Positional Preview: Runningbacks

If I were to say that an ACC roster had three different running backs with 75+ yard touchdown runs in their college career, one would probably think of the back factories at Miami, Florida State, or Virginia Tech. Few would guess, however, that I would be thinking about Duke.

While the running game was stuck in neutral for much of the 2006 season because of a green offensive line, the current crop of running backs has shown the ability to produce when given the chance.

Duke has rotated running backs frequently over the past two seasons for various reasons. When healthy, senior Justin Boyle has been the primary feature back for the Devils. Listed at 235 rock-solid pounds, Boyle is a very difficult runner to knock down. He combines his great size with deceptive speed and great explosiveness, which has allowed him to produce very well over the last couple of years. One of his best assets, however, is his pass blocking ability. He diagnoses blitzes quickty and has the willingness to take on linebackers and defensive linemen in pass-protection.

His 2006 season ended against Navy when he sustained a torn knee ligament. It was initially feared Boyle would have to sit out the 07 season because of the injury. Luckily for Duke and Boyle, the damage was not as severe as initially feared and he will be almost 100% by the start of preseason practice. Expect Boyle to work back into contact slowly during the preseason and see limited action early in the year. As the year progresses, however, the veteran will see more and more work.

With Boyle still on the mend, junior Re'quan Boyette will assume the starting role. Boyette is a much different type of back than the powerful Boyle. Rather than bowling over defenders, Boyette relies more on speed and quickness for his yards. He is a capable receiver out of the backfield, with his speed providing a difficult match-up for opposing linebackers.

Junior Clifford Harris is a nice blend of speed and power and is a reliable reserve option for the Duke offense. Harris's best ability is his ability to find holes along the line of scrimmage and exploiting them. He does not have breakaway speed nor does he have brutish power, but he has enough of both to play in the ACC.

Speedy senior Ronnie Drummer is a threat to score just about every time he touches the ball. In 2005, Drummer averaged over 10 yards per carry and recorded 5 plays that gained over 50 yards each. Drummer is a true speed back that goes down fairly easily, however, his track speed makes him difficult to catch. He was slowed with nagging injuries in 2006, but is 100% healthy heading into the fall. The other tailback on the roster is incoming freshman Cameron Jones, who may play special teams but will probably redshirt.

One of Duke biggest positions of strength is at fullback. Senior Tielor Robinson is a devastating lead blocker who can overpower most safeties and linebackers at the point of attack. On top of his blocking, Robinson is a bullish ball-carrier as well as a very capable receiver out of the backfield. He was severely under-utilized in 2006 until the season finale. In that contest, he shook off a first quarter drop to catch three passes for three touchdowns as well as another catch for a two-point conversion. Head coach Ted Roof indicated that Robinson was going to be a much larger part of the offense this fall. Expect to see him in more one-back sets. Like Boyle, Robinson is a big asset as an extra blocker in blitz pickup.

Even better news for Duke is that Robinson's backup, sophomore Brandon King, is also a devastating lead blocker and with his 260 lbs size can match up physically with about anyone he faces. King is not much of a ball carrier, but has shown to be a reliable receiver both out of the backfield and when he lines up at tight end. Versatile Clifford Harris can fill in for spot duty. Sophomore Peter Shaheen and walk-on senior B.J. Smith can be brought in for extra blockers in a jumbo set.

Position Strengths:

Interchangeable Parts – The Duke roster is quite an odd combination of skill sets, but one thing most of the backs have in common is that they have 100-yard game to their credit. Boyette, Drummer, and Boyle all have had 100+ yard rushing games in their careers. This gives the offense the ability to put multiple players in the backfield and know there is a capable back taking handoffs.

Strength – One thing the Devils possess in spades is short-yardage backs. Tielor Robinson is a bowling ball with great leverage inside his compact frame. Just Boyle is also quite strong and also has good leaping ability. He almost never goes down on first contact and his balance allows him to pick up those extra tough yards with defenders draped on him. Cliff Harris possesses good vision in finding holes to turn through as well as keen awareness as to where holes are developing. With those three backs at his disposal, Peter Vaas will have a multitude of options in short-yardage and around the goal-line.

Home run ability – In Drummer and Boyette, Duke has two backs that can break off the big run on occasion, even against the best defensive competition. Boyette torched Florida State for a 75-yarder last season, while Drummer broke off an 81-yard scamper against Miami during the 2005 season. They might not be the fastest players in the ACC, but these two backs have enough speed to score from about any place on the field.

Position Question Marks:

"All-in-one" skill set – While each back has specific strengths, none are what could be classified as an "every down" running back. None of the current backs on the roster has been able to shoulder a consistent 25 carry-a-game load over any extended period of time. This makes the Duke offense a little easier to defend, since the opposition knows the limitations of each player that lines up in the backfield.

Injury History - It is true that a running back takes quite a pounding during the course of a game. Still, the Duke backs seem to be a bit more fragile than normal. Their toughness and drive are not in question. All of the injuries have been quite legitimate. Still the fact the injuries have occurred cannot be ignored. Justin Boyle's brutish running style has landed him on the sidelines in each of his first three seasons in Durham. The slightly-built Ronnie Drummer has also been nicked up every year of his career as well. Since his speed is what makes him an asset in the offensive sets, he has to stay healthy.

Elusiveness – There is power and speed abound in the Blue Devil backfield, so what is missing? Duke does not have that one back who can make the first tackler miss in the open-field. Being able to avoid the first hit is usually critical in swing passes as well as screens, which is probably why Duke does not run either type of play well.

Bottom Line:

Duke has a bevy of solid ball-carrying options to choose from. So much so that they have a player in Cliff Harris, who would have started for Duke in many years, that cannot get regular time in the rotation. Each back on the roster has strengths that can be used in the framework of the offense, but each guy has some limitations. Boyle and Robinson are battering-ram type runners, Robinson and Brandon King are sledgehammer-type lead blockers. Boyette and Drummer have the "home-run" speed Duke has lacked in most years. Harris provides a nice blend of speed and power in a reserve role. With this many differently skilled football players at his disposal, OC Peter Vaas will need to be creative to maximize the strengths of each runner and give each enough carries to have a chance to be productive.

Still, the one thing that is lacking from this crew is a true number one option that the staff can throw out there and hand the ball off too 20 to 25 times a game, every game. Nevertheless, each guy has shown they can produce if given the chance. Duke has crucial depth at a position where depth is an absolute necessity.


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