Duke running game coming together

Duke running back Josh Snead said he can remember when he first came to Durham, and the offensive linemen blocking for him “barely went over 270” pounds.

“Now we’ve got O-linemen in the 300s who can move, are very athletic,” Snead said. “It’s a blessing.”

“In the past, it’s been a very West Coast, pass-heavy offense,” Snead said. “Now we’re stronger up front. With us being a team that’s not really been on the radar with football, it’s been hard getting great recruits and big linemen and stud athletes up front to protect, so we had to be pass heavy. It’s the quickest way to get the ball out. Now, we’ve got great guys who are strong and powerful up front that can pass protect and run protect, which makes the game much easier.”

With four starters returning on the offensive line, all four running backs returning from 2012, and a new starting quarterback who is much more mobile than his predecessor, expect Duke’s running game to finally be a factor this fall. Those within the program certainly do. In the past, Duke has depended heavily on the arm of former quarterback Sean Renfree and his favorite target, ACC record-setter Conner Vernon, but with new faces came a new philosophy this spring -- run first.

Last year, Duke’s running game was No. 98 in the country at 125.23 yards per game -- and that was its highest ranking in at least six years. Overall, the top six rushers from a year ago return, including quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Last fall, Jela Duncan, Snead and Juwan Thompson combined for 1,403 yards on 283 attempts. It should again be a running back-by committee approach.

“Whoever has the hot hand, we’re going to encourage them,” said Duncan, who led the team in rushing last year with 553 yards and four touchdowns on 109 carries. “We’re going to be there rooting him on and pushing him to do his best in the game.”

The difference this year is that they’ll have an added dimension in Boone, who will be in his first season as a starter.

“With Anthony being a dual-threat quarterback, teams have to realize they’ll have to handle 11, not just 10,” Snead said. “We’re going into it this year looking at it as a great running dimension, whereas in the past, we had a quarterback who was very good at throwing the ball, but we knew when it was time to run the ball, we knew we were getting the ball instead of Boone just taking off with it at any given moment.”

Boone has played in 22 games over the past two years and has rushed for 211 yards and six touchdowns. Boone knows to give credit where it’s due -- up front. For the second straight season, Duke’s offensive line will lose just one starter: center Brian Moore.

“They’re very experienced,” Boone said. “We’re going to feature them. I tell them every day, I may not buy you a dinner tonight, but without you guys, nothing in our offense is possible. You guys have to be the heart of our offense. I know the quarterback is supposed to be the heart and voice, but in my mind, the guys up front are the guys who are going to take us places.

“From there, our running back corps is unbelievable. They’ve basically mastered the zone and the footwork and the reads. They’ve built a really good relationship with our offensive line. They joke around, they hang out. There’s a lot of trust and backing each other up. With our running backs, they’re obviously an experienced group. They’re all capable of making explosive plays and being very physical. They don’t back down from any physical challenge at all, which I love about every single one of them. They feed off each other. They talk trash, like, ‘Oh man, how’d you miss that,’ but at the same time, it’s a love, a brotherhood they have that I really can’t say anyone can get in the way of.”