A David Cutcliffe team is not going to rely heavily on one running back. In 2013, the Blue Devils featured four different backs (Josh Snead, Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson, Shaquille Powell), with all four carrying the ball more than 60 times and averaging at least five yards per carry.
Unfortunately for Duke, Duncan and Thompson are both gone for this season. The duo combined for more than 900 yards on the ground, and losing them means less game experience at the position. Don’t expect the team to place less emphasis on the running game though.
Cutcliffe has said the team needs to run the football better in order to repeat the type of performance it had last season. The burden will lie heavily upon Powell and Snead, as redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe and true freshman Shaun Wilson have never played a down at the college level.
Powell possesses the skills of an every down back and a little more size than Snead. Between the two, he is the better option to run inside and up the middle. It will be key to find someone to fill the role of quarterback Brandon Connette, who was exceptional for Duke at scoring in the red zone and moving the chains in short-yardage situations.
Snead is a speed demon, having spent the spring as a sprinter on the Duke track team. He led the Blue Devils last season with 651 rushing yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. That explosiveness and big play ability will grab the attention of opposing defenses every time Snead steps on the field.
While the other backs are less experienced, Cutcliffe is excited for what Ajeigbe and Wilson can bring to the table and has said they will play a role in the offense. Ajeigbe performed well in the spring game, running ten times for 59 yards and catching four passes for 34 yards. Wilson is another speed back and has displayed good lateral quickness. Both are likely to get a fair amount of carries despite being lower on the depth chart.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN 2014
Like Cutcliffe said, Duke needs to run the ball well in order to keep the offense balanced and take the pressure off Anthony Boone. Powell, Snead, Ajeigbe, and Wilson should all contribute and form a new four-man attack like last season.
Lacking a true power runner, the Blue Devils must find the best option between the tackles in order to get those tough yards and keep drives moving. This could be one of the current running backs, or Duke may find a quarterback like Thomas Sirk or Parker Boehme to fill the role once held by Connette.
The stable of running backs has the benefit of running behind three returning offensive lineman, including right guard Laken Tomlinson, one of the best guards in the country. While some questions still remain about the running game, a healthy line should make the job much easier for all of the backs.