Thursday, June 20, 2013

A closer look at Duke's returning running game

A few ACC beat writers run offseason previews of the upcoming football opponents. I recently helped The Roanoke Times' Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter with the Duke one. Sometime soon, my Duke preview for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Pitt beat writer, Sam Werner, will go live, too.

It's come to my attention that a further explanation of my comments on the running game might be helpful to some. I took the time to give a more detailed explanation in the preview I wrote for Sam, but, seeing as I'm on furlough next week, I'll post said explanation here.

Basically, my theory on Duke's running game is this: until proven otherwise, I’m not expecting a whole lot out of this group.

Now put down the pitchforks and read.

Yes, Jela Duncan, the former three-star recruit out of Mallad Creek, showed flashes last year (532 yards on 99 attempts) that would lead you to believe he will develop into the best Duke running back of the Cutcliffe era. Cutcliffe and his staff are firm believers in the running back-by-committee approach, though, so expect that to continue, as opposed to seeing one feature back emerge (typically, each back will take a turn being the featured back for a series).

The three main rushers—senior Juwan Thompson, redshirt junior Josh Snead, and Duncan, a sophomore—are all back. So is sophomore Shaq Powell, a four-star recruit who couldn't crack the rotation last year but should be in the mix this season. The message boards didn't take too kindly to my suggestion in another preview that, until proven otherwise, I'm not expecting much out of this group, so let me take the time to explain why:

I don't think there's much to be gleamed from season-long averages that factor in games against I-AA opponents and terrible nonconference teams. So, here were Duke's rushing totals against bowl-qualifying teams last year (8-4, postseason ineligible North Carolina and 7-5, postseason ineligible Miami are included):

Date Opponent Rushing Yards Result
9/8/12 Stanford 27 L, 50-13
10/13/12 at Virginia Tech 22 L, 41-20
10/20/12 North Carolina 234 W, 33-30
10/27/12 at Florida State 103 L, 48-7
11/3/12 Clemson 85 L, 56-20
11/17/12 at Georgia Tech 77 L, 42-24
11/24/12 Miami 151 L, 52-45
12/27/12 vs. Cincinnati 200 L, 36-18

I could go back and break down how many rushing yards came in the first half of the Florida State game—it was 31-7 at halftime—but I think the point has been made. I will point out, though, that Miami had the worst rushing defense in the league last season. And that the win over North Carolina was, truly, one of the finest moments in Duke football history.

You can't talk about the running game without mentioning the offensive line, and last year's team featured four returning starters (those same four are all back this year, as well). The unit took several drive-killing false start penalties, with a few holding calls thrown in, at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, in particular. If those tendencies don't change, it won't matter who is collecting the handoff in the backfield.

Duke finished 8th in the league last year in rushing offense, snapping a three-year stretch of finishing last in that category. In Cutcliffe's first year, the Blue Devils finished second-to-last. So, forgive me for repeating myself, but until proven otherwise, I'm not expecting much from this group.

Despite a healthy dose of skepticism on the running game, I do expect the Blue Devils to go bowling once again.

- Laura Keeley

- For all the latest Duke news, like Duke NOW on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

Jela Duncan leads Duke's quartet of returning running backs. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY