‘Iron sharpens iron’: How the Waters-Coleman duo is leading Duke football’s running back room to a special season

Jordan Waters (left) and Jaylen Coleman (right) have led the Blue Devils to one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
Jordan Waters (left) and Jaylen Coleman (right) have led the Blue Devils to one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

One year ago, the backfield was a one-man show. This time around, the Blue Devils have a dynamic duo set to take the league by storm.

Running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters, both redshirt juniors, have long awaited their turn to take center stage in the Duke offense. Quarterbacks and coaches have come and gone and the rungs in the ladder have traded hands from Deon Jackson to Mataeo Durant all while Coleman and Waters soaked in everything they could so they could prove they were ready to ascend the final steps to take that lead role when the time finally came. 

With Jackson and Durant in the midst of finding their footing at the next level and a fresh coaching staff eager to try new approaches to the game, that time is now.

“We've been waiting since freshman year to get our shot,” Coleman said. “This is something we've talked about since day one, since being here. And now we get to live it every day. And it's been a dream.”

A running-back-by-committee approach is not uncommon, and in fact has become even more prevalent in the ranks of football—a handful of professional teams share responsibilities and even more college teams rotate players in and out of the backfield. Duke has done it before with the likes of Jackson—who is currently with the Indianapolis Colts—and Durant in 2020, or 2017’s duo of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson. In each case, both backs surpassed 120 carries and 600 yards on the ground.

This season, however, it all feels new again. Durant, who was recently waived by the Pittsburgh Steelers, commanded 255 carries en route to a record-breaking 1,241-yard 2021 season. Deep into training camp it became clear the Blue Devils were not going to again have that diamond-in-the-rough “bell-cow” back. 

“I don't know that there's one guy that is ready to take the lead,” offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said Aug. 20 at Duke’s media day. “I think we have three or four that we can go out there, keep each other fresh and try to wear defenses down.”

Associate head coach Trooper Taylor took on a new role with the running backs this season after coaching the cornerbacks in 2021. He was excited by how quickly the running backs bought into his coaching philosophy and was immediately impressed by the wealth of talent, just as Johns pointed out.

“The best thing about it is the talent that's in that room,” Taylor said. “When you ride a horse, it ought to be a horse.”

The biggest story of training camp was easily the tight battle for the quarterback spot between sophomores Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore. The dust settled with the announcement that Leonard would be the starter at quarterback, but there were a few questions looming around the running back room; Waters, the most experienced of the bunch, was positioned to be the clear starter but no one could be sure. The depth chart was released Aug. 29 with Coleman’s name on top. But with a “stable” of rushers, in the words of head coach Mike Elko, his name in bold, rested atop what could be more adequately described as a herd, meant little given the collective team-first attitude.

The two have more or less alternated series on the field, with little correlation between who is on the field and the situation, be it third downs or goal-line situations. In part because of their ability to share the responsibilities, Coleman and Waters combined to lead Duke to a 4-1 record and its first conference win in nearly 24 months. They have helped the Blue Devils operate one of the most efficient offenses in the nation.

Yet, the box score numbers only tell so much of the story.

‘I’m a family guy’

Waters came to Duke out of Fairmont, N.C., with former head coach David Cutcliffe extending an offer in 2017. He chose to play for Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils over nearby East Carolina and Wake Forest.

Now a running back after being recruited as a wide receiver, the 6-foot Waters starred as a signal-caller for his high school squad. He completed 53.2% of his passes for 827 yards and six touchdowns, but while he was plenty capable with his arm, he found his niche as a rusher with a knack for hitting the gaps and bullying opposing defenses with his strength.

That intimidating competitor he manifests on the gridiron does not resemble how Waters would describe himself off it.

“I'm a family guy. … And I think that's why I'm still here and doing as best as I can,” Waters said.

His cousin Shaquille Leonard, who starred for South Carolina State before being selected with a second-round draft pick, is from a similarly small town on the other side of the North Carolina-South Carolina divide. He helped out with Waters’ summer camp for kids from his home Robeson County just a few months ago, taking advantage of the new name, image and likeness rules while giving back to his community.

“That’s my boy,” Waters told the Robesonian. “We’re really close, he always comes through.”

