Duke's O-line, running backs should mean more balance
AUG 08, 2013 1:13p ET
In the first few years of the David Cutcliffe era at Duke, the Blue Devils didn't really run the ball all that much. Yes, Cutcliffe's offense is more quarterback-friendly than some. But that’s not why. They weren’t running it because they couldn’t.
From 2009-11, Duke averaged the fewest rushing attempts in the league each season and was last or second-to-last in yards per carry. The worst season was 2009, when Duke averaged just 28.3 rushes per game and just 2.2 yards per carry.
Last year, though, there was a breakthrough. Cutcliffe had his best offensive line at Duke. And the Blue Devils averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 33.8 rushes per game. Not the top of the ACC by any means, but far from last place, too.
And when Duke could find offensive balance in a game -- which generally meant it wasn’t falling behind and having to keep throwing to make a comeback -- it found success. Duke ran the ball 1.8 more times per game than it threw it in six wins, but it threw the ball 17.4 more times than it ran it in seven losses.
Duke had 40 or more rushing attempts in a game twice: once in a win over Memphis (44 rushes for 177 yards) and then 53 against North Carolina. With 276 passing yards and 234 rushing yards in that game, it was probably Duke’s most balanced offensive effort against a good opponent maybe in the Cutcliffe era.
The North Carolina win was fueled at least in part by emotion, and Duke’s running backs also played extraordinarily well. But the same offensive line that showed it can open up holes in the running game a year ago is back almost intact.
The only starter gone is center Brian Moore, but his replacement -- sophomore Matt Skura -- got playing time last year at guard, and says he’s ready. “When I got switched to guard, I was able to work with the tackle and the center,” Skura said. “It just helped me open my eyes a little bit more as a player. I got to see defenses a little bit better. It made me a more well-rounded player in general.”
Skura also did a lot of work with this year’s quarterback Anthony Boone a year ago as both were part of the second-team offense, so they’re comfortable with each other. And Boone’s mobility adds another dimension to what Duke can do when it comes to running the ball.
The most yards per rush Duke averaged in a game last year was 5.1 against Virginia, and it was also -- perhaps not coincidentally -- the only game that this year’s quarterback Anthony Boone started.
Duke has always had some zone-read elements in its offense, but obviously last year’s quarterback Sean Renfree rarely kept the ball as he was not very mobile. Boone, though, is. And that, combined with all four of Duke’s leading rushers from last year returning, means an increased emphasis on getting yards on the ground.
Sophomore Jela Duncan led Duke in rushing in 2012 with 569 yards on 109 carries. He and the other three running backs with experience -- Josh Snead, Juwan Thompson and Shaquille Powell -- are ready to carry more of the load.
“We have four running backs that are capable of running it. This is our most experienced running back group that we’ve had in the past couple years,” Duncan said. “(Cutcliffe) feels that any one of us is capable of going out and getting the yards that we need to get done.”
Duncan and the rest of the running backs spent the summer working with the other running backs on things like lateral cuts and jukes to make defenders miss. But they’ve also been working with the offensive line, trying to get each other’s rhythms down and master the offense.
“Even though we do things (against) air, it’s more like getting a feel for the game and everybody getting in their groove and into the mentality that they have to be in,” Duncan said. “With them being as experienced as they are, we just have as much faith as we do in them to open up lanes and for us to get in and get out and get as many yards as we can.”
The line has been working, too. Offensive line coach John Latina wants his guys to have the perfect balance of athleticism and mobility with power and strength. The Duke line has always had the athleticism, which is why it has always been good at pass-blocking. But when it comes to run-blocking, the mentality has to change.
“When run-blocking, you just have to be really physical, like nasty. That’s just what Coach Latina expects out of us,” Skura said. “Pass-blocking, it’s more -- I wouldn’t say relaxed, but you’re in a two-point stance. You don’t have a lot of weight on your hand.
“Getting into the run game, you’re really just trying to maul people and really wanting to move the ball, get vertical movement on the defensive line and trying to get yards that are a lot tougher than passing.”
Offensive linemen tend to take a certain amount of pride in run-blocking, which is just a one-on-one battle with a defensive player, generally speaking. An ability to open up holes in the running game means that the offensive line is tough, manly, and strong.
But the game is changing. Teams are becoming more pass-centric. The running game is less up the middle than it is zone-read or option. Only the best teams in college football could hope to have the personnel up front to run the ball the “traditional” way - so teams are adapting.
And perhaps it’s proof of how much the game has actually changed that Skura doesn’t prefer one kind of blocking over the other.
“In certain situations, I do like running the ball more. But I don’t have a huge preference. I like pass-blocking too because to have to use your mental and physical abilities because you have to read what the defense is doing and see if they’re doing any stunts or blitzes,” Skura said. “I don’t prefer one over the other -- I just like doing both, I guess.”
But he knows that the Blue Devils have to run it better in order to take the next step as a program. Skura said that the line has worked a lot on getting stronger in the weight room, and run-blocking was a focus of off-season work.
“Coming into the spring, we ran a lot more run plays. We were really dominant in calling those,” Skura said. “In the summer...we would focus a lot more on run plays - not shying away from the pass plays, but we really liked to put a focus on those and kind of getting a good chemistry with the running backs and the offensive line.”