleman injured an Achilles and Marvin Hubbard’s own Achilles injury still lingers.

That leaves Duke with Deon Jackson, Mataeo Durant and Jordan Waters. Jackson and Durant are accomplished runners at the ACC level. Cutcliffe says they’re “practicing at a high level.”

Waters is a converted defensive back who badly needed all those spring reps he didn’t get. Duke moved defensive back Myles Hudzick to running back but he opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Duke may need to find someone else to fill the running-back room.

Jackson has 2,645 all-purpose yards at Duke. Damond Philyaw-Johnson seems to have taken over the kick-off-return duties but Jackson figures to get lots of work as a runner and receiver and could move into Duke’s career top-five in all-purpose yards, given good health and a normal season.

He says he’s ready.

“It definitely felt good to get the pads back on and everything like that,” Jackson said after the first practice. “Just being able to go full speed and put everything that we’ve been working on actually into our drills. You know we’ve got a little taste of the action and hopefully tomorrow we’ll get after it a little more.”

Durant actually had better stats last season than Jackson, averaging 4.8 yards per carry to Jackson’s 3.7, albeit in about half the carries.

Duke will have to thread the needle here, maximizing Jackson and Durant’s skills, while keeping them healthy.