Leonard went on to win the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2018 and was named a first team All-Pro for the third time in 2021 as a member of the Colts. Combined, Leonard and Durant have left quite the impression on the 21-year-old.

After taking a redshirt his freshman season, Waters accrued 16 and 39 carries in 2020 and 2021, respectively. A large portion of his yardage in 2020 came on Halloween night against Charlotte, when he broke free for a 70-yard run before getting pushed out shy of the end zone. He also had an explosive 2021 debut, averaging 13 yards over five carries in the Blue Devils’ season-opening 31-28 loss on the road, also against Charlotte. The then-redshirt sophomore dashed for 30 and 23 yards and constituted an additional source of explosiveness in an offense of an eventual 3-9 team that needed some.

Of course, Durant rushed for a school-record 255 yards and three scores in the same game and, just like that, the book on Waters’ season was written.

Despite falling into the shadow of Durant’s presence on game days, Waters says his backfield predecessor helped him learn how to “practice like a pro, how to come to practice every day and be prepared.” 

Jaylen Coleman celebrates finding the end zone during Duke's 49-20 win against North Carolina A&T at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Jaylen Coleman celebrates finding the end zone during Duke's 49-20 win against North Carolina A&T at Wallace Wade Stadium.

‘Better than ever’

A two-hour drive westbound on US-74 from Fairmont takes you to the Charlotte suburb of Matthews, N.C., the home of the other half of Duke’s emerging duo. 

Coleman has undeniably taken a bumpy road to get to the point where he would trot into the end zone to score the first touchdown of the Blue Devils’ season.

Coleman and current Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall led their Porter Ridge team to the semifinals in the NCHSAA 4-A state playoffs their senior year while Coleman also lettered in track and field, winning the state 100-meter dash. He was also a finalist for the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award given to the country’s top African-American high school scholar-athlete, alongside winner and now-Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Nakobe Dean. Now at Duke, Coleman is completing a degree in biomedical engineering. 

After stepping into the running back room as a true freshman, he suffered a torn Achilles tendon and underwent surgery just weeks before COVID-19 would force him to continue recovery at home, separated from his teammates.

“Just learning how to walk again—it's just something that I never had like a major injury like that before,” Coleman said. “I couldn't be here on campus or around my guys to lean on. So that was a little bit difficult.”

Between his injury and the start of the current season, it had been nearly 1,000 days in which he barely saw the field. To fight through a long, isolated recovery and a two-and-a-half-year span with little to show could be disheartening. But Coleman says he has made it back, and some.

“I'm better than ever, feeling healthy, 100 percent,” he said.

In case you were ever curious if he is telling the truth, just remember him running straight through umpire Jeffrey Akers on his way to a 20-yard dash on his very first carry of Duke’s season-opening win against Temple. That rush is still Coleman’s season-long, but it is his consistency as a power rusher that makes him instrumental in the Blue Devils’ offensive attack.

Sophomore running back Jaquez Moore scored his first-career touchdown against Virginia, bursting for a 59-yard score.
Sophomore running back Jaquez Moore scored his first-career touchdown against Virginia, bursting for a 59-yard score.

‘Our success motivates them’

It took just two games in 2022 for Coleman to more than double his career yardage and four for Waters to eclipse his previous single-season mark. Personal single-game highs of the past are now an afterthought.

Each of their individual seasons have been off to a booming start. Based on their performance, one would think they could each carry the load on their own, but Elko is sticking with his decision on this one. Just one game made clear the approach was working.

“I think we have three backs that can run the football, we just got to keep them fresh, and keep them rotating,” Elko said after the Blue Devils’ win against Temple, in which his three top running backs were allocated eight, seven and five carries behind Riley Leonard’s 11.

One of those three is Jaquez Moore, a sophomore from Live Oak, Fla., who actually received two more carries than Waters in the opener. The coaches said it best: There truly are several backs capable of earning chunk yardage against sturdy defenses, yet the forces of nature—namely seniority—have left Waters and Coleman in their current position; with a leg up. 

“I think that [our success] motivates them,” Waters said about his influence on the younger running backs. “I was in their shoes a couple years ago watching Deon [Jackson] and Mataeo [Durant], and those guys motivated me to want to be successful. So I hope I'm doing the same for those guys.”

