Duke ran the ball well in its season-opening win over Army and, after a scare, it looks like the Blue Devils’ top running back emerged healthy enough to build on the performance in Week 2.
Behind sophomore running back Brittain Brown, the Blue Devils amassed 184 yards rushing last Friday night in a 34-14 win over the Black Knights at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Brown rushed 11 times for 75 yards and a touchdown. But when he crumpled to the turf holding his right knee during a third-quarter run, it appeared Duke’s resounding win would come with a serious cost.
Brown stayed on the ground before being aided to his feet where he gingerly walked to the sidelines on his own. He eventually returned to the game for one more carry.
Cutcliffe said after the game that Brown’s knee had checked out well but that he was going to be sore. Two days later, to the relief of Duke’s coaches, players and fans, Brown’s health hadn’t worsened.
“Brittain scared us a little bit but he looks like he’s going to be OK,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said on Sunday. “With that awkward tackle, he almost tackled himself with a slip.”
Brown’s running will be a key factor in how well the Blue Devils offense performs this season. Even after one game, the rushing attack showed improvement over last year.
When Duke lost to Army, 21-16, last Nov. 11 at Michie Stadium in West Point, New York, the Blue Devils gained 89 rushing yards on 33 carries -- a paltry 2.7 yards per carry average.
Last Friday night, Duke averaged 5.26 yards per attempt against Army.
Cutcliffe praised his team for being far and away the more physical of the two teams. That physical edge showed up well in the running game.
Duke’s offensive line is rebuilt with three new starters and only one player -- left guard Julian Santos -- returning to the same position where he started last season. The Blue Devils have two new starting tackles in redshirt senior Christian Harris and redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling. Redshirt senior Zach Harmon, a starter at right guard last season, is now the team’s starting center. Sophomore Rakavius Chambers is the new starting right guard.
“We were balanced and had them on their heels a little bit,” Harmon said. “We were just able to tee off in the run game. We just gave Brittain little slivers of a hole and you saw what he did. That was really good to see. We just need a little crease in the line and that’s all it takes for Brittain.”
The group has a new position coach in Jim Bridge, who took over the offensive linemen after coaching special teams last season.
Cutcliffe liked what he saw in the season-opening win.
“Very pleased with the intensity.” Cutcliffe said. “Whether in pass protection or run blocking, we had the one sack that caused the fumble. But Jim Bridge has instilled some pride back in that offensive line. You have to be a talented player to play there. They care a lot about each other and they care about their teammates.”
The coaching staff made sure the reserve offensive linemen got some experience too. Redshirt sophomore center Jack Wohlabaugh, an Ohio State transfer, received his first college snaps. True freshman tackle Casey Holman also played for the first time as did redshirt freshman guard Jacob Rimmer.
Redshirt junior guard Zach Baker also played as did redshirt sophomore tackle Jaylen Miller.
Behind the talented Brown, Cutcliffe also sees good depth developing at running back. That depth could be needed when Duke plays at Northwestern (1-0) on Saturday.
Sophomore Deon Jackson had 25 yards on seven carries while redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard, who battled a sore shoulder in August camp, gained 15 yards on four carries.
“I think we can play even more running backs,” Cutcliffe said. “I think there is more to the stable, as well call it. But there is no doubt right now that Brittain Brown certainly can be a star.”