Twelve games in the books. A bowl game in the coming days. After seeing unmatched success in the first year of the Elko era, the future leaders of the program put pen to paper Wednesday to commit to the Blue Devils.
Head coach Mike Elko brought in 26 new signees on National Signing Day as he cements his mark on the program with his first complete recruiting cycle. The 2023 class comes in as the No. 51-ranked class in the country and 10th in the ACC as Elko looks to continue Duke’s rise on the national stage.
“It's 26 kids that will forever be very special to me,” Elko said. “This will forever be the class that first committed to me as a head football coach. And so for the rest of my career, these guys will always be first, and all 26 of them committed prior to me ever coaching a football game as a head coach.”
The class includes six defensive backs, six defensive linemen and four wide receivers to go along with three offensive linemen, two linebackers, two tight ends, two running backs and a quarterback. Ten of the 26 are slated to enroll for the spring semester to begin coursework and participate in spring practice.
Nine of the signees also visited Duke in January 2022. Elko pointed out Wednesday that “in our first three weeks on the job, we were able to identify a third of this recruiting class.”
He also took pride in the fact that none of the Blue Devils’ August commits defected: “On August 1, we had 26 kids committed to Duke and today we signed 26 kids, the same 26 kids,” Elko said.
Elko introduced each of the members of the class in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, highlighting the multi-dimensional skill sets of many of his incoming first-years as well as their physicality and strong history of winning at the high school level. The group has 10 state championships and numerous all-state nominations.
The highest-ranked recruit in the class is Peyton Jones, a 5-foot-10 running back out of Norfolk, Va. In his final two years, he recorded more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 34 touchdowns as he polished off a career in which he brought Maury to three state championships.
Quarterback Grayson Loftis was the first of the class to commit to the Blue Devils, with Elko remarking on how Loftis “was the quarterback that we targeted from the day we got hired” and his subsequent decision to remain a part of the class amid the coaching transition. 247Sports pins the Gaffney, S.C., native as the No. 11 prospect in his state after leading his school to an undefeated championship season in 2021.
With a plethora of multi-sport athletes, Elko shined a spotlight on the advantages of experience in sports at various positions on the gridiron. However, few had as unique of a high school football background as Kevin O’Connor, the 6-foot-4 Easton, Md., native who Elko projects as a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker. O’Connor was tabbed as a top-40 outside linebacker in the nation but he also compiled 4,200 passing yards over the past two seasons.
Linebacker Kendall Johnson, whose brother Caleb plays with the Jacksonville Jaguars, led his team to a 28-0 record and two state championships with Quince Orchard in Gaithersburg, Md. Also a two-way star, Johnson scored 13 touchdowns to supplement his 14 sacks on the defensive side.
Elko also brought in one of his connections from his previous stop as a defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Running back Marquise Collins, a classmate of Elko’s two sons, was one of Elko’s early targets. He helped College Station to the 2021 state championship before missing his senior year to injury—he totaled 4,582 all-purpose yards and 64 touchdowns in his three seasons.
“I think in this class, our hope was to sign a football team,” Elko said during ACC Network’s signing day coverage. “We wanted to try to sign two deep at the very least. And this was going to be our first group. And we wanted to identify kids that fit our system, our style of play, what we wanted to do.”
While the 26 incoming freshmen were in the spotlight Wednesday, next year’s Blue Devils will also feature four transfers: Ben Hoitnik (Pennsylvania), Jake Hornibrook (Stanford), Michael Purcell (Elon) and Al Blades Jr (Miami).
The incoming class will certainly be excited to hit the ground running following Duke’s 8-4 season and first bowl game in four years. Elko and the Blue Devils head to Annapolis, Md., to face UCF in the Military Bowl Dec. 28 at 2 p.m.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.