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Column: Military Bowl triumph sets up pivotal 2023 for Elko, Duke football

Mike Elko celebrates with the Blue Devils on the field after winning the Military Bowl.
Mike Elko celebrates with the Blue Devils on the field after winning the Military Bowl.

Next stop, the future.

In closing out a breakthrough season under rookie head coach Mike Elko, Duke took care of business in the Military Bowl, controlling the line of scrimmage against a physical UCF bunch en route to a 30-13 victory in Annapolis, Md.

And so, Elko’s first year ends at 9-4, with the former Texas A&M defensive coordinator engineering quite the turnaround. After a 3-9 campaign in 2021, oddsmakers had the Blue Devils notching just three wins heading into this season, and while I had slightly higher expectations entering the fall, last year was too fresh to confidently predict a bowl appearance this early in Elko’s tenure. 

Whoops. 

“These kids behind me are absolutely amazing, I love them all,” Elko said to ESPN reporter Marilyn Payne of his players, moments after failing to escape a joyous (and cold) Gatorade bath and snatching defensive tackles Ja’Mion Franklin and DeWayne Carter in bear hugs. 

Now, the focus turns to 2023. Clearly, this will be an experienced roster, as key veterans, including the duo of Franklin and Carter (who doubles as the Blue Devils’ emotional leader), captain and versatile offensive lineman Jacob Monk and leading receiver Jalon Calhoun, each return. 

“What a way to end this first story of Duke football but now it’s on to the next of bigger and better things,” Elko said after the game.

Think big picture. Outside of stellar linebacker Shaka Heyward, who declared for the NFL Draft Thursday, Duke returns the core of a group that closed the season on a 5-1 run thanks to a turnover-minded defense and, as running back Jaylen Coleman said during a Dec. 24 media availability, an “electric” offense led by one of the better dual-threat signal callers in the country in Military Bowl MVP Riley Leonard

With boosted investment across the board—from improved nutrition and fitness programs to an expanded operations staff and a rejuvenated fanbase—a thrilling encore to this year could be in store. 

But football is not played on paper. Duke under Elko is undoubtedly a program on the rise, but in many respects, continuing that rise in year two under the 45-year-old is even more crucial. This second-year occurrence has manifested itself across college football, with the trend subjected to peer-reviewed research, as absurd as that sounds. 

It even has precedent in Durham. Take former head coaches Steve Spurrier (5-6 in year one) and David Cutcliffe (4-8 in year one). In their second seasons with the Blue Devils, both fielded teams that displayed growth, going 7-3-1 and 5-7, respectively. Now, the two are regarded as the best Duke coaches since the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, former head coach Fred Goldsmith followed up an 8-4 debut campaign in 1994 with a 3-8 slog in 1995. Goldsmith won just nine games the rest of his tenure and was fired in 1998.

The year two challenge is magnified by what is shaping up to be a tougher schedule in 2023. As pointed out by Devils Illustrated’s Conor O’Neill before the Military Bowl, the Blue Devils faced all five ACC teams who failed to qualify for a bowl this season—Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. With the ACC’s new 3-5-5 scheduling structure making its debut next year, Duke will face the formidable in-state trio of North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest for the first time since 2013. Trips to Louisville and UConn, along with a home date against Pittsburgh, are also on the horizon. 

Plus, the Blue Devils will host likely preseason top-15 programs Clemson and Notre Dame, which both upgrade at quarterback (with Cade Klubnik taking the reins for the Tigers, and the Fighting Irish adding record-setting Demon Deacon starter Sam Hartman). Joining them in the top 15 will likely be Florida State—and exhilarating signal caller Jordan Travis—which Duke will face on the road.  

Those three matchups represent opportunities for Duke to pick up a signature win, but with those opportunities come instances in which the progress of the program will be placed under an even more magnified microscope.

After the regular-season finale, a 35-31 home victory against Wake Forest, Elko referenced there being “a lot of character in this locker room” as the reason for his preseason belief that Duke would compete, and win, on a consistent basis in his first year. That character was on full display throughout the season, as Duke kept making the key stop and the key play when it had to—culminating in its first win against the Demon Deacons since 2017 and the clinical capper against the Knights. 

It was further evident in the form of Monk and senior receiver Eli Pancol returning from lower-leg injuries to suit up in the Military Bowl. Instead of shutting it down after missing the last three and four games of the regular season, respectively, the two veterans returned in time to take the field alongside their teammates. 

That, in itself, is admirable, and taken alongside the fact that only one Duke underclassman—redshirt freshman defensive end Trey Brown III—has entered the transfer portal (six other Duke players are in the portal) shows how sturdy the program’s foundation is.

“It means we’re building something special, man. I think the guys, especially when Coach Elko came in, we bought in day one,” said Coleman on the minimal transfer portal entries.

“We talk a lot about having a standard and just uplifting it every day, every game, for the people coming behind us,” graduate safety Darius Joiner said after the Military Bowl. “I feel like we had a great start to this season, we had a great start to what Coach Elko is about to accomplish.”

During his introductory presser in December 2021, Elko declared, “We will win championships, on the field, in the fall,” repeating himself just to emphasize his vision.

A year later, that vision is coming to fruition. Throughout this season, Elko proved that athletic director Nina King hired the right man for the job, and his players constantly stepped up to the plate. But with each win, and each prosperous season, the stakes only get higher. Going into 2023, the onus is on Duke to manage these newfound expectations, and keep chopping at that wood.

It only gets tougher from here.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.

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