Name a former top Duke quarterback.
Easy-peasy. If you’re of a certain age, you remember Leo Hart. Maybe you even go back to Don “Ace” Altman or Scotty Glacken. Ben Bennett held several NCAA career records when he finished at Duke in 1983. We saw Steve Slayden, Anthony Dilweg and Dave Brown later that decade. Thad Lewis, Sean Renfree and Daniel Jones have graced David Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure. And these quarterbacks have passed to such notables as Wes Chesson, Cedric Jones, Chris Castor, Clarkston Hines, Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder.
Now, name a great Duke running back. And let’s exclude Wallace Wade’s single-wing tailbacks. Those were apples and I’m asking about oranges.
Not so easy.
Duke has only had four running backs rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Randy Cuthbert did it twice, Steve Jones, Robert Baldwin and Chris Douglas once. Douglas was the most recent, back in 2003, around the same time that today’s college freshmen were born.
In other words, it’s been awhile.
Note that all of these guys played before David Cutcliffe took over at Duke. Cutcliffe has never had a 1,000-yard-single-season rusher at Duke. Not even a 900-yard rusher.
Part of that is his predilection for using two, three, even four-running back rotations.
But the fact remains that when one thinks of Duke football, one envisions Duke throwing the football not Duke running the football.
Is this the year that narrative changes? Can running the football well be Duke’s identity?
Duke center Jack Wohlabaugh addressed the media Tuesday morning and I asked him that question.
Here’s his answer.
“I think at the end of the day, that’s what we want it to be and what we’re all focusing on, especially as an offensive line, Since Coach [Greg] Frey got here, when all else fails, we want to fall back on running the football or even start with that. Running the football and getting movement on that opens up a lot of things and can definitely be our strong suit.”
Wohlabaugh is speaking after Mataeo Durant’s record-setting performance against Charlotte last week. Durant is an exceptional talent when he gets room to operate but it’s up to the line to give him that room.
How did Duke accomplish that so well against Charlotte?
“I think we handled Charlotte’s movement really well. They’re a defense that their scheme brings a lot of twists and stunts and blitzes of the linebackers. So, I think we handled their horizontal movement really well in being able to open up seams.”
Offensive lineman probably are the most anonymous group of athletes in any major American team sport. Wohlabaugh says his group is more than happy to claim a share of Durant’s records, a feeling all good running backs support.
“Our goal is to give Mataeo or any running back in there the most yards-per-carry, the most yards, the best stats, whatever it may be, as long as we’re keeping score, keeping track, we want our guys to be up there in the ACC or the country or whatever it is. It was really cool to see Mataeo be able to thrive like that and Jordan Waters too and we were really proud of ourselves knowing we played a role in that.”
Don’t expect Duke to go all four-yards-and-a-cloud-of dust. Cutcliffe says he wants balance and the passing half of that 50/50 split is going to have to hold up its end of the bargain. But the possibility that Duke can excel in some old-fashioned smash-mouth football for a change is a good thing.
Defensive end Ben Frye also met with the media and Frye was representing a defense that didn’t establish any records, at least not positive records.
Frye says the defense committed lots of correctable errors.
One of those was not turning nine quarterback hurries into more than one sack.
“The difference between making a sack or not is usually just one step,” Frye said. “I think just focusing in practice on taking that one extra step, making sure you can keep him contained and in the pocket and the sacks will come. And when they come, they come in bunches.”
One sack isn’t much but it’s one more than the zero turnovers Duke forced.
“We focus on turnovers a lot in practice. That’s been a point of emphasis since camp started. How are we going to get the ball away? We didn’t force enough turnovers last year, by any means. Every time we’re running through a tackle in practice, one guy is trying to rip the ball out and create turnovers. You’ve got to practice it for it to happen.”
Better tackling would help.
“We’ve got to finish. If you go back on film and look at a lot of those plays, we weren’t finishing through tackles. Tackling was definitely an emphasis this week in practice, wrapping up, bringing your hips under you. We’ve got to execute.”
What went wrong on those last two Charlotte touchdown drives?
“I’d say technique and responsibility. When it comes down to those close games, if one person doesn’t do his job, then everything crumbles. Trust in all 11 people to do their job. It takes an army. Everyone has to know what they’re doing and focus on their technique, their key. Plays will come if you do that.”
Which brings us to North Carolina A&T. Wohlabaugh and Frye use similar terms to describe the visitors, words like “disciplined,” “well-coached,” “energetic.”
“They execute what they have,” Frye says. “It’s a simple plan but they execute, which allows them to play full speed. We’ve got to be ready for that and we’ve got to be just as disciplined and exceed that level of intensity.
Wohlabaugh says North Carolina A&T presents a different look.
“Focusing on A&T, they’re not like that [Charlotte] as much. They’re more straight forward, kind of playing our bodies, rather. So, we’re focusing on physical football and getting movement off the line. It’s a different kind of game in the sense of what the defense is going to do this week.”
Frye acknowledged that the loss to Charlotte left a “sour taste” but says the emphasis is getting better.
Duke will have fans in attendance at Wade for the first time since 2019.
“I think it will be really fun,” Wohlabaugh says. “The last time we played A&T they brought their band, they brought a good amount of fans, because obviously it’s North Carolina and we’re going to have our fans here and hopefully they’re rooting hard for us and making lots of noise and bringing that energy that the whole football team and I love to feed off of.”
Wheels up at 8 Friday. All the cool people will be there.