Duke football returns to action, showcases depth in annual Blue & White Game

Junior quarterback Riley Leonard leaves the pocket during Friday's Blue & White Game. Leonard was named a team captain earlier Friday.
Junior quarterback Riley Leonard leaves the pocket during Friday's Blue & White Game. Leonard was named a team captain earlier Friday.

And just like that, Duke is back in action. 

On Friday night, the Blue Devils played in their annual Blue & White Game, kicking off head coach Mike Elko’s second year at the helm. The fans at Wallace Wade Stadium showed out despite a schedule change due to projected inclement weather, and the teams delivered with a game that was thrilling from start to finish, with the White team coming out victorious 19-14. 

“I thought we played some pretty good, clean football, which is what we wanted. We split the teams up pretty evenly,” Elko said. “We drafted both squads, and so I thought it was an even matchup, I thought we had a really good back-and-forth game.”

Even in a game with an outcome that holds little significance, the contest came down to the wire, with the offensive fireworks popping throughout. In the final period, it was the White team that prevailed thanks to stellar defensive play and an outburst from freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis. 

The three-star recruit unloaded a long ball with six minutes remaining, connecting with freshman wideout Apollos Cook for the final score of the game, a 49-yard touchdown. After returning starter Riley Leonard could not get anything going on the next possession, all hope seemed lost for the Blue team. A late interception by Henry Belin IV gave them a little life, but the running clock was too much to overcome, as the Blue team could not muster up one final touchdown drive.

The intrasquad scrimmage had the feel of a real game, but the format was slightly different for the spring outing. While the contest still had four 15-minute quarters, halftime was shortened to a brief six minutes, and the clock during the fourth quarter ran without stopping in an attempt to limit fatigue and possible injury for both teams, especially with offensive linemen playing for both sides. In addition, special teams were light, with no tackling on kickoffs or punts.

The cast of players available for the Blue Devils was also somewhat thin as multiple players were held out due to injuries. Most notably, captain Dewayne Carter missed the scrimmage, along with starting left tackle Graham Barton and defensive end Vincent Anthony Jr. These injury designations stem from offseason surgeries, which have allowed younger and less proven players to prove themselves during spring ball. 

“We had a couple of nicks and bumps, guys through spring, but we were fortunate we made it through spring without any major injuries, and so nobody's gonna miss significant time from an injury that happened in the spring,” Elko said. “And so, the only significant injuries were postseason stuff. And so those will all be done by the time summer comes.”

Leonard picked up right where he left off in the fall, completing five straight passes on Blue’s first drive for 47 yards and connecting with Jalon Calhoun for a nine-yard touchdown. In the first half, Leonard led his squad to scores on two of three drives. The captain connected with junior receiver Nick Lampert in the end zone to cap off an 11-play, 70-yard drive, giving the Blue team a 14-6 halftime lead. Leonard finished the game 19-of-28, passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns. 

“I think he's got a much better feel for the passing game,” Elko said when asked about his starter’s performance. “Obviously, I think he's a lot more comfortable delivering the ball back there.”

“It's incredible,” Leonard said of being named a team captain Friday evening. “And I'm not going to stop here. I'm gonna keep progressing and getting better as a leader every single day.”

For the White team, sophomore signal caller Henry Belin IV looked the part early on as well. Belin was in rhythm from the opening kickoff, completing four passes for 37 yards and running for 29 yards on three attempts, including a nice scramble in the red zone for a third-down conversion. An ineligible receiver penalty forced White to settle for a Charlie Ham field goal, making it a 7-3 game. 

After a drive by Loftis, Belin took the field again with a minute remaining in the first half, orchestrating an eight-play, 41-yard drive that netted the White team another field goal with time expiring in the second quarter. 

While Blue Devil fans are familiar with the three-headed backfield of Jordan Waters, Jaylen Coleman and Jaquez Moore that spearheaded the Duke rushing attack last season, it was freshman Peyton Jones who showed out Friday night. The Norfolk, Va., native handled the rushing duties for the White team with Moore out due to injury, going for 55 yards on 17 carries. Jones also scampered in for the White team’s first touchdown of the game, cutting the Blue team’s deficit to 14-13. 

“He's still got a lot to learn about the nuances of playing college football but he's certainly extremely talented, and very happy with the job that he did,” Elko said.

In a new system under first-year defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci, both defenses showed their resilience. After the aforementioned red-zone stop by Blue, the White team’s defense did its part to help out its offense, coming up with a sack on Leonard and nearly intercepting a pass that fell through the hands of defensive back Cameron Bergeron. 

The pressure was there on both sides, as the two teams combined for six sacks and 11 tackles for loss. This number may be slightly inflated due to Leonard wearing a red jersey, which made him down by touch, but the potential of the Duke pass rush was on display, even without two starters. A big part of this was redshirt junior R.J. Oben, who racked up four sacks. 

“R.J. is critical, because I think he has a lot of natural pass rush,” Elko said. “And that's something that he has, and I think he's starting to really come into his own.”

Now that spring ball has concluded, the offseason will kick into full gear. For the Blue Devils, that means one thing to look forward to: A Labor Day matchup with the Clemson Tigers Sept. 4. 

“Now, we got to have a really great summer, leading into fall camp, we still got a lot of work to do to get ourselves ready to play Clemson,” Elko said.

Ranjan Jindal contributed reporting.


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