Position Preview: Running Backs

Finding more balance on the offensive side of the ball has been a commitment of the Duke coaching staff for quite a while. In 2011 it appears as though the pieces are in place to have a more reliable ground game.

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There's some optimism surrounding the Duke ground attack just two years removed from finishing at the bottom of season rushing charts in the Bowl Subdivision. 2010 saw the Blue Devils continually effort to move the ball on the ground and though thing started slowly, by the end of the season the team had a semblance of balance on offense. It's something the Blue Devils hope to continue as 2011 kicks off.

Certainly the passing game is far ahead of the rushing attack, but with a number of questions facing the Blue Devils' defensive prowess, the idea of clock management becomes critical. Hence the increased attention paid towards the ground game. Much of what is done on the ground has to do with what happens in the trenches, however. As the coaching staff told the media this summer: "You could have Barry Sanders back there, but if you can't block you can't run."

And why there's no sight of the Lion' number 20 in the Blue Devil backfield, there are a number of capable players who would certainly make a case to play at most any other program in the country. In fact, the Blue Devils are likely to use between four and five players at various times during the season thanks to tremendous depth at the position.

At the top of the depth chart is former four star back Desmond Scott. Possessing breakaway speed and having continued to enhance his strength over the last two years, the Durham native is now capable of running between the tackles as much as bouncing outside. Scott entered 2010 as a reserve, but quickly earned the starting nod and assumed that role 11 times in 12 games. On the field he rushed for a team high 530 yards on 120 carries (4.2 ypc) while also proving to be quite a receiver out of the backfield (34 catches for 266 yards). Scott actually finished fifth in the ACC in all-purpose yards per game with just over 90 per contest. On a team that turned the ball over far too much a season ago, Scott was a bright spot having coughed up just one fumble in 275 career touches.

Much as Scott did in 2010, Juwan Thompson is looking to continue to fight his way up the depth chart and earn a bigger role in the Duke offense. The sophomore has certainly put in the work this offseason, ranking among the team's leaders in the power clean lift (341 lbs.; 1st), broad jump (10'4"; 1st), squat lift (530 lbs.; 2nd), 40-yard dash (4.36 sec- onds; 2nd), vertical jump (35.5"; t3rd) and bench press (395 lbs.; t5th). At 5-foot-11 Thompason weighs in at 220 pounds, using that strength and size to bull through the line of scrimmage, or over potential tacklers in the second level. As with most freshmen there was a learning curve in 2010, but it didn't' stop Thompson from earning his first career start against Miami late in the season. Fast forward to preseason 2011 and Thompson has been among the names singled out by the coaching staff as a potential breakout player.

Josh Snead and Jay Hollingsworth also figure to see significant time. Snead holds the title as the most elusive back on the roster. Snead will be called upon in both the running and passing game and will be looking to get outside whenever possible. Once he's one on one with a defender, big plays are certainly probable (he lead the team in yards per carry a season ago at 4.91). However before he can earn more touches, Snead will need to improve his performance in the various blocking schemes. Look for the Smithfield (N.C.) native to become an immediate factor in the return game where he ranked seventh in the ACC in 2010 with 22.0 yards per return. Hollingsworth, on the other hand, may very well be the team's best North-South runner behind Thompson and is also among the team's best blockers - something that will immediately earn him snaps in his final season.

Patrick Kurunwune, a 5'9, 230 pound back out of Texas, will also likely be called upon in short yardage and even goal line situations. The team's strongest running back (he ranked among the team leaders in bench press (405 lbs.; t3rd), 225-pound bench press repetitions (20; t4th) and squat lift (490 lbs.; t5th)), Kurunwune may also factor into the return game.

What Needs To Happen in 2011:
As the coaching staff pointed out this summer, a lot of the success of the running game hinges on what happens in the trenches. Duke wants to balance the offense as much as possible to not only wear down opponents, but also to control the clock. The offensive line has seven or eight players (more on that next week) ready to contribute at the ACC level according to the coaching staff, so now it's up to the backs to exploit the holes created by that improved front.

There is a lot of depth with four high level contributors with track records of perfuming against ACC competition battling it out on a weekly basis. This may be a roster spot where the pre-game depth chart means little (aside from injury). Each player brings a somewhat unique skill set to the field and Duke will need each of them in order to achieve the staff's goal of balancing one of the ACC's more explosive offenses. More importantly the backs will need to grind out yards and avoid costly fumbles so the somewhat unproved Duke defense will have time to catch its breath between series.

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