At Indian River High School (Philadelphia, N.Y), Curtis Dukes could often let his large frame – he's now listed at about 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds – and strength do a lot of the work for him. Dukes dominated his way into the end zone 16 times during his senior year, rushing for 1,168 yards on just 87 carries (13.4 yards per carry) in the process.
But when he arrived at Penn State two years ago, he learned there was more to his job description. He had to pass block, too.
“He's never done any of that,” coach Joe Paterno said this week. “Came out of high school, a small high school, and a very dominant football player. He's just got to spend a little more time worried about his technique blocking. He's got good hands, but he doesn't quite understand timing on passing and things like that. But he's got a chance to be really good.”
When Brandon Beachum went out with a sprained right foot on Sept. 20, Curtis Dukes (Evan Mills, N.Y.) got his shot as the offense's secondary option at running back behind starter Silas Redd.
Dukes, a power back to supplement Redd’s speed and elusiveness, capitalized on his opportunity. He has rushed for 145 yards on 21 carries (6.9 yards per carry) in the last three games with his best performance – nine carries for 60 yards – coming in Penn State’s 13-3 win over Iowa on Saturday.
Dukes said he lost weight over the summer and now feels faster. At one point, he was up to 240 pounds but is now around 235, he said.
Despite his recent success on the ground, his pass-blocking remains a work in progress. Dukes, who grew up admiring running backs Larry Johnson, Earl Campbell and Emmitt Smith, said he needs to learn to use his hands more and keep his balance.
“(Pass-blocking is) one of the issues I’m dealing with, learning how to pick up blitzes and learning what type of defense you’re dealing with,” Dukes said. “Another is, me being 6-1, adjusting my height, learning to lower my shoulder more and keep my legs driving. So with me lowering my shoulders, a lot of the defenders don’t want to tackle you. So by me doing that, it makes my running game a lot easier for me.”
Dukes said wide receivers coach Mike McQueary told him his playing style reminds him of former Penn State running back Curtis Enis. Dukes got the opportunity to meet Enis during Penn State’s 16-10 win at Indiana on Oct. 1. Enis spent time on the Nittany Lions’ sideline, giving pointers to players during the game.
He told Dukes “just to really be patient and to set up my blocks and make the right reads and hit the hole hard,” the redshirt sophomore recalled. “When we were playing Indiana, Indiana was doing a pretty good job with the run game. I had a tendency of just rushing and not waiting for my blockers. When I came out, (Enis) told me to just be patient and the holes are going to open up. All you’ve got to do is be patient and stay focused and keep your legs driving.”
Dukes' workload on Saturday against Purdue might not be as heavy as it has been. Beachum, a junior, is set to be available to return against Purdue on Saturday and senior Stephfon Green's return to the field last week against Iowa gives Penn State even more options. It will be interesting to see how carries are split with such a crowded backfield behind Redd.
Dukes said he was running with the second- and third-team offenses in practice this week. Beachum (6-foot, 230 pounds) is smaller than Dukes, but is also a downhill runner and a more experienced pass blocker.
“(Paterno) gets on me about the blocking and stuff, and personally I don’t get mad at him about that because I know personally that I need to work on my blocking,” Dukes said. “But I am improving. He would note that I am improving in my blocking.”