Cutcliffe: Duke to keep pounding away with ground forces

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

As expected, Duke played four scholarship running backs in last Saturday’s 45-0 win over N.C. Central.

Juwan Thompson, Jela Duncan, Shaquille Powell and Josh Snead rotated in the backfield behind quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette.

Those players helped Duke gain 257 rushing yards against the Eagles, the highest rushing output for Duke since Cutcliffe became its coach in 2008.

As happy as Cutcliffe was with that output, he’s equally averse to the phrase “running back by committee” when describing his stable of backs.

“We have four guys who are good enough to be starters,” Cutcliffe said during his radio show Tuesday night. “By committee means you don’t have anyone good enough to start.”

Thompson, the lone senior among the group, got the official starting assignment against the Eagles. While playing 19 snaps, he rushed for 30 yards on six carries, a healthy five yards per attempt.

Duncan, the sophomore who led Duke in rushing yardage last season (553), led the Blue Devils on Saturday with 76 yards on 11 rushes (a team-best 6.9 yards per attempt). He was on the field for 22 snaps at running back.

Snead, a redshirt junior, played a team-high 23 snaps at running back. He gained 53 yards on eight carries, 6.6 yards per carry.

Powell, a sophomore, was in the game for 21 snaps at running back. He compiled 47 yards on nine carries, 5.2 yards per attempt.

Having such a deep stable of backs gives Duke options it hasn’t always had during Cutcliffe’s tenure.

He pointed out this week that even when the Blue Devils are only gaining a few yards per carry in some stretches, he’ll keep running the ball because eventually a big run will result.

“To me it’s like body punches in a boxing match,” Cutcliffe said. “The long-term effects for four quarters can be fatal to a defense. You have got to be equipped to do it. We’re not the same kind of running team as an Alabama. But you have to be committed to it. We are committed to running the football.”

Snead said the running backs are excited about the way the offense is designed this year and it showed against NCCU. The Eagles, of course, play in the Football Championship Subdivision, so it makes sense an ACC team like Duke could gain yards against them.

But Snead said that performance was sound and even when the Blue Devils play larger opponents, they should have success running the ball.

“It wasn’t a lot of mistakes,” Snead said. “It was great to see that. This year’s mentality is dress up, show up. That’s going to be the incentive.”

As happy as he was with the output, Cutcliffe said the offense’s performance wasn’t perfect. After reviewing game film, he said there’s a level of aggressiveness in blocking that he wants to see raised as the season goes on.

“I realized we’re going to have to be extremely good blocking on the perimeter,” Cutcliffe said. “We need to be more consistent in that regard. I thought we had everywhere on offense a few too many people that came off the blocks, that made tackles, that if we engaged a little longer, finished a little better, we could’ve finished with multiple big plays. We have to get to that point.”

Duke gets a chance to draw closer to that point when it plays at Memphis on Saturday (4:30 p.m., ESPN3).