Ground game powers Duke football in early-goingWith NFL draft pick Sean Renfree at the helm and three wide receivers who combined to catch a whopping 227 passes last season, Duke was carried to a bowl game for the first time in 18 years by its aerial attack.
Returning its top four rushers from the 2012 season and turning to new starter Anthony Boone under center, the Blue Devils promised to be a more balanced team in 2013.
Through five games Duke has lived up to that promise. Averaging 193.0 yards per game on the ground this season, the Blue Devils are on pace for their highest rushing total since all the way back in 1977.
"Being a former player and a former running back, it means a lot to me for this to be the best rushing year we've had in 36 years," said Re'quan Boyette, Duke's first-year running backs coach. "Our offense really helps us in the run game trying to get us in space, trying to use our strengths to the best of our abilities to provide that production that we've gotten from those guys in the backfield."
After averaging just 3.7 yards per carry last season, Duke made the running game a priority during its spring and summer workouts. With five contests under their belt this season, the Blue Devils are now averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt.
Not only is Duke more effective running the football this season, it is doing so by utilizing a bevy of weapons. Boyette's fully stocked stable of running backs includes senior Juwan Thompson, redshirt junior Josh Snead and sophomores Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, all of whom have played a role in the Blue Devils' ground game this season.
Duncan leads the team with 247 yards and has scored two touchdowns through five games. Snead is just behind at 245 yards and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the year. Thompson, Snead and Duncan have all been listed as first string on the depth chart at different points this season.
"It really doesn't matter who is the starter, essentially. They are going to go out and play and they are going to go out and be productive," Boyette said. "And once their number is called, they're ready to ball."
With four capable rushers in the backfield, carries have been distributed by committee in the early going. Thompson, Snead, Duncan and Powell each have different strengths and weaknesses, which Boyette said allows the Blue Devils to utilize whichever one could be the most effective in different matchups.
Snead did not receive a single touch against Georgia Tech, but carried the ball 25 times in Duke's past two games against Pittsburgh and Troy to lead the four running backs. Although inconsistent amounts of carries are something that Blue Devil backs have come to expect this season, it helps to keep opposing defenses in the dark until gameday.
"We're all great teammates and great friends," Snead said. "We feel as a unit we have to just go out there when your name is called and take advantage of your opportunities."
With all four backs returning from last season, the biggest difference in Duke's rushing attack is the use of the quarterback in the ground game. The Blue Devils' zone-read scheme featured mobile signal-callers like Boone and redshirt junior Brandon Connette, who has since taken over as the team's full-time starter after Boone broke his collarbone in Duke's second game.
Connette ranks third on the team with 224 rushing yards on a team-high 61 attempts and has found paydirt six times on the ground.
"With a guy like Brandon Connette that is able to run the ball as productively as he has, that's a huge weapon," Boyette said. "Having that 11th man is very crucial, because that adds to what the defense has to prepare for."
Although the Blue Devils lack the star power of Renfree and wide receiver Conner Vernon this season, the Duke offense is actually producing at its most efficient clip in program history. After averaging 31.5 points per game last year, the Blue Devils are scoring 36.0 points per game this year and are on pace to eclipse the single-season scoring record they set last season.
"I think [running] is something that the coaching staff put a huge emphasis on in the offseason last year and then this offseason, so it's good to kind of see the fruit of that," redshirt senior guard Dave Harding said. "We know we've got a lot of improving to do, but the run game is something Duke football takes pride in."