A lot can change in a year.
Don’t believe me? Go ahead and ask Mataeo Durant.
Heading into 2020, Durant sat second on the depth chart at running back behind senior captain Deon Jackson. With only 114 career carries to his name and just a single touchdown, he began the season as a bonafide backup, and after an underwhelming start in the season opener against Notre Dame, it seemed as if Durant was destined to lie another season in waiting before his opportunity finally rolled around. Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t ready yet.
Durant proved otherwise.
He steamrolled expectations en route to a career-high 817 yards on historic efficiency (6.8 yards per carry), a team-high nine total touchdowns and four separate 100-yard rushing performances. When the smoke ultimately cleared, Durant stood tall as the team MVP, a distinct bright spot for Duke in an otherwise bleak season, and the heir apparent in the Blue Devil backfield.
To the everyday fan, Durant’s breakout campaign seemed a miraculous and sudden transformation. To Durant, on the other hand, it was business as usual.
“Honestly, I guess it was just time,” Durant said about his 2020 success in an interview with The Chronicle. “You never know when you’re going to have that breakout season.”
‘You have to go and get it’
Of course, Durant’s star turn did not just happen overnight. He credits much of last year’s success to lessons he learned growing up in the tiny town of Plum Branch, S.C., that has a population of 87 people.
Regardless, Durant—who played his high school football in the nearby town of McCormick, S.C.—learned some tough truths early on about the difficulties of coming from such a small town. And while many in his position might have given up on their dreams or halfheartedly hoped for some divine intervention to occur, Durant recognized the challenge and took it head-on.
“Coming from a small community, there’s not as many people recruiting those areas,” Durant said. “So you have to go to these different camps, travel hours and hours away, to be able to stand out. But that also taught me that if you want something, you have to go and get it.”
That “go and get it” mindset is something that Durant takes very seriously. He knew early on that if he wanted to continue to play football and receive a high-level education, he would have to be ready at every turn. He would not have the luxury of being able to sit and wait; he would need to shape his own future. It’s a lesson he learned early on, and one that he holds dear to his heart to this day.
“One of my coaches always told me: ‘Don’t let your circumstances define who you are,’” Durant said. “Even though I was from a small town that not many people get recruited from, I didn’t let the circumstance of that change what I wanted to do with my own life.”
To this point, no moment has been too big for him, and with the way he views the game of football, that does not seem likely to change any time soon.
“Just stay ready, and when the opportunity comes just take advantage of it,” Durant said. “That’s one thing I’ve done over my career, especially coming from a really small town. When you get opportunities, they’re life-changing, just take it and run with it.”
‘That extra mile’
Even with all of his individual success, so much of what makes Durant special comes because he truly sees football as a team sport, not a series of personal milestones. Luckily for Durant, he’s always had a team on his side—his family.
“Family’s always been a big thing to me,” Durant said. “I take family seriously, family is one of the most important things to me, and they’ve supported me throughout this whole journey.”
Before he stepped onto the football field for the first time as a 9-year-old, Durant, his two brothers and the rest of his family were already exposed to the sport. His older cousin, Davon, played linebacker for Marshall, so Durant called his inclination toward football “second nature.”
From the beginning, Durant’s family were the first people to push him toward new heights, as they continue to do today. Ask him, and he will tell you how his brothers motivate him, or how much it means to him to see his parents’ pride when they watch him play. In 2020, his aunt’s death gave him another reason to go out and succeed, fueling the biggest season of his career to date. Durant understands what one can accomplish with such strong support and inspiration.
“My family motivates me to play the game, and my people around me motivates me to play the game...,” said Durant. “Also I have the intrinsic motivation, but sometimes intrinsic motivation is not going to get it done. A lot of people stop when it gets hard for them, but when you’re doing it for others, you’ll go that extra mile to do whatever you can do.”
Because he never sought out the bright lights, Durant appears uniquely suited to stand beneath them this fall.
“I’m just grateful,” Durant expressed. “To have had the opportunity to be able to come here and grow as not only a football player, but as a man, too.”
‘It’s not a burden’
Now, on the doorstep of his senior season, expectations for Durant are considerably higher. A preseason All-ACC selection and focal point of Duke’s offense, one could argue that the task that lies ahead of him is his most daunting one yet. So, even after all the change this past year has brought for Durant, the same question stands out: is he ready?
“Mataeo Durant is a special player, very, very special,” said co-offensive coordinator and former running backs coach Re’quan Boyette in an Aug. 20 preseason press conference. “So we understand how important he’s going to be to what we want to do and to our offense. Everybody understands that.”
To Durant, Boyette and the rest of the Duke football program, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
“Being a young kid, you dream of moments like this,” Durant said of this upcoming season. “So it’s not a burden. [It’s] just another opportunity to showcase your skills and, like I said, take advantage of the situation that you’re in.”
After a lifetime of patience and preparation, Durant’s moment is finally here, and he’s ready. He always has been.
For the rest of our preseason coverage for Duke, click here.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.