New look, new coach, new mindset.
After a difficult 2021 season that saw then-head coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils finish winless in conference play, Duke's program has been overhauled in the past few months.
Thursday afternoon’s ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, including a 30-minute press conference with head coach Mike Elko, defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, linebacker Shaka Heyward and offensive lineman Jacob Monk, gave a first glimpse at what said changes may look like as the Durham outfit looks to rebuild.
Key to this transformation—and any transformation, really—is something that was reiterated extensively Thursday: culture.
“Everyone says culture, but I just think you want to establish how you want your program to run, how you want your kids to act, how you want them to play.... We're trying to build a house that's going to last for a really long time here at Duke," Elko said.
Part of that comes with the coach, of course, but more of it comes from a shift in the mentality of the locker room. The three players on stage with Elko at the presser (Carter, Heyward and Monk) are evidently key cogs in this new Duke machine, with their experience and preseason leadership impressive to their new coach.
“I think these three guys on the stage with me kind of represent our entire program,” Elko said. “We've asked them to do a lot of different things, not necessarily better or worse, just different. I think they've jumped at the opportunity, really had a lot of fun with what we were trying to do and have just kind of bought into the fact that we're going to try to get this program as successful as we can be as quick as we can.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Elko’s veterans.
“The biggest thing and worry for me, being a vet in the program now, was how the transition was gonna go,” Carter said. “It's been very smooth. We've laid a good foundation, and most importantly, the best positive change is it's really like a player and coach relationship [and] partnership.”
“There's been a high placement on competition right now,” Monk added. “There's rewards for winning. There's consequences for losing. And we're just learning how to love to win and hate to lose right now.”
On the tactical side, it’s clear that Elko and his team are looking to shore up a previously leaky defense, protect against turnovers and amp up Duke’s recruiting network in addition to the more subtle changes in team culture.
Though the Blue Devils excelled in the rushing game last fall—largely due to the herculean efforts of new Steelers signee Mataeo Durant—part of their difficulty in stringing together consistent and effective offense came from turnovers. Duke lost twice as many fumbles as its opponents last season, despite gaining just 209 fewer rushing yards, three fewer rushing first downs and four fewer rushing touchdowns. On average, the Blue Devils surrendered 0.6 more turnovers than their opponents per game.
“If you look at the history of Duke football, the last time we had a positive turnover margin was 2014.... I think we've done a lot to try to get our kids educated on not only how important it is, but also how they happen and how we can create them,” Elko said. “I think turnovers, if you look year in and year out are the single biggest factor in wins and losses.”
On the positive side, Carter led the ACC in forced fumbles last season, followed closely by fellow defenders R.J. Oben and Lummie Young IV in ties for second and sixth, respectively. Though Young has departed, there is clearly potential and talent in utilizing turnovers as a weapon on the defensive end.
“It does come down to the players,” Heyward said. “We're willing to do it and obviously we're bonded to the program [and] what [Elko is] teaching us day in and day out. So we're excited.”
Elko additionally stressed the importance of strengthening Duke’s recruiting. Turning the weapons a team has into a coach’s mold is obviously integral to reshaping a program, but so is bringing in new talent that fits the bill.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of our program and I think as we've transitioned into the modern era of college football, especially at a school like Duke, we're trying to recruit national,” Elko said. “We're trying to get ourselves marketed all over the country, and you kind of need somebody in your office.”
This will undoubtedly be helped by the Blue Devils’ new recruiting general manager Derek Miller, who has assumed the responsibility of overseeing recruitment after his hiring from East Carolina in January.
Even with recruits on the horizon, this Duke team is still in the infancy of the Elko era.
“We're kind of all freshmen in the sense that it's a new program, it's a new campus [and a] new style of play,” said Carter. “It's a new defense, new scheme. We're all learning together.”
For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.