Duke running back Nico Pierre could surprise many

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
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Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke Blue Devils redshirt freshman quarterback Nicodem Pierre could impress many when Duke opens its season against Tulane at Benson Field at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans, La. on Thursday.

No, he won’t be taking snaps as he was originally recruited to do, but rather taking handoffs from either Thomas Sirk or Parker Boehme, the Blue Devils’ number one and two signal callers.

Coming into camp this year, projected as the third-string quarterback, Pierre was shifted over into the running back position as a result of injuries suffered early on by three of Duke’s running backs – Jela Duncan, Shaun Wilson and Joseph Ajeigbe.

It’s a move that could hold much promise for him and his team, particularly since he didn’t see any playing time as he assumed duties the scout QB last season.

As a running back, he’ll be on the field more than he realistically would have been in taking snaps.

Head coach David Cutcliffe announced the move back on Aug. 11, and praised Pierre for embracing the move.

“I’m really proud of Nico and how he’s handled this situation,” Cutcliffe said.

“With his unselfishness and commitment to this program, he is displaying the traits of the ultimate teammate.  And I absolutely love it because it’s a great sign of the growth of our program when the young men take ownership of the organization and have the passion to contribute in any way possible.”

By the time the Blue Devils held their final scrimmage of camp last Sunday, it was Pierre who claimed one of only two touchdowns scored throughout.

“I see myself helping my team, putting them in the best position to win,” Pierre said afterwards.

“After getting many reps in the backfield, I feel more natural (in the position) and getting used to it. It’s felt really good so far.”

Is the six-foot-two-inch, 220-pounder where Cutcliffe needs him to be as the team’s season-opening game approaches?

He’s closer, and both the coach and player are on the same page of what Pierre needs to do to become a ‘bull in a china shop’ form of running back that could catch opposing defenses off-guard.

“Nico ran the football well,” Cutcliffe said after the scrimmage.

“He’s a physically tough competitor. He’s still learning; he’s gonna continue to learn. If I can get him a little bit lower, he’s not gonna be fun to tackle. He’s now about 220, he’s fast, he’s a strong individual, so I think he can certainly help us at running back.”

There’s no scouting report on him at all in college, and he’s a year beyond coming out of Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, Fla., as ESPN’s 14th-ranked dual-threat quarterback who finished his high school career scoring almost half as many times running the ball (20 TDs) as he did throwing (48 TDs).

To Pierre, the move is not a major change in executing with his ability, but rather one of focusing on what he does in the position.

“Being a dual-threat quarterback in high school, I did a lot of running,” he said.

“Now it’s just a bit different because I’m runnin’ through the tackles. That’s why I don’t really care that it’s much different because I’m still in the backfield. It’s just a bit different in that I’m not makin’ quarterback reads. I’m actually lookin’ up cuts and goin’ off my O-lineman’s back, seein’ which way their butt is to make that cut in to get a big play or not.”

Sirk is confident Pierre can fill the role effectively when called in to do so.

“He knows the offense so well, he’s been here long enough now that he can come in and execute the running back position,” Sirk said.

“He’s a natural runner. He has natural abilities to find the hole, and if there’s not a hole, he crams it in there. He does such a great job, just like the other backs like Shaquille (Powell), Shaun Wilson, and Joe (Ajeigbe).”

Thus, even if with a position change, how will opposing defenses prepare for Duke with Pierre in the backfield?

It could be an easy read, or one that comes out of nowhere and adds a new element and dimension to Duke’s offense that associate head coach and offensive coordinator Scotty Montgomery puts together.

One that will help Cutcliffe, his staff, and the Blue Devils to work to maintain the standard of winning at least nine games for a third consecutive season.

“He’s a diverse player,” Sirk said.

“So we have the ability, whatever coach Montgomery draws up in the offensive room, I think that Nico will be able to help our offense in several ways. I think that we could see some trick plays with him, but there’s no tellin’ what we’ll draw up. Right now, he’s doin’ such a great job of what he’s doin’ at back.”

With opening kickoff approaching in the Big Easy, the Blue Devils will have as many bodies available as possible to deal with playing a night game in high heat and humidity – elements they practiced in throughout camp.

The running game is critical to Duke’s success, so Pierre wants to answer the call and finally make his first on-field contribution for the Blue Devils.

The unknown is how many opportunities Pierre will get to handle and advance the ball for Duke, and how effective he will be doing it.

The results could be very surprising – or not.

Regardless, what is known is that Pierre is ready, and Thursday’s game against the Green Wave can’t come soon enough.

“I’m really pumped, I’m really pumped,” Pierre said with a smile.

“I’m ready to get to Tulane, handle our business, and come back home with a W.”