Belk Bowl

Duke running back volunteers to switch positions as a senior

Duke running back volunteers to switch positions as a senior

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 26, 2012 

  • Scott By The Numbers Desmond Scott had a productive senior season at Duke after moving from running back to slot receiver:
     Year Att. Yds.  Avg. Rec. Yds.  Avg.
     2011713675.2  251355.4 
     Totals 261  1,159 4.4  138  1,154  8.4

— Last spring, Desmond Scott came to the coaching staff with an idea: why doesn’t he start working as a wide receiver?

That a rising senior who had started 19 games at running back and rushed for more yards than anyone else on Duke’s current roster was volunteering to switch positions didn’t shock the coaching staff. Scott had proven to be a selfless guy over the years, and he saw an opportunity to fill a void.

“We knew that we were going to be limited in numbers at wide receiver,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “So we said, ‘OK, who is a logical guy that creates some depth if we need to do that?’ ”

What started as a backup, just-in-case scenario proved to be a necessity when Blair Holliday was critically injured in a July 4 personal watercraft crash. Scott moved into the slot receiver position, and he caught 61 passes for 606 yards as Duke (6-6) had its most successful offensive season of the David Cutcliffe era.

The Blue Devils set new highs for total offensive plays (902), yards (4,778) rushing yards (1,442) and points per game (31.3). And Duke still has one more game left, the Belk Bowl on Thursday against Cincinnati (6:30 p.m., ESPN).

Scott is just one of several Blue Devils who had to make quick adjustments on offense that were vital to the team’s success. But, thanks to the philosophy of the offensive coaches, the unexpected changes were more manageable.

“As a college football team, you better practice multiple guys because they’re going to graduate,” Roper said. “So it’s our philosophy, we really cut the practice reps 50-50, our 1s and our 2s go 50-50. That gets them prepared mentally to go play a game. They usually aren’t as ready physically and they think they’re going to be. But those reps get them better.”

So after Holliday, a projected starter at wide receiver, suffered life-threatening head injuries that put the focus solely on his survival, Roper called his quarterback, Sean Renfree, and told him to get Scott ready to play receiver in the month before Duke began preseason camp.

“That month was critical with his development this year,” Roper said of Scott. “And Sean knows our offense so well that we couldn’t have done it without Sean. We could not have done it without Sean Renfree.

“The summertime is the players’ time. We can’t work with them, so Sean was the coach.”

Moving pieces

Scott shifted to the slot position, and Jamison Crowder, the projected starter at the slot, moved to the outside. Roper opted to have both outside receivers, Crowder and Conner Vernon, play both the X and the Z positions.

That meant Vernon always lined up on the left side of the field and Crowder on the right, and while defenders knew where they would start, they had no idea which position or what type of route each was executing.

“Sometimes you would confuse stuff because there would be times you would zone out and forget what you’re on and might run the wrong route and stuff like that,” said Vernon, who set new ACC records for career catches and receiving yards this year. “That was the hard part at first, getting used to not switching sides and remember, ‘OK, I’m the X now, I’m the Z now.”

Duke was the only school in the country with three receivers (Vernon, Crowder and Scott) who each caught at least 60 passes.

The receivers shake-up, though, was not the only preseason hurdle the offense faced. One week after Holliday’s accident, another Duke player, tight end Braxton Deaver, was lost for the season with a broken kneecap.

Roper had already planned to modify how he used the tight end, moving him around in the formation instead of keeping him stationary at the line of scrimmage. Now, he would use two young, unproven players in David Reeves and Issac Blakeney instead of the original projected starter.

Roper had changed the tight end’s role in the offense because he felt more comfortable with Duke’s running game. The Blue Devils had three returning backs they felt confident with – Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Patrick Kurunwune – and two three-star freshmen in Jela Duncan and Shaq Powell.

Rotation emerges

As the year went on, a three-man rotation of Thompson, Snead and Duncan emerged. And Duncan, the freshman, ended up leading Duke with 516 rushing yards on 99 carries.

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve been able to play freshman wide receivers and freshman running backs,” Roper said. “Our system, we keep it simple enough to learn that those guys can step in and play. And, so, we knew pretty quickly that if we got them mentally prepared, those two young guys could help us.”

Roper’s philosophy of practicing the backups paid off during the season, too, as reserve quarterback Anthony Boone led Duke to two crucial conference wins against Wake Forest and Virginia.

Boone, a redshirt sophomore, had the talent and knowledge to carry out Duke’s full passing scheme. In his first career start against the Cavaliers, Boone completed a 54-yard touchdown pass to Crowder, the first of three completions that went at least 35 yards.

On the year, Duke had 48 offensive plays cover at least 20 yards, an explosiveness not even Roper had expected.

“That probably speaks to recruiting more than anything else,” he said. “Hopefully recruiting is paying off and we’ve got some guys who can score from a long way away.”

After the Belk Bowl, Roper will have time to further evaluate his offense. There will be areas to address (third down) and tweaks to be made (more quarterback running plays for Boone). But overall, he’s pleased with his unit, which overcame significant personnel losses and changes en route to Duke’s first bowl birth since 1994.

“Two big factors,” Cutcliffe said of the success, “Quality coaching by our staff on both sides of the ball and quality young people.”

And there’s no doubt that Scott, who laid the initial groundwork for his move to receiver back in the spring, is one of those people.

“He’s a guy that has unusual football savvy; that’s the best way I can say it,” Cutcliffe said. “What he did, I don’t know that anybody else could do.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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