Duke adds a new wrinkle with triple-option running plays to its normal spread offense

Normally a regular part of Duke’s schedule, triple-option offenses are absent this season with the Blue Devils not playing Army or Navy and option purveyor Paul Johnson no longer coaching Georgia Tech.

That offense is still part of Duke’s practices, though, just on the opposite side of the ball.

Rather than Duke’s defense working on stopping it, the Blue Devils offense added some option packages that it unveiled on a limited basis in last Saturday’s season-opening loss to Alabama.

“A little bit of our first look at it,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after the 42-3 loss in Atlanta, “and something that we’re going to continue to tinker with because we’ve got some really good backs, and we’re going to try to find a way to run the ball better.”

Was it a one-game thing trying to gain an edge over a superior opponent like the Crimson Tide? Partially, yes.

“That was definitely something that we threw in,” Duke junior running back Deon Jackson said Tuesday, “to try and throw something at them — a change of pace to give them a different look, something they weren’t preparing for because it’s not really something we had shown before.”

But Duke isn’t shelving it, either.

“We’re not going to just let it go,” Cutcliffe said during his weekly news conference on Tuesday.

Duke’s talented running backs

Over the past 11 seasons, Cutcliffe’s Duke teams employed a no-huddle, spread offense. Three of his Blue Devils’ quarterbacks — Thad Lewis, Sean Renfree and Daniel Jones — have gone on to play in the NFL.

Redshirt senior Quentin Harris is Duke’s starter this season after backing up Jones the past three seasons. Cutcliffe and the staff have confidence in Harris’ ability to execute the spread and its passing-game tenants.

Adding the option, rather, is more about all the talent Duke has in its running back room.

Jackson led the Blue Devils with 847 rushing yards, including seven touchdown runs, while being named all-ACC as an all-purpose player last season.

Junior Brittain Brown had 369 yards (averaging 4.61 yards per carry) in an injury-plagued sophomore season after leading Duke with 701 yards (5.39 yards per carry) as a freshman in 2017.

Both are healthy so the Blue Devils need to take full advantage of their talents.

In addition, sophomore running back Mataeo Durant keeps impressing with his running and blocking, both in practice and in games.

“I think Mataeo is outstanding; he’s a big-time back,” Cutcliffe said. “I think he certainly needs to play. So to keep all three healthy and to play all three will be to our advantage.”

Option can provide an offensive boost

The option plays allow multiple backs to be on the field together, rather than the single-back alignments that are common in the spread offense.

Durant played 20 plays against Alabama. He gained 31 yards on seven carries, averaging 4.4 yards per attempt.

In 28 plays, Brown gained 36 yards on seven attempts (5.1 yards per carry). In his 29 plays, Jackson had 35 yards on seven carries (5.0 yards per carry). Jackson was the only back of the three who had a rushing attempt that lost yardage.

Though Duke gained just 3.3 yards per attempt as a team, finishing with 107 yards on 32 carries against the powerful Crimson Tide, the Blue Devils still feel the combination of the option plays and rushes out of Duke’s spread can provide a boost to its overall offense.

“The quarterback’s best friend is having a great run game,” Harris said. “Obviously, we have great backs, especially the top three right now with Brittain, Deon and Mataeo.”

The offensive line plays a huge role in the running game’s success, as well. Against Alabama and its talented defensive front, Duke started freshmen at left tackle (Casey Holman) and right tackle (Jacob Monk) with redshirt senior Zach Baker at left guard, junior Jack Wohlabaugh at center and junior Rakavius Chambers at right guard.

“I thought our offensive line played well,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re better up front. We are physical. I thought we matched their defensive front maybe better than I thought we were going to do. We have something to build off there. We weren’t consistent enough up front. But a large part of it, some of the consistencies of offense, weren’t because of offensive line play.”

Whether or not Duke uses some of its option plays Saturday night in its home opener against N.C. A&T at Wallace Wade Stadium, the running game will remain an area the Blue Devils look for major production.

NC A&T at Duke

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

Watch: ACC Network Extra

Listen: WRBZ-99.3, WDNC-620 Raleigh; WRBZ-96.5, WDNC-620 Durham; WBCN-94.7, WHVN-1660 Charlotte

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.