An interesting piece in this multi-dimensional puzzle, Moore has seen firsthand the rise of Coleman and Waters as leaders in the backfield. He has gotten his share of game action, but has also been asked to sit back—he never set foot on the field in Duke’s road loss to Kansas

With 14:03 left in Duke’s rainy Oct. 1 win against Virginia, the Florida native took a handoff to the end zone for his first career score after accelerating through a hole and speeding 59 yards past the Cavalier defenders. Moore, having studied the play design and opposing defense, “called that touchdown before it ever happened,” according to Taylor. For as much as Waters and Coleman have done, Moore’s name now sits at the top of the leaderboard for Duke’s longest run of the season for the time being. In just his last seven carries, the 5-foot-10 speedster has gained 122 yards. Despite Moore’s inaction in Lawrence, Kan., Elko justifiably maintains that his additional weapon “still plays a role” in the equation.

That equation becomes a balancing act of extreme proportions given Coleman and Waters’ strong starts to the season and the prospect of the Blue Devils playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2018 well within reach.

Jordan Waters leaps into the end zone in Duke's Oct. 1 win against Virginia for his fourth touchdown of the season.
Jordan Waters leaps into the end zone in Duke's Oct. 1 win against Virginia for his fourth touchdown of the season.

‘I know how special we are’

Regardless of who is playing and who is not, Waters and Coleman do not lose sight of the rest of the team. For players like Moore, unrelated freshman Terry Moore and freshman Eric Weatherly, the leaders in the locker room want nothing but success, and the sentiment goes both ways.

In the words of Coleman, quoting Proverbs, “iron sharpens iron.”

Taylor mentors his players as young men and students in addition to helping their on-field growth. He mentions that instead of giving his players a playbook at the beginning of camp, he gave each of the running backs a Bible, signed by Taylor and his wife with a message and a few highlighted lines he believes fit each individual.

“I'm the coach to get you from where you are here to where you want to get to,” Taylor said, and that final destination could extend far beyond the sticks on a gutsy fourth-down run up the middle.

Among themselves, each of the running backs are companions and mentors to each other on and off the field, helping each other reach their lofty goals while staying on top of their duties as students.

“I love my dogs. Now I’m older so I’m making sure [the younger players] are straight,” Waters said. “I'm making sure that they're learning, going to class on time. So now I'm taking responsibility of being the older dude.”

The running back position has been Coleman and Waters’ to share, and they are taking it like champions. They challenge each other and learn from each other, and neither held back when praising the other:

“J-Cole has definitely developed into a leader,” Waters said about his backfield mate, not to be confused with the Grammy Award-winning rapper with whom the Blue Devil star shares a nickname. “[Coleman] is showing me another side that I've never seen. He's more vocal, he's getting on guys and I love it.”

“Just seeing [Waters] raise his level of play from where he's come has allowed me to watch him grow and it's made me want to develop more as well,” Coleman said.

As Duke’s Week 3 matchup rolled toward halftime, Waters caught a first-down screen pass in open space before turning upfield. With an unmarked North Carolina A&T defender zeroing in, Waters leaped over the tackle attempt and cleared five yards before being pushed out of bounds upon landing. The nearly 33,000 in attendance could hardly believe it—nor could Coleman.

“I'm pretty sure he was in the air for at least like 10 or 15 seconds,” Coleman said. “So just seeing that is incredible.”

Through Week 4, Coleman had only one more carry than Waters and Waters had just four more yards than Coleman. With Waters’ dive into the end zone Saturday, both have crossed the goal line four times. When Waters was held to under three yards per rush against Virginia, Coleman exploded for a season-high 97 yards on 19 carries. The Blue Devils are deep enough that if one of their talented rushers is having an off day, there is always someone to pick them up. The two of them know that, and with Coleman banged up heading into Duke’s trip to face Georgia Tech, it is Moore’s turn to step into the spotlight.

“I enjoy sharing the field with [Waters]—sharing time with him,” says Coleman. “Because I know how special we are in the backfield.”

They indeed have been special, and hence have served a crucial role in the Blue Devils’ equally special start to the season.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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