5 things to know before Duke football's season opener Friday against Temple

Veteran linebacker Shaka Heyward will be a key part of Duke's efforts against Temple.
Veteran linebacker Shaka Heyward will be a key part of Duke's efforts against Temple.

It has been back-to-back seasons of three or less wins for Duke with only one combined ACC victory. So things had to be shaken up, and shaken up they were. Now, a new era has begun and Friday night will be the Blue Devils' first step toward crawling out of rock bottom. 

Fittingly, Duke's first opponent will be Temple, an American Athletic Conference team in very similar shoes. This may propel one of them to move in the right direction, while the other will fall right back into a pit of disappointment.

Familiar foes

This will not be the first time that Duke has matched up against this opponent from the AAC. This is their first regular season bout, but these two teams also met back in 2018, the last time that Duke appeared in a bowl game and had a winning season. But the Blue Devils did not just “appear,” they dominated. Duke destroyed an 8-4 Temple team 56-27 and earned an impressive 8-5 finish itself. 

However, it would be a far cry to say that either team is at the level it was back then. Duke has been an ACC bottom-feeder ever since and Temple has won just four games in the past two years. This throwback to their glory days will be an opportunity for one of these teams to start heading back in the right direction. Maybe Duke can repeat history and use that to relight its fire from 2018.

The quarterback battle

After 2021 starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg entered the transfer portal, it was time for a new name to shine under center at Duke. It quickly became a two-man race for QB1 between sophomores Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore, with the question of who would come out on top becoming one of the Blue Devils' biggest questions during the offseason. But, once the dust settled, Duke had its answer. Leonard was named the starting quarterback Sunday, and it seems to be a choice that head coach Mike Elko is very comfortable with.

"I thought he stepped up this camp and had a really good camp throwing the football," Elko said at his Monday press conference. "I told our team this the other day, Riley won the job … we really feel like Riley stepped up and won the job."

Now, the question becomes: With the keys to the team, how will Leonard fare in the season opener? Despite being a backup as a freshman, he has already garnered solid experience in seven career games. This includes a breakout game against Louisville in which he went 13-for-13 and broke away for a 35-yard rushing touchdown. He’s already shown glimpses of potential. Duke's opener against Temple will be his first test of how high his bar can go.

New head coaches

Both the Blue Devils and the Owls brought in brand new Texas head coaches over the offseason. Neither had been in this position before, with Elko coming from Texas A&M as a defensive coordinator and Temple head coach Stan Drayton coming from Texas as a running backs coach. The trouble of adjusting to new schemes will not be one that either team will have to face alone.

Elko was a huge part of why Texas A&M was so successful in the four years he was the head of its defense. Last season, the Aggies ranked third in the SEC in total yards allowed per game, with just 327.5, and second in points allowed per game, with a staggeringly low 15.9—they trailed only the eventual national champion, Georgia. This will be his first opportunity to show how he and defensive coordinator Robb Smith have revamped Duke’s defense as a mastermind on that side of the ball.

Drayton, on the other hand, may be nearly as elite on the other side of the ball. With him in charge of the Texas running back room, the Longhorns finished second in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game with nearly 200 yards per game. In addition, he coached one of the best running backs in the country, Bijan Robinson. Temple doesn’t have nearly the same level of talent, but Drayton’s offensive wisdom could mean a lot for a team that was at the bottom of its conference.

Defensive tandem

Despite losing veteran defensive back Josh Blackwell to the professional ranks, Duke still retains two of its best defenders in redshirt senior Shaka Heyward and junior DeWayne Carter. Both are team captains, with Heyward manning the middle at linebacker and Carter controlling the front at defensive tackle.

In his career, Heyward has already totaled 246 tackles, including a blistering 98 last season alone. Carter had an impressive season as well, recording four forced fumbles and 32 tackles himself. Now, with one of college football's premier defensive minds as head coach, it will be interesting to see how much more Elko can get out of them.

Three-headed back

It is not only the start of the Elko era but also the post-Mateao Durant era. The star running back will no longer be at Duke’s disposal after he took his talents to the professional level following the 2021 season. To make up for that, the Blue Devils' offense is going to have to be a lot more creative in utilizing its new group of running backs. Elko’s solution to this seems to be a running back rotation with no clear top option, although Jaylen Coleman is listed at the top of the depth chart.

"It’s going to be a rotation," said Elko. "I think it’ll be that way by design. I just think all three of them are capable of helping us in Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore. I think all three of those kids bring different things to the game."

Elko wants to utilize each of them to their best capabilities, while also keeping them as fresh as possible. The triple Js—Jaylen, Jordan and Jaquez—will play equally huge roles. It should not be too difficult for Duke to shine against a run defense that ranked last in the AAC last season, but the opener will go a long way toward revealing the effects of this rotational style.

For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.


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