DURHAM — Duke football coach David Cutcliffe watched from the sideline as running backs hit wall after wall of defenders last season, leaving the Blue Devils with the ACC's least productive running offense.
"We all know our running game was anemic," Cutcliffe said on Wednesday after the Devils completed their 14th spring practice. "There's a lot of different reasons. ... Not blocking, not running well. We are putting more emphasis on it but we need our backs to step up and respond."
With sessions starting in February, the Devils bring spring practice to a close on Saturday in the annual spring game at Wallace Wade Stadium. The contest will offer a glimpse of how the running corps - led by the team's leading returning rusher sophomore Desmond Scott - has developed since the season ended in November.
"We're in a mode right now where we're consistently running the ball better than any time since we've been here," said Cutcliffe, who will enter his third season at Duke in the fall.
In two seasons, his teams have established they can pass the ball with great efficiency and effectiveness, but they have had far less success on the ground. Cutcliffe, though, has said his team will run the ball.
He said Saturday's spring game will feature "faster, fitter backs," and may even showcase some new running schemes, although he hasn't determined how much they will include.
It will be an opportunity for junior Jay Hollingsworth, redshirt sophomore Patrick Kuruwune, freshman Josh Snead and Scott to respond to coach's request to run faster and harder and to finish plays with aggression at the point of contact. Also, coaches will be looking for an elevated understanding of schemes from this young group.
The Devils rushed for 762 total yards an average of 63.5 yards per game last season, with Scott, a freshman, finishing the season with 70 carries for 262 yards.
Scott, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound product of Durham Hillside High, spent his first season adjusting to college football. He played in nine games, starting in four.
"Like most freshmen, he's got a bit of an apprenticeship done," Cutcliffe said. "And he's grown. He's still got to finish runs, still got to be a more physical player. He's certainly beyond where he was when the season ended."
Scott said learning plays was the most difficult task as football player. Then, he added, learning how to be a student-athlete was also a challenge. He felt pushed and pulled by them both.
"I always felt like that," Scott said. "With football and school and doing my work. Going to bed late doing home work. Waking up early for football practice. It was always the same thing: I was tired."
For a back who rushed for 2,249 yards as a senior in high school, college football proved harder than he expected. Not necessarily the contact or the game lights, but more what was required every day at practice.
"It was a more up pace," he said. "More intense. Less rest. So everything was a constant go. I never had that down time like I had in high school."
Now, Scott said, he's on top of things.
"Toward the end it started to feel like high school," he said of last season. "Everything started to slow down for me ... I'm ready to start next season and see where I'll go.
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