Analyzing the numbers behind Mike Elko's tenure as Duke football head coach — and whether they will stick

Former Duke football head coach Mike Elko looks out to a crowd at College GameDay in Durham Sept. 30.
Former Duke football head coach Mike Elko looks out to a crowd at College GameDay in Durham Sept. 30.

In just two years, former Duke head coach Mike Elko changed the program from one that consistently sat at the bottom of its conference into a team capable of a top-10 win and the school’s first-ever visit from ESPN College GameDay

The difference Elko made is obvious simply from the Blue Devils’ record: 5-18 across 2020 and 2021 without Elko, and 16-9 with him in 2022 and 2023. He won ACC Coach of the Year in his first season, and led the team to a top-20 ranking this year. While time will tell if the changes stick, he left an indelible mark nonetheless. Diving even deeper into the numbers reveals just how instrumental Elko was in changing the culture of Duke football.

12

After Elko accepted Duke’s head coaching job Dec. 20, 2021, 12 Blue Devils left for the transfer portal before the 2022 season. While that number may seem large, Notre Dame, LSU and Southern California — who all underwent head coaching changes at the same time — lost 15, 17 and 26 transfers, respectively. 

Often, when coaches arrive at a new school, they bring an entirely new staff with them and make massive changes to the structure of practices, training and offensive and defensive systems. The fact that Duke only lost 12 players is a testament to the immediate trust the majority of the roster had in Elko, and players have spoken repeatedly about the changes in culture the new coach brought.

“Coach Elko came in in January and right away set the tempo. He said, ‘we're going to work and we're going to win now,’” senior left tackle Graham Barton said before the season. “And, he fulfilled his promise. We had a tough winter workout period, but it brought us closer together. The team [had an] underdog culture. We didn't expect anything, but just worked and worked and worked.”

After the successful 9-4 2022 season, players continued to want to play for Elko, and just 11 players left the program.

“When you look at the development of our roster, and the amount of guys that return, not losing guys in this day and age is a really important thing,” Elko said last spring.

Further, Elko was able to add impact transfers through the portal, namely on the offensive line and in the secondary. Four starters in the trenches and five in the secondary came to Duke across the past two years and helped turn the units into two of the Blue Devils’ biggest strengths. Namely, these recruits came for two reasons: Duke’s academic pedigree (the Blue Devils saw a high number of transfers from the Ivy League), or former connections with Elko.

But a roster that retained the majority of its players that won just three games does not usually win nine a year later — so Elko did far more to change the Blue Devils’ trajectory than simply hold onto existing talent.

19.8

In 2021, Duke ranked dead last in the ACC in points allowed per game with 39.8. This season, it was second, giving up an average of just 19.8. The difference in play was obvious — both in scheme and physicality — as the Blue Devils pursued the ball quicker at every phase.

Elko and defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci brought an extremely effective system with them from their time working together for the Aggies before coming to Durham, and they were able to consistently keep high-level opponents on their toes. All year, and specifically in Duke’s Week 1 win against then-No. 9 Clemson, the defense set the tone of the game.

“We talked about having to continue to play and fight,” Elko said after the game. “That was one of the big things that people asked me when I got here, ‘Will this team compete? Will this team fight? Will this team play hard for four quarters?’ Absolutely yes. They will not lay down.”

Dominance on the defensive end also took pressure off the Blue Devils’ offense, which struggled at times under Elko. However, junior quarterback Riley Leonard — when healthy — and the other offensive weapons made a leap of their own over the past two years, jumping to 30.3 points per game over the past two years from a 23.8 points-per-game average from 2020 and 2021.

When the units were firing on all cylinders at the same time, Duke played on par with some of the top teams in the country, and received recognition as such.

8

The Blue Devils’ eight consecutive weeks in the AP Poll from Week 2 to Week 9 this season were its most since 1994 and tied for the most since 1957. They were also Duke’s first place in the poll since 2018, when the team appeared in the poll for one week in September.

While coaches often preach the meaninglessness of rankings, they mean everything for the national perception of a program. Before Leonard got injured against Notre Dame and was eventually ruled out for the remainder of the season with a toe injury, many picked the Blue Devils to appear in the ACC Championship game and even a New Year’s Six bowl. 

Although this year’s squad fell far short of those goals, finishing 2-4 in its final six games, Elko was able to completely change the image of Duke football.

Even students, who have long been crazed for Blue Devil basketball but have lacked the same passion for the gridiron, began to follow the team with more fervor. Elko helped draw students in a number of ways — such as handing out personal jerseys and offering cash prizes for students in attendance — but the biggest motivation was the success of the team, especially at home.

“Freshman year, nobody showed up to the games and it was really easy to get the front row and have it all to yourself,” junior Loey Allen said after the Week 1 win against the Tigers. “But it was just tough to always be there and watch us lose, so last season being able to say ‘Wow, the new coaches are paying off and we have a new winning program,’ was really incredible.”

In Durham, the Blue Devils have gone 11-2 in the past two years under Elko, and each of those losses have come in the final minute of the game. The team’s 4-0 finish in ACC play at home this season was its first since 1989. While Wallace Wade Stadium lacks the grandeur of some larger football powerhouses and still has a long way to go in drawing a consistent fanbase, Elko brought excitement back to Duke football after a lengthy period of absence.

Whoever replaces Elko will come into a position with both great potential and extreme volatility: Elko has laid the groundwork on which Duke football can continue to grow, but a negative change in culture could set it back to where it was just two years ago. Time will tell which scenario plays out, but the immediate changes Elko brought to Durham will likely not soon be replicated.


Dom Fenoglio | Sports Managing Editor

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

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