Newsflash: Duke, short on bodies in the backfield due to injuries, moved its backup quarterback to running back. The positions listed for Nicodem Pierre on the roster now reads, “QB/RB.”
Duke’s first test of its emergency backfield will be a Saturday night scrimmage in preparation for the season opener September 3 at Tulane.
If you think a quarterback switching to running back is an example of the Blue Devils’ emphasis on recruiting talent to spread the field and for a wide-open passing game at the expense of running backs, you don’t know Duke football under eighth-year head coach David Cutcliffe.
Yes, Cutcliffe is known as a quarterback guru, and among his proteges that visiting him in the offseason are the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli. But Cutcliffe, 60, also has been around the game many years. He wants to establish the run to set up the pass. That’s how Duke football won 19 games and an ACC Coastal Division title in the past two years.
“I’ve always been considered a quarterback guy,” Cutcliffe said during ACC Media Days. “But I tell any young coach that wants to coach quarterbacks at a high level, you better maintain the ability to run the football. It’s something that we couldn’t do very well when we first arrived at Duke. I knew if we were going to be relevant in our league, we had to close that gap. Hopefully we’ve closed it some, but not near what we hope to do.”
A rash of injuries the first week of fall camp practices forced Cutcliffe into approaching Pierre about the move to running back. Duke was expected to emphasize the run while rotating a stable of fresh running backs to help redshirt junior Thomas Sirk adapt to his new role as the starting quarterback.
The backfield listed returning senior starting Shaquille Powell, the team’s leading rusher last year with 618 yards (4.6 per carry); sophomore Shaun Wilson, 598 yards (7.7); junior Jela Duncan, second on the team in 2013 (562 yards, 5.0) but ineligible last year; and sophomore Joseph Ajeigbe (150, 3.7).
But then the injury bug hit.
The Blue Devils lost Duncan with a torn right pectoral muscle. He’s gone for a lengthy period, while Wilson and Ajeigbe are unable to practice. They are both nursing lower body injuries.
Cutcliffe and Powell praised Pierre for his willingness to switch positions. With Sirk the starter and sophomore Parker Boehme No. 2, Pierre otherwise would be using this year to groom for the future.
“I think individually for Nico it shows he’s competitor and a team player,” Powell said. “He wants to help the team and he wants to compete for playing time. We rotate three running backs into the game and quarterback is just one. That shows me he wants to get out there and do whatever is best for the team.”
Pierre, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Miami Coral Reef, downplayed the move.
“That’s a brotherhood,” he said. “We stick together. We know all four or all five of us have to put the team in the best position to win.”
Pierre praised Powell for taking on a tutoring role.
“As a quarterback, you know what guys are doing but not having to do it is a different thing,” Pierre said. “He’s teaching the techniques; the way I’m supposed to run a route as far as running 5 yards and turning around. You have to see it quick to play faster.”
Running backs need an edge of toughness that many quarterbacks and wide receivers lack for the position, but Powell says Pierre has that nasty edge in him.
“The thing about Nico is he’s a natural runner,” Powell said. “He can pass the ball, but he’s also a scrambler. He has natural ability to run and to keep the ball high and tight. There are technical things to work on plays and footwork. But it’s there for him. He can get low, he’s heavy and he can run through tackles. So I think he fits perfectly.”
Cutcliffe said adjusting to injuries is part of a football season. He could have added running the ball is part of Duke football.
“We’re a team that likes to run the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “We think we’re best when we run the football. You ask any lineman and they want to run the ball.”