9 potential candidates to succeed Mike Elko as Duke football head coach

Former head coach Mike Elko looks on from the sideline during Duke's loss to Virginia.
Former head coach Mike Elko looks on from the sideline during Duke's loss to Virginia.

With former head coach Mike Elko’s sudden departure, Duke’s seat is now vacant. Athletic director Nina King confirmed Monday that the search for a new head coach is underway. The Chronicle’s beat writers are here to offer some potential candidates for the job — both inside and outside the program:

Current head coaches

Jamey Chadwell, Liberty: Chadwell would be a big-time hire for Duke and is probably on King’s immediate radar. While he is at Liberty right now — with an undefeated record in his first season — Chadwell’s main rise came at Coastal Carolina, where he led the Chanticleers to back-to-back 11-win seasons after the team won just three games three years prior. He has a lot of experience recruiting and developing talent in the Carolinas, so he would fit in well with program building with a team requiring it. The problem is, he only has been with the Flames for a season, and could either be wanting to stay or be gunning for a higher-profile Power 5 job after a few years. In any case, he is a young, up-and-coming, bright head coach that would provide instant excitement in Durham. 

Willie Fritz, Tulane: While Chadwell is a bright offensive mind, if the Blue Devils wanted to stay with a defensive-minded coach, Fritz is an elite option. Even though he doesn’t have direct ties to the area, he is a great Group of 5 coach that has yet to strike his first Power 5 head coaching job. He has been at Tulane for eight years, but during the past two seasons, the Green Wave have gone a combined 23-3, including a Cotton Bowl win last year against Southern California and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. Fritz would bring the same blue-collar feel to the program that Elko did, and his teams play hard. He seems destined to move up the coaching ranks soon, and Duke could be a step in that direction. 

Curt Cignetti, James Madison: Cignetti is a name that has also floated across many coaching openings, but one thing that is going for the Blue Devils is the relative lack of attractive Power 5 openings. While that could change, Duke is arguably one of the best jobs currently available and there are a lot of quality coaches at the Group of 5 level currently. Cignetti both has experience as a head coach and as a positional coach at high-profile schools, including Alabama. He has direct ties to North Carolina as both a quarterbacks coach at N.C. State — coaching Phillip Rivers and recruiting Russell Wilson — and had success turning around Elon. Cignetti has led James Madison through its transition into the FBS ranks, and the team is now bowl eligible. With the expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams next year, it will be interesting to see how many of these Group of 5 coaches decide to relocate. Nevertheless, Cignetti would be a great coaching hire with proven success at multiple schools. -Ranjan Jindal

Power 5 coordinators

Jim Knowles, defensive coordinator, Ohio State: If Duke wants to build on the current identity of the team, one that entails hard-nosed defense and a smashmouth run game, Knowles could be the perfect fit in Durham. The current defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes has created an elite defense in Columbus, Ohio, which ranks second in the nation in scoring defense and third in yards per play allowed. Knowles also has previous experience in Durham, as he was the defensive coordinator for the Blue Devils from 2011-2017 under former head coach David Cutcliffe.

Ryan Grubb, offensive coordinator, Washington: If King wants to go for a more splashy hire by signing a young offensive guru, Grubb would be an outstanding coach to land. He has been calling plays for the Huskies for two years now, and the results have been phenomenal. In 2022, Washington led the nation in passing yards per game, and this season Grubb has helped quarterback Michael Penix Jr. take his game to new heights — and maybe a Heisman. 

Alex Atkins, offensive coordinator, Florida State: Atkins is another name who could be one to watch if King goes the offensive route, as he has helped the Seminoles regain their offensive prowess. Atkins was brought in as both the offensive play caller and the offensive line coach, and he helped Florida State become the outright best team in the ACC this season, while also facilitating an elite rushing attack. Before his stint in Tallahassee, Fla., Atkins was the offensive coordinator at Charlotte, providing him excellent experience recruiting and coaching in the area. -Caleb Dudley

In-house hires

Trooper Taylor: Also the interim head coach after the departure of David Cutcliffe, King confirmed Monday that Taylor will take on the role once more. Taylor has more than 30 years of coaching under his belt, giving him a wealth of experience. Before joining Duke’s staff in 2019, Taylor coached wide receivers at Auburn from 2009-2012 — including its BCS National Championship run in 2010 — and was a co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State in 2008. While he has never been a head coach, Taylor has been a part of winning programs across the country, and has been with the Blue Devils through ups and downs. It speaks volumes that King named Taylor the interim head coach for a second time, and his experience inside and outside the Duke program would serve him well if he ends up with the full-time job.

Kevin Johns: Both of Elko’s original offensive and defensive coordinators, Kevin Johns and Robb Smith, joined the staff before the 2022-23 season, with Johns arriving in Durham from Memphis. With the Tigers, Johns helped coach an offense that reached three straight bowl games and finished in the top five in scoring in the AAC each year. Johns has also spent considerable time with Indiana and Northwestern in the Big Ten. In the past two seasons, Johns has helped coach an offensive roster with largely the same players as years prior to a far more successful output. In particular, his development of junior quarterback Riley Leonard, junior quarterback-turned-receiver Jordan Moore and freshman Grayson Loftis — who stepped in for Leonard after injury — has shone through. If the Blue Devils choose to go in-house, Johns provides a proven offensive mind with a knack for developing athletes.

Tyler Santucci: Last but not least of the internal candidates is Tyler Santucci, who came to Duke in 2023 after spending time at Texas A&M, where he served as a co-defensive coordinator. This season, Santucci has led a defensive unit that has been the calling card for the Blue Devils, as it sits inside the top 25 in the nation. He found similar success with the Aggies, as he and Elko coached the No. 3 defense there. The biggest knock on Santucci, though, is that he lacks experience, as he spent just one year as co-defensive coordinator in College Station, Texas, and has only been in Durham for a year. However, Duke has no reason not to trust him, as Santucci has been successful at every stop on his coaching journey so far. If the Blue Devils are looking to secure a rising defensive mind for the long-term — as they likely hoped to with Elko — Santucci may be able to provide some continuity for the team. -Dom Fenoglio

Dom Fenoglio | Sports Managing Editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Sports Editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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