In head coach Mike Elko’s first season at the helm, Duke’s defense underwent a full transformation. After allowing nearly 40 points per game in 2021, the Blue Devils only surrendered 22.1 points per game in 2022, the sixth-best mark in the ACC. But in today’s climate, continuity is hard to come by, and the Blue Devils suffered a big loss in the offseason: defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Smith chose to leave Duke and return back home to Minnesota, tasking Elko with finding his second defensive leader in two years.
Thankfully for Duke, Elko only needed to call an old friend. In January, former Texas A&M co-defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci was named to the Blue Devils’ vacant role, inheriting a defense with an abundance of returning production.
Santucci is familiar with Elko, and Durham marks the fourth stop in their working partnership. The two worked together at Notre Dame and Wake Forest before ending up in College Station, Texas, where they turned the Aggies into the No. 3 scoring defense in the nation in 2021. Although their titles may be different, not much has changed for the two coaches in terms of what they bring to Duke’s program.
“It's interesting because I got to be around him a long time at three different institutions,” Santucci said Thursday morning when asked about how becoming head coach has affected Elko. “Head coach Mike Elko has always been in there. He has always been in there. Just his perspective on the game, on the team, on the kids, his perspective on winning and what it takes to win.”
Duke was among the nation’s best at forcing turnovers last season, with its turnover margin of +16 ranking as the second-best number in FBS. Although the system may be shifted slightly, Santucci expects his defense to perform at a similar level in his first year, and this focus has already begun in spring practice.
“To get the ball back to the offense is the goal,” Santucci said. “And if we can continue to do that and build upon that, that is one piece of it. We just have to continue to disrupt the football, like they did a year ago.”
In the offseason, a lot broke right for the Blue Devils in terms of player decisions. With many players having the opportunity to return to Durham thanks to the extra eligibility year, Duke was able to bring back a strong nucleus from what worked so well last season. Up front, the Blue Devils return almost all of their production, with defensive tackles DeWayne Carter, Ja’Mion Franklin and Aeneas Peebles returning to hold down the interior. Their presences will be immensely valuable to Santucci’s defense, as they are already ahead of the learning curve in the spring.
“Everything starts up front,” Santucci said. “Those guys up front, just continuing to be steady. And that's what they've been. There's a steadiness and a comfort with those guys. They've played a lot of football.”
On the back end, the losses of veteran leaders Shaka Heyward and Darius Joiner will leave big holes for Santucci to fill, but the cupboard is not bare. In the middle, Cam Dillon surprisingly decided to return for one more year, while Jaylen Stinson and Chandler Rivers will lock down the passing lanes. Add in Al Blades Jr. and Myles Jones, two veteran transfers from Miami and Texas A&M, respectively, and Santucci will not have to start from square one in the spring.
“When you come in with a new defensive coordinator, there’s always going to be a few changes,” Stinson said Saturday. “But I feel like we're adapting well to that and it's going pretty well.”
Santucci’s defensive identity shouldn’t be too different from the one Smith employed a year ago, considering Santucci’s history with Elko. As a result, the team objectives and goals will likely remain as well. But at the end of the day, Santucci will put the load on the players, allowing him to maximize his defense.
“The players will create it,” Santucci said. “It won't be us out there playing, so they will create the identity that we become.”
The middle of spring can be a grind with no end in sight. Duke isn’t where it was two weeks ago, but it isn’t close to Blue-White Game form just yet. In the slog of it all, it is important to keep things fresh and competitive. For Santucci, this sense of vitality has come from facing the Blue Devils’ loaded offense, led by quarterback Riley Leonard and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns.
In his second season calling plays at Duke, Johns will be able to bypass the fundamentals due to the majority of the offense returning, including all the starting wideouts and running backs. This has allowed the scheme to open up, incorporating motions and variations into the already core plays of the offense. These adjustments have been great work for Santucci, both for his scheme and for the players’ development.
“Really glad we get to go against them every day, because it stresses every role that we have in our defense,” Santucci said about the challenge of facing Johns in practice. “To be able to build and adjust based off of what we're getting in 15 practices, not going through game-plan week, I think that really benefits us.”
“I think he is elite,” Johns said on his early impressions of Santucci. “I think he's big-time. I think he's got his defense playing hard. They bought into his message. They've been downhill aggressive.”
Sometimes, the juice has to come from up top. And from what players have said early on about their new defensive leader, it seems like Santucci is plenty capable.
“He's got a lot of swagger, he’s a young and active guy,” Franklin said about Santucci.
“I guess you gotta ask them that,” Santucci said lightheartedly about Franklin’s comment. “I don't know. I guess I got a little bit of swag. Not much.”
Still just 34 years old, Santucci already has familiarity with his defensive staff. While there’s still a long way to go from spring ball to the fall season, if everything clicks, Duke has an opportunity to get right back to where it was last year thanks to the synergy of Elko and Santucci.
“I mean, those two guys, there aren't two better defensive minds in the country,” Johns said about the potential of the Elko-Santucci defensive unit. “And now those two guys are working together. I feel really good about where our defense is right now and where they're going to be.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.