DURHAM – Duke offensive tackle Gabe Brandner noticed that Nicodem Pierre has been in the training room a lot lately.
During preseason camp the training room is not an uncommon hang out for football players, especially in the second week when practices are full contact. However, it is rare to see quarterbacks in there taking care of bumps and bruises, especially since they typically don’t get hit in practice.
Pierre no longer has that luxury.
The redshirt freshman came to Duke a quarterback, but because the running backs’ room has turned into a M.A.S.H. unit, Pierre was asked by Blue Devils’ head coach David Cutcliffe to make the switch to running back. In two weeks of practice, Duke has seen Jela Duncan, Shaun Wilson and Joseph Ajeigbe all sidelined due to injuries. Cutcliffe was down to one scholarship running back – senior Shaquille Powell – and a couple of walk-ons. He needed an able body to back up Powell, at least through preseason camp, and one name came to mind: Pierre.
On the Blue Devils preseason depth chart, Pierre, a native of Miami, Fla. was listed as the No. 3 quarterback. Cutcliffe said Pierre was the first person to come to mind when he needed a fill-in, and the 6-2, 210 Pierre jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s a chance for me to be a playmaker for the team,” Pierre said Friday morning.
Pierre is an unknown to Duke fans. His main duty in 2014 was the primary scout team quarterback. Coming out of Coral Reef High School, Pierre was the No. 14 dual-threat quarterback in the nation, ending his prep career with 4,284 passing yards and 68 touchdowns.
Even though he hasn’t taken any full contact since his senior season of high school, his teammates pointed out Pierre has a physical running style. Pierre hasn’t been a running back since his Pop-Warner days, but added, obviously, “that’s completely different to the collegiate level.”
He has just been a running back for three days, noting he still has some problems with the protections, and has, for the time being, skipped the quarterback meetings for the running backs room. It’s too early to tell if this is a permanent move, but when Duke holds its first scrimmage on Saturday, Pierre will get plenty of work behind the starting offensive line. To the big guys up front, each back has a different style they have to adjust to, but their objective remains the same.
“To be honest, we just do our job,” Brandner said. “We block any play how it’s supposed to be block.”
One of their newest assignments has been to answer any questions Pierre has about the offense. According to Brandner, it’s common for running backs and linemen to communicate on the sidelines what each other sees on the field. He said Pierre has been an inquisitive pupil this week.
“He’s doing a great job adjusting to his new position,” Brandner said. “Obviously he’s asking questions all the time, really trying to pick up the position. We’re really proud of him. He’s been in the training room a bit more, icing down. Switching from quarterback he’s getting bruised up, but he’s doing a good job.”
Pierre’s roommate, wide receiver Chris Taylor, said it’s been fun to watch Pierre run the football. Starting tight end Braxton Deaver said Pierre is a “true athlete and great runner” pointing out it should be an easy transition.
When he first heard three running backs were down, Pierre’s first reaction was “whoa, geez.” Shortly after, he was summoned to Cutcliffe’s office, where the idea of him was first put on the table. After a couple of hours to think it over, Pierre accepted, and was thrust into his new position.
He said the hardest part – aside from the full contact – is the conditioning. A quarterback, more or less, hands the ball off and watches the backs do the work. Now, as the back, Pierre has to have his body ready to break off a long run. Pierre said it’s in his nature to run, a “God giving gift,” so he is not making a big deal out of the switch. He looks at is a way to get on the field, for the greater good of the team. And his teammates have noticed.
“It definitely motivates us,” cornerback Alonzo Saxton II said. “The whole team is selfless, the fact that he can do that, it definitely impacts us in a positive way.”