Duke Now

Duke’s backfield in motion after Duncan’s injury

Duke running back Jela Duncan (25) breaks away from the Memphis defense for a long second quarter run at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Saturday Sept. 22, 2012.
Duke running back Jela Duncan (25) breaks away from the Memphis defense for a long second quarter run at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Saturday Sept. 22, 2012. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke was so satisfied with its stable of running backs that the Blue Devils didn’t sign one as part of their most recent recruiting class.

Now that group is as thin as any position on the roster with reinforcements coming from other positions.

Junior Jela Duncan, who is returning from a year-long academic suspension and was expected to be a major contributor, is out indefinitely after partially tearing his right pectoral muscle during Monday morning’s practice. Coach David Cutcliffe said two other running backs, redshirt sophomore Joseph Ajeigbe and sophomore Shaun Wilson, are dealing with lower-body injuries and not participating in contact drills.

That leaves one healthy scholarship running back, senior Shaquille Powell, who is listed as the starter.

“Just when you feel comfortable with four experienced running backs on the depth chart, three of them are in the training room,” Cutcliffe said in a statement. “Jela’s injury is obviously disappointing because we know how hard he’s worked to get back into the thick of things following the two shoulder surgeries. Joe and Shaun aren’t available right now, but neither appears to be out long term.”

The Blue Devils have a solution: third-string quarterback Nico Pierre will transition to running back.

Pierre was an ESPN top 300 recruit when he committed to Duke to be the primary quarterback for the class of 2014 class. However, he fell out of the ESPN rankings by the end of his senior year in high school and was unable to jump redshirt junior Thomas Sirk or redshirt sophomore Parker Boehme on the depth chart.

Injuries create opportunities for others. While it is never easy to replace a starter, we’re certainly confident in the depth we’ve established.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Pierre has the size to take the pounding at running back, and he will get plenty of reps with so many others sidelined.

“I’m really proud of Nico and how he’s handled this situation,” Cutcliffe said. “With his unselfishness and commitment to this program, he is displaying the traits of the ultimate teammate.”

Duncan had sustained his fair share of injuries throughout his career. After leading the Blue Devils in rushing with 562 yards during the 2013 regular season, he had surgery on both shoulders while he sat out in 2014. Cutcliffe had spoken earlier in camp about how good it was to see Duncan finally back to full strength.

The defense hasn’t been immune to injuries, either. Linebacker Kelby Brown’s torn ACL in July was the most significant, and Cutcliffe also announced that starting cornerback Bryon Fields will miss extended time with a lower-body injury. Fields does have a capable backup, sophomore Alonzo Saxton II, who played in eight games as a freshman.

“Injuries create opportunities for others,” Cutcliffe said. “While it is never easy to replace a starter, we’re certainly confident in the depth we’ve established. The bottom line is that our young guys have to be ready for the challenge when their number is called.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley

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