Duke Now

David Cutcliffe details Duke running back plan

Head coach David Cutcliffe watches the action.
Head coach David Cutcliffe watches the action. cseward@newsobserver.com

Injuries are a reality of any preseason football training camp. For Duke, they are coming in unfortunate bunches.

Coach David Cutcliffe said 16 scholarship position players missed Wednesday’s practice, a number significant enough to alter plans. The Blue Devils like to practice at a quick tempo, but as numbers dwindle and drill lines get shorter, managing a player’s rest in between reps comes into play.

The silver lining is that just one of those injuries is considered long term, albeit one to a critical player. Running back Jela Duncan, who led Duke in rushing during the 2013 regular season before serving a year-long academic suspension, has a partially torn right pectoral muscle. It won’t require a surgical fix at this point, and Cutcliffe hopes Duncan plays at some point this year.

“This one looks treatable with rehab,” Cuttcliffe said. “Jela has been incredible with his spirits as part of this healing process. Right now, there is not much rehab outside of rest initially, so he is in a sling.”

Duncan was injured Monday. Backup running back Joseph Ajeigbe also suffered a lower-leg injury that day. His is concerning and hard to pin a timetable for return on. Add those to a previous lower-body injury to running back Shaun Wilson, whom Cutcliffe expects to miss at least another week, and Duke had a numbers crisis at the position.

Senior Shaquille Powell is the only healthy scholarship back, taking what was thought to be one of the Blue Devils’ strengths and turning it into a potential liability.

“As a coach, my job is to try to find answers,” Cutcliffe said. “I looked through our entire roster, both sides of the ball.”

One name popped into Cutcliffe’s mind: third-string quarterback Nico Pierre.

Pierre has desirable traits for a running back: he is big (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), strong and fast. He was recruited as a potential quarterback of the future, but after his redshirt year and with the injury crunch, he is at least temporarily going in a different direction.

“We will see whether it’s long term or not,” Cutcliffe said of Pierre’s change. “If he doesn’t do well, it’s unfair to keep him there.”

Pierre will have plenty of opportunities to prove running back is for him, starting with a scrimmage Saturday. The scrimmage will be tightly scripted and controlled, as the Blue Devils can’t afford any more injuries. But Pierre is of the proper mindset, Cutcliffe said, as he is already gunning to beat Powell for the starting spot.

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