Duke adding zone-read elements to playbook
David Cutcliffe's quarterbacks always have to throw the ball well. Now they're being asked to run with it more often, too.
The quarterback-friendly Duke coach who turned Peyton and Eli Manning into pocket-passing Super Bowl MVPs has changed with the times. His pass-happy offense is incorporating elements of the trendy zone-read system.
The goal is to take advantage of new starting quarterback Anthony Boone's mobility and generate some production on the ground.
"We look for great passers and throwers that can also be great runners," Cutcliffe said Monday during the team's preseason media day. "We're not going to take a great runner and hope he can throw good enough."
The Blue Devils, who began preseason practice later Monday, have long been looking for ways to jump-start a ground game that has historically been one of the worst in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
They return their top six rushers from a unit that finished eighth in the league last season, averaging 125 yards, and have made improving on that a top priority.
The list of returnees includes Boone, who made one start last season in place of injured three-year starter Sean Renfree. Boone scored on a 4-yard keeper around end to give the Blue Devils their first victory over Wake Forest since 1999.
At 6-foot and 230 pounds, Boone appears to have the necessary size to withstand the hits he is sure to take from defensive linemen and linebackers when he decides to keep the ball and take off with it.
He says to expect "still a lot of big plays in the passing game" because "we're still the Duke offense, a passing offense" but with a quicker tempo and an emphasis on the run.
The zone read — in which the quarterback reads how a defensive end is playing and makes a quick decision to either hand off or keep the ball — is "kind of like, you either pull (the ball) or you give it" to the running back, Boone said.
"You just kind of have to rep it more, and the more comfortable you feel with it, the faster decisions" come, he said.
The tweaks also seem to fit with the skill set of backup quarterback Brandon Connette, a jack of all trades who has run short-yardage plays out of the wildcat formation and has played a handful of positions.
"I think it fits me perfectly," Connette said. "As a quarterback even in high school, I was more of a runner and I always liked running the ball. The zone read just puts such a stress on the defense in so many ways, especially once you get into the triple option world. ... I love that. I love running it."
Running back Jela Duncan welcomes the added workload.
He led the team with 553 yards rushing on 109 carries last season for a team that ranked seventh in the league with 439 rushing plays — an average of less than 34 per game, or less frequently than all but three other ACC schools.
"It adds more of a natural flow," Duncan said. "Running backs are the most natural position on the field. That's my opinion. When you're natural with it, cutback lanes are going to be natural, just making certain reads are going to be natural."