Veteran backs expected to carry Duke run game
Duke’s balanced running game saw three players attempt at least 100 carries each last season.
Two of those three players are no longer with the Blue Devils as Jela Duncan is not in school this semester and Brandon Connette transferred to Fresno State.
That leaves redshirt senior Josh Snead as the most experienced running back of the group with junior Shaquille Powell also in the mix.
While Snead had Duncan and Connette to share the load, along with current Denver Bronco running back Juwan Thompson, things shape up to be more of a two-man show this season.
“Going into this thing I see that Shaq and Josh are going to carry the majority of the load,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
Last year’s Blue Devils counted on a number of players carrying the ball and that formula led to success.
As Duke averaged 32.8 points per game (fifth most in the ACC), the Blue Devils were also No. 5 in the conference in rushing yards per game (178.0). That despite Snead leading the team with a rather modest 651 yards, a total that was nowhere near the top 10 in the league.
But that was according to plan. Duncan gained 562 yards, Thompson 348, Powell 344 and Connette had 337 from his quarterback position.
Duke’s four running backs — Snead, Duncan, Thompson and Powell — each averaged 5.4 yards per carry or better. Snead’s 6.1 yards per carry was No. 8 in the ACC, tying him with ACC total rushing yardage leader Boston College’s Andre Williams (2,177 yards).
Thompson graduated to the NFL and Connette transferred home to California to be closer to his cancer-stricken mother.
So while attempting to build on last year’s breakout 10-4 season, the Blue Devils will count on Snead and Powell with newcomers Joseph Ajeigbe and Shaun Wilson adding depth.
Cutcliffe is impressed with what Snead and Powell showed during spring practice. He’s convinced they can shoulder a heavy load.
“I like our guys,” Cutcliffe said. “I went back and watched scrimmages. Shaq and Snead were outstanding this spring. They are right now both stronger and faster than they were this time a year ago.”
Snead represents a player who knows how far Duke football has come. He arrived on campus in 2010 and the Blue Devils won six games — total — the first two seasons.
After he missed 2011 with a foot injury, Snead has been a factor in Duke’s back-to-back bowl appearances the last two seasons.
In the Chick-fil-A Bowl last Dec. 31, Snead rushed for 104 yards on 17 carries to lead the Blue Devils in their 52-48 loss to Texas A&M.
That was the first game after Duke announced that Duncan, the team’s leading rusher in 2012 and up to that point in 2013, had been declared ineligible by the school for an academic issue.
For the season, only Duncan and his 113 carries exceeded Snead’s 107 rushing attempts.
Now Snead sees he and Powell as the leaders of Duke’s now-potent running game.
“Me and Shaq, we know we have a lot on our shoulders this year,” Snead said. “We know we are the two guys with a lot of experience.”
Powell is expected to see a sharp increase in his workload. He had 62 rushing attempts last season while producing a healthy 5.5 yards per carry average.
With offensive coordinator Kurt Roper having left Duke for the same job at Florida, Scottie Montgomery is now running Duke’s offense. Powell expects everyone to see more rushing attempts.
“Coach Montgomery wants to be a lot more high tempo,” Powell said. “He brings a lot more energy to our offense. He wants to be perfect, he wants to run the ball a whole lot more and not make us one-dimensional.”
Ajeigbe became familiar with Duke’s system last season while taking a redshirt year. He’s more than ready to contribute but he knows the upperclassmen will be counted on the most.
“We lost Jela but we are looking to pick up the slack,” Ajeigbe said. “Snead is our leader but Shaq is coming off a strong season. I redshirted last year but I’m hoping to have a strong season this year. Now we’ve got Shaun Wilson who came in. He should get some reps. He’s had a good productive summer since he’s been here. Just pick up the slack. We don’t expect anything different than what the stable’s been in the past.”