DEPTH CHART (expected starters in italics):
Unlike the receivers (covered yesterday), the running backs are a stable force in the Duke offense. All four of the top backs are back (is Four Horsmen too cliché?). The backfield is like a competitive family. All of the backs push each other and each one wants to be “the guy”, but they are also close friends. A new emphasis on the zone read and an even faster tempo will give each back his touches.
Juwan Thompson is on top of the depth chart, but the chart doesn’t mean all that much. Coach Cutcliffe has said you can never have enough running backs, and this year has four threats out of the backfield. Thompson is the biggest back at 5’11” 225 lbs. He holds the record for power clean at 357 lbs. (offensive linemen still challenge him but haven’t beaten him yet). The senior has the most experience and does all of the little things. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, pass protect and even works with the special teams. He knows the playbook inside and out and can line up in a variety of places on offense.
Josh Snead is a home-run hitter out of the backfield. He ran roughshod over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last season. He is the smallest (relatively speaking) of the backs at 5’9” 190 lbs. Last year he averaged 5 yards per carry on 99 carries. The redshirt-junior also has experience in the offense.
Jela Duncan led the team in rushing last season and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The sophomore is a load at 5’10” 210 lbs. and is at his best running downhill. This offseason he has worked on his elusiveness in the open field. He led the Blue Devils in rushing in 8 games last season. He can help relieve pressure out of the backfield as well after catching 19 passes last year. In fact, he is one of three running backs in the ACC this year who ran for 500 or more yards, averaged more than 5 yards per carry and caught more than 15 passes.
Shaquille Powell is the biggest unknown out of the four backs, but his ceiling may be the highest. He was listed as a top-15 all-purpose running back in high school. He did not have a big year last year and only carried the ball 28 times for 93 yards. Joseph Ajeigbe is a freshman running back who came in as the number 82 back, according to Scout.com. The 5’9” 215 lb. back has impressed coaches in camp so far with his football IQ. With four talented backs in front of him, Ajeigbe has a chance to develop this year.
Last year, coaches ran with the hot hand in the backfield. Whichever back was running well kept going (each back led Duke in rushing yards in a game at least once). As a whole, the four backs combined for 1,494 yards on 311 carries. The backs, combined, caught 54 passes for 267 yards. With two guys coming off of their freshman season in Duncan and Powell, the backs could be even better this year.
Coaches have said the team will also use more zone-read options this year, and this time two quarterbacks are threats to run. A veteran offensive line should be able to open holes for the running backs as well (Jela Duncan called it “lovely” to run behind a veteran line). Coach Cutcliffe said the backs and o-line are always asking to run the football more.
What needs to happen in 2013:
While Duke’s offense will still throw the football around, coaches have said the Blue Devils will run more this year. Including Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, six different players can run the ball effectively out of the backfield. Fortunately for defenses, the six of them can’t all be in there at the same time. But the depth will allow Duke to keep a fresh running back on the field at all times to wear down a defense.
Even as the offense pushes the pace, the running game can help protect a younger defensive secondary. A fast-paced offense can still take time off the clock as long as it is moving. Run plays keep the clock going. Run plays can also wear down defensive fronts and open up the passing game. Anthony Boone is an aggressive passer, and an excellent running game will allow him to look downfield and find his favorite targets.