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X-Factor: Mataeo Durant's leadership will carry Duke offense through first-game jitters

A Durant-centered offense could be the key to the season opener against Charlotte and to the season as a whole.
A Durant-centered offense could be the key to the season opener against Charlotte and to the season as a whole.

Duke looks to improve upon a miserable 2020 season that saw them finish 2-9. This starts with a solid opening matchup against the Charlotte 49ers. In anticipation, the Blue Zone gives you a player to watch from each team for Friday’s season opener:

Duke: Running Back Mataeo Durant

Heading into his senior season, Mataeo Durant will be heavily relied upon to anchor the running game and the offense as a whole. As a junior, Durant led the Blue Devils in rushing yards with 817 for an average of 6.81 yards per carry, leading him to receive team MVP honors. Not to mention that this was all while sharing the ball with future undrafted free agent Deon Jackson, who totaled 682 yards last season. With Jackson gone, more responsibility is on Durant to ensure that the Blue Devils get those first downs and keep possession of the ball.

Additionally, with some major changes to the starting lineup, such as quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who’s starting under center for the first time, or center Jack Wohlabaugh, who returns after missing the 2020 season to injury, the Blue Devils could certainly make use of Durant’s extensive experience to counter any potential jitters as the team meshes and make a statement in their first game of the season.

Charlotte: Defensive End Markees Watts

This game may as well be a tale of two high-profile seniors trying to get their final seasons started off with a win. In Charlotte, the 49ers will look to Markees Watts to provide leadership and impact on the defensive side of football. Charlotte only returns four players from their defensive lineup last year, with a large class of transfers comprising most of their 2021 squad. However, Markees Watts is Charlotte’s best defensive end and one of the best in all of Conference USA.

In his junior campaign, his impact was hampered, having been injured in their first game against Appalachian State. Still, he’s proven his worth in previous years, ranking third all-time in Conference USA with 11.5 career sacks and tallying 9.5 in his sophomore season alone after starting all 13 games. For Charlotte, making the right plays on defense will be key to taking on the Blue Devils, and an impactful game from Watts would be a good start towards that goal.

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