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Duke hoping backfield depth is still a weapon

Duke is counting on Shaun Wilson to pick up where he left off last season. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

DURHAM, N.C. -- It was simply a statement released by the school in the wake of a trio of injuries to Duke’s tailbacks last week, but it was easy to sense the frustration David Cutcliffe must have been feeling.

“Just when you feel comfortable with four experienced running backs on the depth chart, three of them are in the training room,” was Cutcliffe’s quote used in the school’s release.

This was to be Duke’s strength — a stable of tailbacks that included three players with 500-yard seasons under their belts and a fourth who saw steady action last season. While so many other parts of the offense were being subbed out for newcomers, the tailbacks were the foundation to build upon.

The plan was simple: A dash of Joe Ajeigbe, a burst of Shaun Wilson, a few hard runs from Jela Duncan and a healthy dose of Shaquille Powell.

“Since I've been here, even as a player, having three or four guys with experience, it’s very rare,” said Duke running backs coach Re’quan Boyette.

Now Duncan is out indefinitely with a partially torn pectoral that could end his season. Wilson and Ajeigbe have been sidelined, too — though both could return to full practice before fall camp ends. Third-string quarterback Nico Pierre is getting reps at tailback. He’s holding his own but there’s a steep learning curve.

The details of the plan have been adjusted on the fly, but the philosophy isn’t changing.

“It’s an anchor for our offense, just having that mentality of running the ball,” Boyette said. “That’s where we feel our success comes. When we’re running the ball, we’re really hard to stop.”

It’s not just the depth, but the diversity of the group. Powell is an established veteran with a hard-nosed approach. In 2014, only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook averaged more yards after first contact.

Wilson is a speedster and as good of a big-play threat as there is in the ACC. Last season, no Power 5 back with at least 75 carries averaged more yards per rush.

Duncan was supposed to be the short-yardage force. With him sidelined a year ago, Duke was 12th in the ACC in converting third-and-short chances on the ground.

“Some things overlap, but we all do things better,” Powell said. “Every time we step on the field, we bring our own unique attributes.”

A year ago, Duke rushed for its highest yards per game (182) since 1977 and averaged its most yards per carry (4.8) in at least a half-century. Even with some early injuries, there’s a confidence those numbers have room to improve again in 2015.

Still, healthy depth on the roster is probably a necessity if Duke wants to meet those expectations, and again, last season provides a template.

Through Week 10 last season, the Blue Devils were among the best ground attacks in the ACC, averaging nearly 6 yards per rush (not counting sacks) and getting stuffed for a loss at about the same rate as the vaunted Georgia Tech attack.

From Nov. 8 on, however, the Blue Devils averaged less than 4 yards per run — about the same as Syracuse over that span — and not coincidentally, dropped three of their final five games. Duke averaged nine fewer points per game during that span.

“Once you hit the conference [games], it’s going to be that way,” Boyette said. “This year, we’re trying to be more consistent in those games, picking up all those dirty yards.”

Ajeigbe was crucial down the stretch last year, including a win over Georgia Tech. Wilson’s role diminished in the waning weeks, but Boyette said that can change this year as the sophomore develops into a more complete back. But the first step is simply getting them both back on the field.

“Each one is totally different from the other,” Boyette said. “It’s a rare commodity and an essential part to a running back corps.”