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Belk Bowl: Duke vs. Cincinnati 6:30 p.m., Thursday, ESPN

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Scott: Better to receive than to run

Duke running back volunteers to switch positions as a senior

DURHAM Last spring, Desmond Scott came to the coaching staff with an idea: why doesn’t he start working as a wide receiver?

That a rising senior who had started 19 games at running back and rushed for more yards than anyone else on Duke’s current roster was volunteering to switch positions didn’t shock the coaching staff. Scott had proven to be a selfless guy over the years, and he saw an opportunity to fill a void.

“We knew that we were going to be limited in numbers at wide receiver,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “So we said, ‘OK, who is a logical guy that creates some depth if we need to do that?’ ”

What started as a backup, just-in-case scenario proved to be a necessity when Blair Holliday was critically injured in a July 4 jet ski crash. Scott moved into the slot receiver position, and he caught 61 passes for 606 yards as Duke (6-6) had its most successful offensive season of the David Cutcliffe era.

The Blue Devils set new highs for total offensive plays (902), yards (4,778) rushing yards (1,442) and points per game (31.3). And Duke still has one more game left, the Belk Bowl on Thursday against Cincinnati (6:30 p.m., ESPN).

Scott is just one of several Blue Devils who had to make quick adjustments on offense that were vital to the team’s success. But thanks to the philosophy of the offensive coaches, the unexpected changes were more manageable.

“As a college football team, you better practice multiple guys because they’re going to graduate,” Roper said. “So it’s our philosophy, we really cut the practice reps 50-50, our 1s and our 2s go 50-50. That gets them prepared mentally to go play a game. They usually aren’t as ready physically and they think they’re going to be. But those reps get them better.”

So after Holliday, a projected starter at wide receiver, suffered life-threatening head injuries that put the focus solely on his survival, Roper called his quarterback, Sean Renfree, and told him to get Scott ready to play receiver in the month before Duke began preseason camp.

“That month was critical with his development this year,” Roper said of Scott. “And Sean knows our offense so well that we couldn’t have done it without Sean. We could not have done it without Sean Renfree.

“The summertime is the players’ time. We can’t work with them, so Sean was the coach.”

Scott shifted to the slot position, and Jamison Crowder, the projected starter at the slot, moved to the outside. Roper opted to have both outside receivers, Crowder and Conner Vernon, play both the X and the Z positions.

That meant Vernon always lined up on the left side of the field and Crowder on the right, and while defenders knew where they would start, they had no idea which position or what type of route each was executing.

“Sometimes you would confuse stuff because there would be times you would zone out and forget what you’re on and might run the wrong route and stuff like that,” said Vernon, who set new ACC records for career catches and receiving yards this year.

Duke was the only school in the country with three receivers (Vernon, Crowder and Scott) who each caught at least 60 passes.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley
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