Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery knew the coaching staff was asking a lot of Nico Pierre. He came to Duke as a quarterback, the No. 14-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his class, according to ESPN. But last week, when two running backs joined a third on the injured list, the coaches wanted Pierre to put all that aside. They wanted him to move to running back.
“We have to understand where we live in a world where (touted recruits) still have to co-exist amongst their teammates,” Montgomery said. “And they come in with such high regard and high praise from everybody across the country in a position where they are competing.”
But still, he and coach David Cutcliffe asked the redshirt freshman if he would change positions after Monday morning’s practice. By the time the evening two-a-day session began, Pierre was on board with the plan.
“At first, I was fighting myself with it,” he said, “But then I also thought to myself, it’s a chance for me to be a playmaker for the team and help our team in the best situation possible.”
Pierre says that in a way that’s convincing, not merely like he’s just rehearsing the party line. It clearly wasn’t a decision he agonized over – he said Cutcliffe and Montgomery were the only two people he spoke to about it. And it makes sense. After redshirting last year, he is eager to get on the field – and this is the quickest way to make that happen.
It’s in my nature to run.
Duke football player Nico Pierre
Pierre spent last season as the scout team quarterback, impersonating opponents such as Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas. So he kept working both his arm and his feet, the latter of which he considers a God-given gift.
“It’s in my nature to run,” he said.
As camp opened this year, Pierre was the third-string quarterback, behind redshirt junior Thomas Sirk and redshirt sophomore Parker Boehme. But the year spent in the quarterback room won’t go to waste. He had to learn the offense, which has given him a head start on the transition to running back.
“I basically know everything at quarterback,” Pierre said. “So going to running back, it is now just focusing on one part of it, just the A position. It’s been good. I just have a few problems on protections, but, other than that, everything is going well.”
This wasn’t an idea that Cutcliffe had been bouncing around for a while — it was born out of necessity when the injuries started to pile up. The move caught others by surprise as well. But after that initial reaction, it starts to make sense.
“Yeah, it threw me off guard,” said receiver Chris Taylor, Pierre’s roommate.
“It’s funny how when we would get work in on the weekends, just me and him, we would throw the ball around and stuff – he would always be making jukes and stuff. I’m like, ‘Nico, you’re at quarterback. You’re not going to ever do that.’ So when I heard he made the switch, now he’ll be able to showcase that.”
Taylor said they would review film last week and see some of Pierre’s natural ability. On play fakes to him, he would sell it completely, hitting the hole and ending up downfield blocking a safety. He displayed that natural feel for the position Saturday in Duke’s scrimmage, too, despite having just spent a few days at the position.
“He had a no breaks type mentality — he was burying the ball when we wanted him to bury the ball,” Montgomery said. “That, for a back, you can’t teach it. You can’t go out and beg a guy to slide dive and get the ball downhill. That’s just not something that guys do if they don’t want to be a back. We’re really pleased with him.”
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Pierre has the size to be a bruising-type back. And he has had to get used to being hit in a hurry – no more green, no-contact quarterback jersey to save him from that.
“Yeah, it’s much different,” he said with a smile. “I’m a little sore. Just have to toughen it out.”
The hardest adjustment: conditioning.
“At quarterback, we don’t do much running,” he said. “It’s just, like, three steps and get the ball out. At running back, every play you basically go, go, go, go, go.”
With Jela Duncan out indefinitely with a partially torn pectoral muscle, and Joe Ajeigbe and Shaun Wilson out with lower-body injuries, Pierre is the second-string back behind Shaq Powell. The goal for the rest of camp, Montgomery said, is to mesh his natural ability and understanding of the system with the fundamentals of the position.
The potential for a great fit is there. It’s just up to Pierre to make that happen.