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Mataeo Durant And Leonard Johnson Meet The Press

With Durant on the verge of breaking a 49-year old Duke record

Duke v Virginia
 CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Mataeo Durant #21 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes in the second half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Consider the predicament of Mataeo Durant. The senior running back is in the middle of one of the best individual seasons in Duke football history. Sometime next Saturday—probably in the first period-he should become the first player in David Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He’s on track to shatter Steve Jones’ 49-year-old Duke single-season rushing record. Early this season Durant established new school records for single-game rushing yards (against Charlotte) and single-game carries (against Georgia Tech).

Like, I said a great individual season.

But Duke lost that Charlotte game and lost that Georgia Tech game, both losses when Duke’s defense couldn’t hold a late lead generated largely by Durant’s individual brilliance.

And Duke isn’t exactly going into November on a roll.

Durant has always made it clear that he values wins over individual stats. But you don’t get to be as good as Durant without a healthy appreciation for your talents.

Durant addressed this conundrum in Tuesday’s media availability.

“Personally, it’s an exciting thing for me. But I want to do more of team things to help us win more games. So, the stats are very cool. It just shows how well we’ve done with the offensive line and the coaches calling really good plays, setting me up to be successful in those situations. That’s cool but we want wins. So, right now the stats for me aren’t equating to that. So, I want to do more to help us do whatever I can for us to win.”

It’s hard to imagine doing more than carrying the ball 43 times in one game, as Durant did against Georgia Tech. But all too often Duke has been unable to turn yards into points, promising drives coming up empty after a key penalty or a turnover or a fourth-down misfire.

Durant acknowledged that Duke has to do better in that area.

“Whatever is required from me at that point, whether it’s me being a decoy or me carrying out my fake or me running the ball, just being effective in the red zone to help us score more. We just need to execute more when we get into position to score because we just haven’t taken advantage of opportunities we’ve earned.”

My vote is for “running the ball,” by the way. It’s hard to see Duke working its way out of this slide by better utilization of Durant’s decoy skills.

It’s also hard to see Duke ending the slide unless the defense starts getting stops.

Defensive back Leonard Johnson joined Durant and acknowledged that Duke simply isn’t winning enough individual battles.

“Our pass rush is going to work with coverage and our coverage with pass rush. One thing we’re doing is try to line up and just beat them. If we’re in one-on-one coverage, we’ve got to win. We lost a good bit of those last week. We’ve got to start winning those one-on-ones.”

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett is in the middle of an incredible season.

Johnson’s thoughts?

“He’s a good quarterback. But we aren’t going to change our plans just for him. He’s probably the most accurate passer [Duke’s faced]. In zones, we’ve got to close those holes quicker, in man we’ve got to stick with our guys longer. The biggest change is in his leadership, his IQ. He goes to the sideline and he gets a play from his coach and he makes checks. The games that I have watched they give him like three plays straight and he calls them. He doesn’t have to look back at the sideline.”

Johnson was added to the co-captains list last week. He says he’s a whatever-needs-to-be-done type of leader, tough love when it’s needed, encouraging pat on the back when that’s called for.

David Cutcliffe said earlier that Johnson had earned that captainship with an increased voice on the field and in the locker room.

Johnson implied that the rosy practice reports we’ve been getting may not have been totally accurate.

“I just feel like at practice there wasn’t a lot of energy in some spots, at times. Things were going kind of bad for us, downhill for us and I felt like we kind of lost motivation.”

Duke has played significantly better at home this season than on the road. Neither Durant nor Johnson could put a finger on the reasons for that discrepancy. But three of Duke’s final four games are at home and perhaps that will give Duke a chance to turn around the season.

“We’ve got to protect our home turf,” Johnson said. “It’s just a mentality thing. It’s definitely going to help a lot, protecting our home turf.”

Durant says the season is far from over and Duke is still engaged.

“I just know that whatever it is, each week we just need to keep working. We don’t need to give up in the middle of the season. We still have a lot to play for and as a team we’re motivated to do that each and every week that we come in and prepare for every game we play.”

Johnson added some nuance.

“We’ve all got to work together in all three phases, offense, defense and special teams. I feel like as a team we haven’t been working together in all phases. That’s one thing we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to get momentum going early for us. We’ve been kind of starting off slow. I feel like the next few games are about to change that up with a lot of changes we’ve got coming.”

Changes coming? Hmm.

We’ll see. Certainly a good time to shake things up. Or at least watch Mataeo Durant chase the record book, hopefully in conjunction with some Duke wins.