DURHAM — As he prepared for Duke's opening fall practice Monday night, sophomore tailback Desmond Scott had one thought on his mind: "Establish myself."
The Blue Devils averaged a mere 2.2 yards per carry and 762 total rushing yards total last season, so Scott's personal mantra could go a long way toward establishing his team's running game, also.
"Being the last in rushing [in the ACC] last season? I didn't come from a place in high school of being last. That's just not where my mindset is,'' said Scott, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound Durham Hillside graduate. "Coach [Kurt] Roper [Duke's offensive coordinator] ... he harped on it last spring: 'We're not going to be last, we're not going to be last.'
"And you're dad-gone right, we're not going to be last. All of the running backs are working extra hard in the weight room, on the field. ... We know we have something to prove."
Scott, who began fall practice as No. 2 on the depth chart, led the Blue Devils in rushing last season - a dubious distinction, considering he finished with only 262 yards on 70 carries in nine games. Jay Hollingsworth, No. 1 on the depth chart after starting two games, totaled only 179 yards on 54 carries.
To put it in perspective: A half-dozen ACC running backs gained more yards by themselves last season than all the Blue Devils' rushers combined.
The rushing game was so inconsistent - because of everything from injured tailbacks to questionable run blocking from the offensive linemen - that coach David Cutcliffe opted to fall back on the arm of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who finished his career with more than 10,000 passing yards.
But with sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree ready to take the snaps, Duke's best chance to improve last season's five-win tally is to build a more balanced attack, not only to take some of the pressure off Renfree but to put more pressure on opposing defenses.
"It's not all that often you replace a four-year starter at quarterback," Cutcliffe said. "It's good motivation for our linemen and our receivers and our running backs and our tight ends because they're all part of running the football. ... The best friend a quarterback's got is a running game."
Scott, in particular, said he's ready to prove himself, simply because he's more in tune with the Devils' scheme.
He had agreed to redshirt last season - and therefore, he said, spent most of the early weeks on the scout team, "trying to help the defense with the team it was going to face, moreso than concentrating on our offense."
By the fourth game of the season, when Cutcliffe asked Scott if he was prepared to step up to the challenge and play, he did - gaining 100 yards and his first career touchdown, against NCAA Division I newcomer N.C. Central.
But his best game the rest of the way was a 10-carry, 41-yard performance in the season finale against Wake Forest, a 45-34 home loss. That only whetted Scott's appetite for the spring, when he hit the weights and studied tape.
He also spent extra time getting to know his offensive linemen and fellow tailbacks in an attempt to make the running game click better.
Apparently, it showed Monday. Cutcliffe said freshman tailback Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson caught everyone's eye and that Scott and Hollingsworth looked faster.
"The thing most pleasing offensively was our backs were very evident tonight," Cutcliffe said. "It's the best we've looked as a group at running back."
Scott said his goal is to start, help lead his team out of the ACC rushing basement and "make a statement to my offense that I'm willing to put them on my back and ride this thing until the wheels fall off."
He knows he'll be competing for carries - but that's all part of improving, he said. And establishing himself.
"It's less vocal than what people may think," Scott said. "It's your actions, it's the way you practice. After you finish running the ball, are you leaning over, gasping for air - or are you standing tall, waiting for the next play to come? Are you helping your fellow running backs with the mistakes they have made? Are you coachable? Are you getting better every day? ... Those are the things I want to do."
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