Duke prepares for bowl without its top runner
Duke’s running back with the most carries, most touchdowns and most yards suddenly became unavailable to the Blue Devils last week.
Jela Duncan’s suspension, though, doesn’t leave No. 22 Duke without a running game for the Chick-fil-A Bowl against No. 20 Texas A&M Tuesday night (8 p.m., ESPN) at the Georgia Dome.
Duke’s depth at running back has been a trademark this season as the Blue Devils (10-3) averaged a healthy 173.7 rushing yards per game – fifth best in the ACC.
While Duncan’s 113 carries for 562 yards and three touchdowns are more than any other Duke running back, senior Juwan Thompson, redshirt junior Josh Snead and sophomore Shaquille Powell feel they are more than capable of producing against the Aggies (8-4).
“At any given time it can be any one of us that gets those explosive plays or that big run or the hot hand,” Thompson said. “He’s the leading rusher. But we are all capable of doing the same thing. We still have a lot of key components to our offense.”
Snead, with 90 attempts for 547 yards, is second to Duncan among the running backs in those categories. Snead’s average of 6.1 yards per carry is a full yard better than Duncan’s (5.0).
Thompson has averaged 4.8 yards per carry on his 53 attempts, gaining 256 yards. Powell has carried 60 times for 337 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
“His loss does affect the stable, the running back group,” Powell said. “But we all have different traits that make us good runners. We all can use those traits in games that will help us get yards. Yes it was bad that he is gone and it’s going to affect us. But we are going to be able to pick that up.”
Thompson and Snead have simply added repetitions in practice since Duncan departed. Powell is getting more reps this week as he has finally healed from the sprained knee ligament he suffered in Duke’s 45-7 loss to No. 1 Florida State in the Dec. 7 ACC championship game.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe hasn’t adjusted the Blue Devils’ playbook in any way since Duncan was suspended by Duke on Dec. 21 for violating academic policy.
“We’ve got a three-guy rotation instead of a four-guy rotation,” Cutcliffe said Sunday prior to the team’s practice at Georgia Tech’s indoor facility. “That is the only difference.”
Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, whose team has struggled to stop the run this season, is impressed with how Duke runs the ball.
“Consistency,” Snyder said. “Those kids have played a lot of football together. I think that's what makes the engine go is the front, playing together and seeing it on film. The kids have played a lot of games, started a lot of games. I think that's why you've seen an improvement in the running game, and I think their staff has committed to running the ball more, as well.”
The Aggies have allowed an average of 221 rushing yards per game, which is No. 108 nationally. Texas A&M’s opponents have gained an average of 5.31 yards per carry.
“A couple games this year they gave up a lot of total yards and rushing yards,” Snead said. “We feel like we can establish the rushing game and that can help out with the passing game. That can pay big dividends for us as an offense.”
Snyder sees another Duke personnel change, besides Duncan, as possibly affecting the Blue Devils more. Right tackle Perry Simmons is out with a torn ACL, meaning his streak of 50-consecutive starts is over. Lucas Patrick is replacing him.
Duke left guard Dave Harding agrees that Simmons and Duncan helped the Blue Devils. But the team’s depth, he said, will help it overcome.
“Obviously those guys have been major role players in our offense and the success that we've had this season, but one of the things we've been talking about all year is the depth that we have in both the offensive line and at the running back position -- in our stable of running backs,” Harding said.
“We are confident in the abilities of Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson to come in there and carry the load. They are confident in their abilities, as well. And as far as the offensive line is concerned, Lucas Patrick has been our sixth man all year long, filling in for me quite a bit, coming in at tackle positions.”