Duke is once again ready to ring in a new football season, as its annual Blue & White game will take place Friday at 8 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon but was moved up due to projected inclement weather, something few excited Blue Devil fans will complain about.
Duke is coming off a spectacular season in which it finished 9-4 with a Military Bowl win in head coach Mike Elko’s first year at the helm. Needless to say, there is a lot to look out for in year two of Elko’s tenure, and Friday’s game will be a measuring stick for the growth the team has made since taking down UCF in December 2022.
Here are five things to look for in Friday’s spring game.
With players using the transfer portal more than ever, it is not uncommon for rosters to be almost completely turned over every season. However, Duke has found itself in the opposite situation with a very strong returning cast, including almost the entire skill group on offense. The Blue Devils will have continuity at quarterback, wide receiver and running back, with all the starters coming back to Durham for the 2023 season. This has paid major dividends during spring practice, as the offense was able to pick up right where it left off in the winter.
“I think a lot of teams in this country would like to have that advantage, if you will, to have everybody back,” offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said Thursday morning. “And again, it allows us to teach a little faster, the recall’s better from what we did a year ago.”
While there are sure to be speed bumps Friday, Duke certainly has a head start on installing its scheme due to the amount of experience on the roster. Johns will likely be able to install more in-depth variations of the playbook from last season, one that the Blue Devils used to put up 32.8 points per game.
“Now for us, though, spring ball will end, and we'll do this again in the summer,” Johns said. “And then we'll do it again in the fall. And then hopefully by game one, we're ready to go.”
Old but new blood
As is typical with any Power Five school nowadays, Duke landed some veterans from the transfer portal to help fill out its roster. Elko and his staff were able to locate players at positions that lacked depth after departures in the offseason, notably on the offensive line and in the secondary.
Up front on offense, there are three new Blue Devils acquired from the portal that will help with protecting starting quarterback Riley Leonard: Jake Hornibrook (Stanford), Dustyn Hall (South Florida) and Michael Purcell (Elon). While the offensive staff is still trying to decode the best combination to play Saturdays, the veterans have used their versatility to play multiple positions on the offensive line.
“I think our new guys are fitting in very well,” Johns said. “We're thrilled with what we have.”
On the other side of the ball, Duke brought in two transfers to add some experience to the defensive back room: Al Blades Jr. from Miami and Myles Jones from Texas A&M. Both players are graduate transfers and are set to play meaningful minutes at cornerback alongside Joshua Pickett and Chandler Rivers.
Jones has experience with Elko and new defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci dating back to their days together with the Aggies, allowing him to pick up the system during the spring despite missing some practices with injuries. Jones and Blades Jr. are set to be the starting cornerback tandem Friday for the Blue Team.
“Al’s made it through all practices, which is good. Seeing his improvement, just getting back out there playing, creating confidence within the unit,” Santucci said. “Myles has been spot playing, just due to some small injuries. But I think when you see him get out there, it's like, ‘Okay, he's back to playing football, back to being comfortable.’ So I'm proud of both those guys. They've just got to continue to improve as we go.”
Let the kids play
Despite all of the experience on the roster, there are plenty of underclassmen that have gotten their chance to prove themselves this spring and whose skills will be on display Friday night.
The running back room has three experienced workhorses in Jordan Waters, Jaylen Coleman and Jaquez Moore, but it is freshman Peyton Jones who has stood out to the coaching staff during spring ball. The three-star recruit from Norfolk, Va., has impressed up to this point, even scampering in for a touchdown during Saturday’s modified scrimmage. Jones is one of two running backs on the White Team along with Moore, providing a big opportunity for him to showcase his talent and make a case for touches in the fall.
“We've been really impressed with Peyton Jones, our youngest running back, our freshman,” Johns said. “I really think he's got a chance to help us this fall in some capacity.”
On the defensive side, injuries have forced younger players to make an impact. With Vincent Anthony Jr. and Dewayne Carter limited due to injury, other defensive linemen have had the chance to make a name for themselves. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Hall and redshirt freshman Wesley Williams have slotted in during the absence of the usual starters and will likely continue to do so Friday if Anthony Jr. and Carter are not 100% percent.
In the defensive backfield, Terry Moore has played meaningful reps during the spring after making the transition from running back to safety. The sophomore will have a chance to compete for starting snaps next to Jaylen Stinson; the two are teaming up Friday on the White Team, giving fans a potential glimpse at the safety tandem when the fall rolls around.
“And those are just young guys that are taking steps,” Santucci said. “... On the back end, I think Terry Moore, in the transition, he just gets better every single day.”
While Duke is happy to have a large portion of its nucleus back, it would love even more to see them healthy. It is not uncommon for players to have offseason surgeries to heal injuries sustained during the previous year, and Duke has been cautious by limiting many of these players. For a majority of spring ball, offensive linemen Graham Barton and Jacob Monk have been limited participants, joining Carter and Anthony Jr. as starters who have not been able to take full reps up to this point.
All four players are listed on Blue-White game rosters, with Barton on the Blue Team, Carter and Anthony Jr. on the White Team and Monk splitting time between both. This could mean that these key players will play at least some portion of the snaps, allowing the coaching staff to get a look at a Duke lineup near full strength.
Coming off of a successful year, it could be easy for Duke’s returners to become complacent and take the offseason for granted. Elko and his staff will have to keep a team that is no longer a major underdog motivated to compete at all times. For the Blue Devils, there is no time to waste, as perennial title contender Clemson comes to town to open the season Sept. 4.
“We just show them our schedule and who's coming to town and who we have to play,” Johns said when asked about how to combat complacency. “Every single year in this league now, it's gonna take your best every single week. So in no way have we arrived, in no way do our players think that we have arrived, we have a ton of work to do.”
This mindset will likely be visible Friday to the crowd at Wallace Wade, as an opportunity to compete against their teammates will undoubtedly have the Blue Devils fired up. The coaching staff will expect high energy and focus throughout, signs that Duke is locked in and ready to do damage in the fall.
“We're gonna go play ball. And hopefully we can play fast and be aggressive,” Johns said.
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