DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Mike Elko had a fast start in reviving Duke’s teetering program. The challenge in Year 2 is building on success while facing a schedule that will make it difficult to show gains in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Blue Devils (9-4, 5-3 ACC) nearly matched their win total (10) of the last three seasons under David Cutcliffe, whose program had faded after a lengthy run of success. Elko led the Blue Devils to their best win total in eight years while its four losses were by a combined 16 points.
There’s reason for optimism with eight offensive and defensive starters back, including rising quarterback Riley Leonard. But a schedule featuring ninth-ranked league favorite Clemson and No. 8 Florida State in a new division-less ACC along with No. 13 Notre Dame will test that.
“Everything this offseason has just been about elevation, and we didn’t come in to have one good season,” Elko said. “We didn’t come in to have one positive moment and then kind of let it all go away. We wanted to build a program. That goes over time.”
Picked to finish tied for sixth in the ACC, the Blue Devils will try to follow their win against UCF in the Military Bowl by returning to the postseason in consecutive years. The program has done that only during Cutcliffe’s run of six bowls in seven seasons from 2012-18.
“We had to build that same foundation that we built last year, and obviously an even better one to take that next step,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “The coolest part about it is our coaches do not let us get complacent. We don’t really reference last year.”
STEADY AT QB
Leonard thrived in his first year as the full-time starter.
The third-year passer joins Oregon’s Bo Nix as the only returning QBs in the Bowl Subdivision to throw for at least 20 touchdowns and run for 13-plus. Leonard has maintained a tradition since high school in which his mother bashes him a bit so he stays humble and motivated, so he should be ready for higher expectations.
“As far as offseason preparation, I’ve tried to learn how to do things instead of what to do,” Leonard said, adding: “Now we’re perfecting: how do we run this route? How do we make sure we’re protected on third down? Those sort of things are something I’ve really embraced.”
The Blue Devils have a new defensive coordinator in 35-year-old Tyler Santucci, who took over when Robb Smith left for family reasons. Santucci, who also coaches linebackers, worked with Elko at Notre Dame, Wake Forest and at Texas A&M.
“For the most part, I feel like (there’s) a lot of similar mindsets, especially with Coach Elko being a defensive-minded head coach,” said Carter, who had 11 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks last year.
Leonard (699 yards) and running back Jordan Waters (566) return after leading the team in rushing. Top receivers Jalon Calhoun (873 yards, four TDs) and Jordan Moore (656) are also back after being targeted 181 times last year, helping Duke return 98.8% of its total-offense yards from last year.
Defensively, safety Jaylen Stinson (74 tackles) is the top returning tackler after the losses of safety Darius Joiner (97) and linebacker Shaka Heyward (94).
THE STAT THAT MATTERED
Duke quickly went from being one of the nation’s worst at protecting the football to one of the best.
The Blue Devils ranked second nationally in turnover margin (plus-16) and lost the ball 10 times in Elko’s debut season. In Cutcliffe’s last two seasons, the Blue Devils were minus-26 in turnover margin, including a national-worst 39 turnovers in 2020.
The Blue Devils open with a Labor Day matchup against Clemson. The non-conference slate includes a visit from Northwestern and a trip to UConn before hosting the Fighting Irish, led by familiar opponent in Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman, on Sept. 30.
The ACC’s elimination of division means new quirks of the schedule, including the first visits in years from former cross-division foes like the Tigers (2012) and instate neighbor North Carolina State (2013). The FSU trip comes Oct. 21, while Duke closes at home against Pittsburgh on Nov. 25.