When Duke's offense floundered last season, the Blue Devils had one group they could always rely on—their running backs.
But without former starting running back Shaun Wilson, questions lingered over Duke's offense and whether or not its ground game would be able to recover. However, in the Blue Devils' opening night romp, Duke's new stable of rushers quelled some of those concerns..
"I thought [the running backs] were great," Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones said. "Not many negative yardage runs at all when you think about it and a lot of five-yard, six-yard, seven-yard runs. That’s very comfortable to see as a quarterback and it gives you a lot of confidence. I thought they did a great job both of those guys."
Starting running back Brittain Brown was electric from the start, logging 54 rushing yards by halftime. The Canton, Ga., native's explosive first half was highlighted by an 11-yard carry followed by a 12-yard explosion through Army's front line to give the Blue Devils their first touchdown. Last year's backup was also instrumental in initiating Duke's drives, taking two of the the Blue Devils' three kick returns for 26 and 32 yards a piece.
By the end of the third quarter, Brown had averaged 6.8 yards per rush, establishing himself as Duke's go-to man when Jones' passes weren't falling. It looked like Brown's reign of terror had ended after a hard hit towards the end of the third sidelined the redshirt sophomore, but luckily for the Blue Devils, Duke's ability on the ground is talented as it is deep.
When reserve running back Deon Jackson took to the field, he instantly made his presence felt with a seven-yard rush to through the heart of Army's defensive line for his first career touchdown. The Duke sophomore averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and Jackson ended the night with 25 yards after playing just more than a quarter.
For head coach David Cutcliffe, the entire crop of running backs—including redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard III, who got four touches for 15 yards at the end of the contest—showed promise in driving Duke's offense.
"Those two backs are good football players," Cutcliffe said. "[Hubbard] ran the football with force and effectiveness towards the end. [Mateo Durant] had a great camp, and we’re not going to be afraid to play him. It’s a good problem. You never have enough running backs."
The final piece to Duke's robust ground game was from Jones himself. Early in the first quarter the third-year quarterback rushed for nine yards followed by a 14-yard drive to put the Blue Devils in position for an opening field goal. Just more than 15 minutes later, Jones plunged into the end zone to score his first touchdown of the season.
In total, three of Duke's four touchdowns came on the ground, with the Blue Devils out-rushing the typically rush-heavy Black Knights, 184-168.
Although Duke's ball carriers have proven they have the talent and athleticism to break through stout defenses, the secret to the Blue Devils' success with the run game starts with the offensive line.
Starting center Zach Harmon, after playing left and right guard the last two years, showed that he had what it takes to stand strong in the trenches, leading fellow veteran lineman Julian Santos and newly minted starters Rakavius Chambers, Robert Kraeling and Christian Harris in giving the running corps the space they need to make plays.
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"You start with those guys up front," Cutcliffe said. "That’s what Brittain and Deon should say and that’s what I think they would say... that was the most physical we’ve been in some time, and those guys knew it.... Whatever blocking scheme we asked them to do, they did a great job. "
In Duke's season opener, the Blue Devils balanced yardage almost evenly on the ground and in the air. And Jones should be able to sleep easier knowing that if his passes are off target, Duke has the pieces to mount a dangerous ground attack.
"It started with a strong running game," Jones said. "Like we talked about, the offensive line and their ability to impose their will and to open up lanes was big, and only 17 pass attempts. When we did we were efficient with it and that was good to see."