Coaches: hired. Captains: elected. Fall camp: underway.
Head coach Mike Elko and the Blue Devils took the field at the Brooks Practice Facility for the first time this year Tuesday evening with fall camp running through the month of August. Donning nameless blue and white practice jerseys, this year’s Duke team is beginning to take shape. With close to an all-new coaching staff, players from freshmen to graduates are feeling out in earnest what the upcoming year—and Elko’s tenure—may look like.
In the first few days of practice, with Friday’s the first held in the morning, players and coaches alike have been excited to get to work. It’s unlikely anyone is more excited for the next couple of weeks than Elko, who walked into his first press conference of the new season with the same energy he has brought to the program since day one.
“It must be football season,” he exclaimed with a grin.
Culture has been the theme so far since Elko’s arrival last December following the dismal final season under head coach David Cutcliffe. Speaking after the first practice, junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said, “we left everything in the past.”
“It’s a whole new mindset,” the recently-elected team captain added.
With difficult decisions looming—none bigger than deciding the still up-in-the-air quarterback job—for now, Elko gets to relish his first few weeks as a head coach of a collegiate program.
“I've been really blessed with this group. I think this group has bought into our messaging, they bought into what we're trying to do, how we want to do things. So there's been a lot of change from them,” the first-year head coach said. “We still have a ways to go—details and fundamentals and those types of things—but I come to work and come to practice every day excited to be around these guys.”
That excitement to get on the field, Elko says, has helped the team push further along in their practice regimen. And part of providing that energy is the responsibility of Elko and his staff.
“We just tried to pump energy back into it. You just demand a certain level of excitement. You carry yourself as coaches with a certain level of energy and excitement. You hope that all rubs off,” he said Friday.
Following the Blue Devils’ nine-loss season in which they went winless in the ACC, it seemed all too easy to lose that energy, but the 45-year-old Elko thinks he can re-instill that fervor in his players.
In the practices so far, players on the sidelines can be seen jumping and cheering on their teammates after a big play—be it an interception, a long completion or a broken tackle. The energy is there, even in the scorching August heat that transforms the practice field, tucked behind the scoreboard of Wallace Wade Stadium, into a sauna.
“If you go out there and you play 25 games before the opener then you are ready for the first game,” Elko said, praising his team’s hunger for game-like competition.
However, as the head coach and no longer a defensive coordinator—a post that Elko held for the last 16 seasons—he gets to see “all the bad” in those big plays. A poor throw, blown coverage or a missed tackle, Elko sees it all. Luckily for him, there’s still time to work.
For Elko and the team, he says roles and positional battles have all started with a blank slate, whether it’s true freshmen or experienced leaders. To help develop the roster—and determine who will line up come Sept. 2, the coaching staff has a detailed plan for every practice with a clear objective and specific goals for each role.
Regarding the quarterback situation, both sophomores Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore have taken starter reps, and Elko suggested Friday that the battle for the starting job was solely between those two—unsurprisingly the only two quarterbacks on the roster to have taken a snap in a Blue Devil uniform.
“We've [given starter reps] pretty much as evenly as we can to give them both the same opportunity to kind of see how this thing plays out,” Elko said.
As several other position battles take shape, veteran leaders establish their presence on and off the field and Elko’s coaching staff continues to develop relationships with the players, we’ll see this group of young men become a team.
But for now, the Xs and Os are scrubbed clean, primed for a fresh start.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.