For much of the offseason Duke coach David Cutcliffe was counting on depth at running back to be a key strength for a Blue Devils team trying to remain one of the top contenders in the ACC Coastal Division.
But three of the Devils’ top four backs have gone down with injuries in the opening weeks of practice, wiping away visions of an unrelenting ground game with a fresh ball carrier constantly rotating in. But fortunately for Cutcliffe and Duke, the running back who remains is also one of the ACC’s best.
So with new starters at quarterback and two wide receiver spots, there’s a good chance the Blue Devils still rely on the running game, but senior Shaquille Powell is going to have to be a workhorse.
Powell led Duke in rushing a year ago, racking up 618 yards on 134 carries, but both those numbers must go up if the Blue Devils are going to continue their recent success.
Jela Duncan, Duke’s leading rusher in 2013, was expected to be a major contributor coming off academic suspension, but is out indefinitely with a partially torn pectoral muscle. Joe Ajeigbe and Shaun Wilson are out with lower-body injuries.
So now Powell’s primary backup is a player who wasn’t even on the depth chart at running back a few weeks ago.
Redshirt freshman Nicodem Pierre is shifting from quarterback to running back and could get significant carries right away.
But really, the burden falls to Powell, who lost his 7-year-old brother to cancer this summer and spent two months with family in Las Vegas, but returned to Durham ready for the challenge.
He’ll get an opportunity to show his stuff when Duke opens the season Thursday, Sept. 3, at Tulane. The Blue Devils, unsurprisingly, have been a passing-game oriented team since Cutcliffe took over the program. The man who helped groom the Mannings has taken Duke to three straight bowl games and the Blue Devils have had a 2,000-yard passer in each of those years even with Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette splitting time in 2013.
But the Devils haven’t come close to having a 1,000-yard rusher in that time. Perhaps this is the year that changes. Tight end Braxton Deaver and wide receiver Max McCaffrey are the most experienced receiving targets coming back for quarterback Thomas Sirk, who did well when he got an opportunity last season, but threw only 14 passes in 2014.
So Powell enters the season as perhaps the most reliable option for Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils offense. Duke will have to figure it out early. After Tulane, the Devils face cross-town foe North Carolina Central then Northwestern before a Sept. 26 matchup with Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils were the top two teams in the Coastal Division last year and both have aspirations to be at or near the top again. That means Duke’s odds of getting back to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2013 will either increase dramatically or take a huge hit before the season even enters its second month.
There’s no telling if any of the injured backs will be back or how well SIrk will have settled in at quarterback by then.
It could very well be the Shaquille Powell Show.