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Penn State football: Dukes’ return sparked by ‘Thursdays with O”Brien’

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Forget about “Tuesdays With Morrie.” For Curtis Dukes, with his college career in the balance, it was “Thursdays With OB.”

Every Thursday last spring, Dukes walked across the Penn State campus to the football offices for a standing appointment.

The meeting wasn’t about football. The super-sized Penn State tailback was taking the semester off from the playing field.

“I was struggling in school,” said the crime, law and justice major from Indian River High School. “I realized I couldn’t do football and studying.

“So I told Coach (Bill) O’Brien that I really needed to take myself out of spring and get myself together before I could continue this football thing. It was my decision. He was fine with that – 100 percent.”

Dukes’ Thursday meetings weren’t with tutors, either. Once a week, he headed over to Lasch Building on the east end of campus to check in with O’Brien. Once inside, Dukes walked up a flight of stairs, headed past the receptionist’s desk and made his way into O’Brien’s office. Prior to the arrival of the new head coach, it was a place he said he had never visited as an undergrad.

Until last spring, that is, when the weekly get-together was an integral part of his football-free routine. Dukes would pull up a chair, sit only inches away from O’Brien’s desk and pour out his heart.

For an entire semester, the two met every week like clockwork for 15 or so minutes. Football never came up.

“All we talked about in the spring was academics,” Dukes said last week. “No football, no nothing like that. He wanted to know what was going on with me. That’s why I have so much respect for him. He was there for me when I was struggling. That’s the type of person he is.”

Now, with his grades in order, Dukes hopes he can return the favor – especially since Penn State must replace the 1,241 yards Silas Redd took with him when the tailback transferred to USC.

“I need to do my part,” said the soft-spoken, plain-speaking Dukes. “I need to take on some leadership, step up and be an example for the younger guys.”

Although converted receiver Bill Belton is set as the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 tailback, Dukes is the squad’s top returning rusher. He carried 41 times for 237 yards in 2011, behind Redd and the departed Stephfon Green (266 yards).

Dukes will battle a trio of players for carries behind Belton in 2012. They are freshman Akeel Lynch, who ran for 2,131 yards and 25 touchdowns for St. Francis in western New York last fall; steady senior Derek Day, who ran seven times for 11 yards last season; and bulky sophomore Zach Zwinak.

Dukes is a stud — and not only the diamond ones he wears in each ear. He’s 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, taut and high-waisted. He covers the 40 in 4.5 seconds and has explosive quickness, as he displayed last season.

Of his 41 carries in 2011, 10 were for nine yards or more, including runs of 15, 18, 29 and 30 yards. He minimized his losses, too, with just four of his carries going for negative yardage. Overall, Dukes averaged 5.8 yards per carry – the best mark for a regular since Evan Royster’s 6.5-yard average in 2008.

Dukes’ playing time won’t just be predicated on running the ball. O’Brien’s new offense, Dukes said, places myriad responsibilities on the running backs.

“I really like the new offense. It’s much more intense than last year’s,” Dukes said. “There’s a lot to learn and not just about running the ball. You have to learn to pick up blitzes, know your protections, know who’s coming and what type of defense they’re in.”

Those are challenges faced especially by Dukes, said running backs coach Charles London. “A lot of this is kind of new for Curtis. Since he missed spring, summer drills are like his spring practice.”

Still, O’Brien is heartened to see his spring-time Thursday companion somewhere else other than his office.

“When I first went out on the practice field,” Dukes said, “Coach O’Brien told me, ‘It’s great to see you in pads.’ ’

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