In a year overflowing with star QBs, a Duke running back may be the ACC’s best player

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The time came early last Saturday for Duke coach David Cutcliffe to do what he’s become most comfortable doing this season. The Blue Devils had the ball on Northwestern’s 11-yard line on their first possession, trying to strike first, pushed to 3rd down after two plays went nowhere.

Three games in, Duke went to what’s worked best so far: When in doubt, get the ball in Mataeo Durant’s hands. The running back took a swing pass along the left sideline, saw his path cleared by a pancake block by Graham Barton and waltzed into the end zone for his seventh touchdown of the year.

“Mataeo’s a special player,” Cutcliffe said. “You always think players, rather than plays. Players need to be put into that position. That swing screen to Mataeo down there, he did the rest of it.”

Durant added an eighth TD on a 21-yard run later on Duke’s next possession as the Blue Devils took control of the game and held on for a 30-23 win despite two Durant fumbles, really the only blemish on his season so far, one that’s seen him average more than 133 yards per game on the ground in addition to his frequent forays across the goal line.

And they are frequent.

Durant is scoring a touchdown every 10.5 minutes the Blue Devils have the ball. If Duke ends up with the same time of possession it had in 2019, that’s a 33-touchdown pace, shattering the ACC single-season record.

ACC records, honors in reach?

Durant may get even more chances this week against Kansas, a 15-point underdog that has allowed 10 rushing touchdowns while beating South Dakota and losing to Coastal Carolina and Baylor. And while 33 touchdowns may quickly become out of reach as the quality of opposition increases -- six of Durant’s eight touchdowns so far came against Charlotte and North Carolina A&T -- his provocative role as a designated red-zone threat in Duke’s offense raises an equally provocative question.

How many touchdowns would it take, in a season when the ACC is overloaded with star quarterbacks, for Durant -- a first-team all-ACC preseason pick -- to be seriously considered for ACC player of the year honors?

How Duke fares will have a lot to say about that, and it’s hard to figure the Blue Devils -- 0-1 against Conference USA, 1-0 against the Big Ten -- at this point. But even if the Blue Devils struggle, there is some precedent.

In the expansion era, there have been three non-quarterback players of the year who didn’t play for a division champion. James Conner was the last, running for more than 1,700 yards and setting the ACC single-season touchdown record with 26 -- since tied by Clemson’s Travis Etienne -- as a sophomore for a Pittsburgh team that went 4-4 in the ACC in 2014.

Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer in 2008 and Wake Forest’s Chris Barclay in 2005 also fit that description, but without Conner’s gaudy numbers, both benefiting from shallow pools of candidates in those seasons. That certainly isn’t the case this season.

The best comparison, if Durant continues to pile up touchdowns, might be in basketball. In 2013, Virginia Tech was very bad but Erick Green was very good. The guard averaged 25.0 points per game and led the ACC in scoring by a wide margin, leading to a robust debate over whether a high-volume scorer on a 4-14 team was a better choice than the best player on the league’s best team, Miami point guard Shane Larkin.

Larkin was unquestionably more talented but Green far more productive; the media voted for Green, the coaches for Larkin. Larkin went 18th overall, Green 46th.

NFL scouts aren’t salivating over Durant the way they are Sam Howell or some of the ACC’s other quarterbacks, but there’s a point where -- as with Green -- Durant’s production may become too prodigious to ignore, whether the Blue Devils are winning or not.

Not Duke’s first red-zone specialist

And even if his pace slows, his role doesn’t figure to change. Durant is sitting at the confluence of team and personal trends that all point to an increased red-zone workload, if anything. He’s fully healthy after shoulder surgery, and while Cutcliffe typically likes to rotate backs, there isn’t an obvious candidate with Deon Jackson gone.

The job is Durant’s, and Durant’s alone.

“You always want to get the ball in those pivotal positions,” Durant said. “I promise I’m trying to take advantage of those red-zone possessions. When I get the ball I’m just trying to make the most of those opportunities.”

Cutcliffe has used a Designated Touchdown Scorer before. Brandon Connette, nominally a quarterback, tied the school record for rushing touchdowns with 14 in 2013 lining up as a wildcat QB, running back and wide receiver in red-zone and short-yardage situations. Over two seasons, in 2012 and 2013, Connette ran for 22 touchdowns, caught one more and threw 16.

Durant doesn’t offer that passing threat -- so far, anyway -- and Duke is grooming freshman quarterback Jordan Moore for that role. But for the moment, when the Blue Devils get close to the goal line, they’re making a concerted attempt to get Durant the ball.

“I’m going to pray that he stays healthy,” Cutcliffe said, “and see what a season can turn out to be like for him.”

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