Photo: Brittain Brown
By Tom Shanahan
DURHAM, N.C. – If Duke combined the rushing yards running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown totaled last season, the Blue Devils would have boasted a 1,519-yard back with 13 touchdowns.
Any team would take that production. And it might be something Brown has a chance to aim for entering his redshirt sophomore year.
Wilson ran 162 times for 818 yards and six touchdowns as a senior; Brittain finished with 130 attempts for 701 yards and seven touchdowns. With Wilson having graduated, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Brown says he’d welcome a heavier workload to climb into rarefied air.
“I'd be fine with that,” Brown said after a spring practice at the Brooks Practice Facility. “I’m getting myself in condition for running the ball and special teams.”
The special teams comment was reference to additional work he’d accept. Duke is searching for a new kick returner to replace Wilson, who brought back 26 of Duke’s 30 kick returns. Brown returned one against North Carolina Central and has returned kicks in high school at Canton (Ga.) Cherokee.
Brown’s first varsity season after a redshirt helped the Blue Devils finish with a 7-6 record. The win over Northern Illinois in the Quicken Lanes Bowl in Detroit closed the season with three straight victories and a fifth bowl trip in six seasons. The Blue Devils are searching for production and more explosive plays to improve upon last season's 4-6 start. Duke opens 2018 against Army (10-3) at home.
“We want to score more points moving the ball down the field and speeding up the tempo,” Brown said. “We want to get the running game going as a whole going. We also want to throw -- get some deception.”
It doesn’t matter to Brown the trend in college football is away from featured backs and lightning the load of the starter. The growth of run-pass option plays at Duke and other schools is another factor. Last year Wilson, Brown and returning quarterback Daniel Jones (518 net yards after sacks are subtracted from his 767 total) became the first Duke trio with 500 or more yards in school history.
The thought of shifting more work to Brown's plate lights up the imaginations of Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper. Brown thinks as a more mature player he can handle more work and still improve his season average of 5.4 yards per carry.
“I want to have higher yards per carry, more touchdowns and more yards,” he said. “Working under Shaun, I learned about working hard every day. There are no days off. You have to take it day-by-day; you have to have that mentality. I’m the starter, but I have to solidify that position. I’m working on pass protection so I can stay in the game. I want to be an all-around back.”
If Brown improves his pass protection, he stays on the field and keeps the defense honest between a run and a pass play. He also has the potential to be a weapon to catch the ball out the backfield.
Brown caught a respectable 14 balls for 160 yards without a touchdown, but there is room for growth in this offense. Wilson was third on the team with 36 catches that were good for 263 yards and four touchdowns.
That doesn’t mean Brown isn’t willing to share the ball. The Blue Devils like the spring promise shown by sophomore Deon Jackson (6-0, 215) and redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard III (5-9, 185).
In Jackson’s brief playing time last year, he had 32 carries for 97 yards. Also returning are redshirt senior Nicodem Pierre (11 carries, 29 yards) and redshirt sophomore Elijah Deveaux (two carries, 4 yards).
“Marvin and Deon are really good,” Brown said. “Marvin is speedy guy. He’s going to be a home run hitter.”
Brown is optimistic about improving on last year’s 7-6 record that was marred by a six-game losing streak, but another component to more offensive production is contingent upon rebuilding the offensive line. The Blue Devils are replacing three graduated offense line starters: tackle Gabe Brandner, center Austin Davis and tackle Evan Lisle.
The new unit, led by returning starters Zach Harmon and Julian Santos, are led by offensive line coach Jim Bridge, who shifted from coaching the tight ends to the O-line during last year’s bowl game. Santos remains at guard, but Harmon is shifting from guard to center.
“We’re looking good so far,” Brown said. “I broke a couple of runs the past couple of days. Obviously, we’re getting used to each other and developing some chemistry. I think we’ve got a great new offensive line coach. As long as we stay with what we’re doing, we’ll be fine.”
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