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Countdown to the Season: Running Backs and Offensive Line Preview

Credit:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is fast approaching and the Blue Devils are ready to contend for another Coastal Division crown.  To get you ready for the upcoming season stay tuned to Duke Report as we preview the team and conference as we countdown to the kickoff of the season against Tulane on Thursday, September 3.

Duke will have to replace two starting linemen who are now in the NFL, as well as a four year contributor at running back.  Training camp has just begun, but injuries have already taken their toll.  Recruiting on the line has been tremendous in recent years.  Will the running game continue to see an increase in production?  Will the offensive line be one of the best in the nation once again?

Running Backs

The running back position was poised to be one of the deepest and most dynamic in Duke history and one of the premier stables in the ACC.  That optimism took a hit on Monday when the news was announced that Jela Duncan, returning from a year long academic suspension, is out indefinitely with a separated pectoral muscle.  Duncan was listed third on the initial depth chart, but was certain to get plenty of carries this season.  At this time it is still unclear how long Duncan may be out.  Depending on the severity he may be out anywhere from 2-6 weeks or months if surgery is required.  Because of the quality depth at the position its reasonable to assume Duke can absorb the loss of Duncan, however unfortunate it will be.  The Blue Devils had to go without him somewhat unexpectedly last season as well and had their best season running the ball under David Cutcliffe.  Duke will have to tread carefully going forward though as Coach Cutcliffe also noted that both sophomore Shaun Wilson and Joseph Ajeigbe were nursing lower body injuries.  They are currently being held out of contact drills, but are not expected to be out an extended amount of time.  As a result, quarterback Nico Pierre will be switching to running back until further notice.  Pierre was a coveted recruit at the QB position coming out of high school and was third on the depth chart at quarterback coming into fall practice.  Pierre’s unselfishness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the team is a great sign for the program and something Coach Cutcliffe and his staff have worked hard to instill in their players.

The one thing these injuries doesn’t change is that senior Shaq Powell will still be the lead back for the Blue Devils.  Duke has used a committee approach for the past few seasons and that was expected to continue this season until Duncan’s injury.  Powell will shoulder most of that load now and he is more than capable.  Last season Powell was the leading rusher with 618 yards on 4.6 yards per carry.  Powell’s best game of 2014 was in the Sun Bowl.  He totaled 117 rushing yards and added 3 catches for 52 yards.  With a new quarterback and some new faces on the offensive line, not to mention the injuries that have already begun to take their toll, Powell will need to be the all around, every down back he has proven he can be.  Unless Duncan can make a speedy recovery I expect Powell to top 1,000 yards this season and shoulder the biggest load for the Duke offense.

As a true freshman last year Shaun Wilson announced his arrival with a 245 yard, 3 touchdown game against Kansas.  Wilson set the single game rushing record for Duke and averaged 7.7 ypc for the season.  Wilson provides a quicker, faster style of running compared to the other backs on the Duke roster.  While Wilson never came close to approaching the kind of game he had against the Jayhawks during the rest of the season, he is expected to have a much more consistent role in 2015.  I’d expect the staff to utilize his speed with more screen passes and sweeps to try and get him to the edge as quickly as possible.  Joseph Ajeigbe was the fourth running back in 2014 and never received any extended playing time, but did show well in games against Georgia Tech and Troy.  He is reportedly the strongest running back on the team and could see an increased role in short yardage and goal line situations.

It is unclear at this time if quarterback Nico Pierre will see much, if any, time at the running back position in games.  As a recruit, Pierre was noted as a very good dual threat QB.  What he lacked in size he more than made up for with his speed and footwork.  Here’s hoping that, if needed, those skills will transfer to the new position.

Offensive Line

The Blue Devils have lost two offensive linemen to the NFL in RG Laken Tomlinson and LT Takoby Cofield, but still return plenty of experience.  Center Matt Skura was the top vote-getter in preseason all conference voting for offensive linemen.  His experience and leadership will be crucial as Duke looks to build on what was a great season of production for the O line.  Senior Lucas Patrick returns as the starting left guard, as does junior Casey Blaser at right tackle.  So while the two headliners on the offensive line have moved on there is plenty of returning talent to help maintain the high standards of recent seasons.

The ease of the transition into the post Tomlinson-Cofield era will depend on how well the new starters take on their increased roles on the team.  Senior Cody Robinson is projected to replace Tomlinson at RG.  Robinson is not short on experience, as he has playes in 33 career games.  He will be backed up by junior Tanner Stone.  Sophomore Gabe Brandner is expected to start at LT, but could share time with fellow sophomore Sterling Korona.

Recruiting has improved all over the board for the Blue Devils, but nowhere more than on the offensive line.  This year will showcase a great mix of returning experience and young talent.  While Skura and Patrick will receive the lion’s share of the time at their respective positions, every other place on the O line could see a steady rotation of players.

Check out our other Countdown to the Season previews:

Special Teams

Front Six

Secondary

Quarterback, Wide Receiver, & Tight End