Duke football 2017 position preview: Running backs

With the 2017 season right around the corner, The Chronicle's football beat writers break down each of the nine major position groups: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers, kicker/punter and punt/kickoff returners.

The Blue Devils used a balanced approach on the ground last season in order to keep their backs fresh and opposing defenses on their toes. Three players rushed for at least 450 yards for Duke in 2017, and the Blue Devils will bring back two of those three players to lead the attack again.

With the departure of Jela Duncan, Duke will need greater contributions from those two—senior Shaun Wilson and dual-threat redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones—in order to have an effective ground game this season.   

Key player lost: Jela Duncan  

Despite returning their top-two rushers from last season, the Blue Devils will miss the presence and leadership of Jela Duncan. Duncan was the team’s third-highest rusher in 2016 with 450 yards and six touchdowns before going down with a career-ending Achilles injury against Georgia Tech. The Charlotte, N.C., native was also Duke’s most efficient back last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry during his senior campaign.   

Projected starters   

Following the departure of Duncan and the transfer of would-be fifth-year senior Joseph Ajeigbe, the Blue Devils' depth chart is full of inexperienced backs entering the 2017 season. 

Wilson—the only active Duke running back with more than 25 career carries—will be relied upon to lead the Blue Devils' ground attack. The Charlotte native was Duke’s top rusher a season ago after gaining 623 yards on the ground last season.

However, finding consistency was a major issue for Wilson at times. The senior rushed for more than 50 yards in just six of the team’s 12 contests and was unable to surpass 30 yards on four occasions last season.

In addition to Wilson, the Blue Devils are hoping to get a large contribution from redshirt freshman Brittain Brown. 

The Canton, Ga., native has carried the ball 19 times for a total of 143 yards in the fall's two preseason scrimmages. Brown is also a much more physical back than Wilson, and at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he could be used to pick up a few yards in third-and-short situations this season.  

Dark horse: Nicodem Pierre 

As the most experienced Blue Devil running back after Wilson, Pierre could be called upon to carry the ball much more often than before. Despite the fact that Pierre only played in one game last season, the junior was effective with the ball in 2015. In just 15 carries, Pierre averaged more than five yards per rush that season, and despite the small sample size, at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he has the size and physicality needed to be effective on the ground at the collegiate level.   

Check in tomorrow to see how Duke's experienced receiving corps could help Daniel Jones develop. 

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