DURHAM — Sitting, smiling at Dukes weekly press conference, Josh Snead was asked about returning to Charlotte to play postseason football for the second consecutive year.
The team is excited to be in the ACC championship game against Florida State, he said.
But what about you, personally, Josh, are you eager to have another chance to play in Charlotte?
Um, he said, before he smiled again, Yes. It feels good.
In last years Belk Bowl Dukes first postseason appearance since the 1994 season the Blue Devils were driving late in the fourth quarter, with less than two minutes left in a tie game against Cincinnati. Snead, leading Duke with 85 yards up to that point, received the handoff at the 5-yard line. But, suddenly, a Bearcat reached in, knocked the ball loose, and Cincinnati recovered. The Bearcats scored 14 points in the remaining 80 seconds of game time, winning 48-34.
Yeah, Ive got a sour taste in my mouth, Snead said. Yeah, I played a great game, but I had a mistake that was kind of costly.
But it didnt take Snead long to rebound, as he came out to face the media after the game (many players would refuse to talk in that situation). He explained that the ball just popped out. And from that moment on, he began to focus on next season, his opportunity to come back better than ever.
And he and the rest of the Duke running backs have done just that.
Running the ball is a strength for the No. 20 Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2 ACC) for the first time in David Cutcliffes six year-tenure. The quartet of senior Juwan Thompson, Snead, and sophomores Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell has been primarily responsible for Dukes 2,159 rushing yards this year. That averages out to 179.9 yards per game, fifth-highest in the ACC. When looking at just league games, the Blue Devils rank fourth, averaging 175.6 yards. Thats more than 50 yards per game better than last years average, and that was the first year the Blue Devils cracked triple digits for average rushing yardage in ACC play.
A change in scheme helped, with Duke moving more to a read-option offense. But the personnel was similar, with all four running backs returning and just one new offensive lineman (center Matt Skura). The Blue Devils do have a new running backs coach, Duke alum Requan Boyette, and, from the start, he emphasized ball security.
We do ball security every day, Boyette said. We may not do certain drills every day, but were going to get ball security in because thats huge not only to me, but to our offensive staff and the head coach.
And I tell them, it doesnt matter if its at the end of a play and the defensive guy is just being a (jerk) and knocks the ball out of their hands, thats punishment for them, Boyette added. Youre going to have the ball a lot as a running back, and for me to be able to trust you, you need to take care of the ball and not turn it over.
Boyettes toughest task as a coach is managing his running back rotation. All four regularly receive carries Duncan leads with 108, Snead has 83, Powell 52 and Thompson, who also doubles as a linebacker, has 47 and its up to him, along with the other offensive coaches, to decide who plays when.
It was hard to adjust at first, Powell said. There was a little jealousy at the beginning, even a little bit into this year at the beginning of the year.
In the first month of the season, Cutcliffe met with the four backs. He told each they had different strengths. Thompson is the veteran, and theres a certain dependability that comes with experience. Snead has the best acceleration. Duncan is the most powerful in between the tackles. Powell is the most versatile. With that said, their carries would depend on the situation and their practice performance.
But the jealously faded naturally as the wins started piling up. Duke has won eight consecutive games, and there have been no further issues or grumbling about playing time.
Coach (Kurt) Roper has a theory, I dont know if its true or not, but winning builds team chemistry, Powell said. You can definitely tell that the more that we win, the tighter that we get.
The group is tight enough that Snead felt comfortable bringing up the memory of last years Belk Bowl in their Sunday meeting. He mentioned the sour taste in his mouth and his desire for things to end differently this time.
I was just thankful to be put in that position, you know, in a bowl game, Snead said. Yes, the outcome didnt come out the way we wanted it to, but we knew that we were better than what happened. We came out in the offseason and proved that, and we improved it, and that got us to 10-2.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley