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Duke football 2021 positional preview: Running backs

Senior Mataeo Durant figures to be the centerpiece of this year's offense after a breakout 2020 season.
Senior Mataeo Durant figures to be the centerpiece of this year's offense after a breakout 2020 season.

With the 2021 season right around the corner, The Chronicle breaks down each of the eight major position groups for the Blue Devils: Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers and specialists.  

This year’s Duke offense is set to revolve around the running game. More specifically, it’s set to revolve around Mataeo Durant. The senior back is coming off an impressive 2020 season in which he won team MVP and totaled 817 yards and eight scores, all while technically still in a reserve role behind current Indianapolis Colt Deon Jackson. Durant enters 2021 as the lone Blue Devil on the preseason All-ACC team and will surely be the name to follow on head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad.

Key players lost: Deon Jackson

Although Jackson was overshadowed by Durant last season, he still had a solid senior campaign in his own right. The 2020 team captain totaled 682 yards and five scores, including two 100-yard performances, and wrapped up his Blue Devil career ranked sixth on Duke’s career rushing chart. Jackson—who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Colts this past spring—never quite fulfilled the potential he displayed when he rushed for 847 yards and seven scores as a sophomore, but his leadership within the offense will surely be missed. 

Projected starter: Mataeo Durant

Duke’s offenses over the last several years have typically seen two lead backs split carries for most of the season. That should change this year. While the Blue Devils boast several running backs who’ll get some touches, expect Durant to be the focal point of this year’s offensive attack. His 6.81 yards per carry last season ranked as the fourth-highest in program history and second-highest since World War II. It'll be tough to replicate that number this year, but Durant could easily become Cutcliffe’s first 1,000-yard rusher at Duke and a projected mid-round NFL Draft pick by season’s end.

Dark horse: Jaylen Coleman

Taking away carries from Durant will be tough, but Coleman has certainly impressed throughout the preseason. The redshirt sophomore totaled 80 yards on nine rushes in Duke’s first intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 14, earning the praise of Cutcliffe afterward. He rushed for only 42 yards on 15 attempts in 2019 and played only two games in 2020, but he will likely see more involvement in the offense this year and could be the future of the Blue Devils’ running game after Durant leaves. Fellow redshirt sophomore Jordan Waters, who broke out for 78 yards on five carries against Charlotte last year, is also someone to keep your eye on.

For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.

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