Column: In the wake of Elko's switch to Texas A&M, Duke football may struggle to preserve identity, on-field success

Former head coach Mike Elko put together a combined 16-9 record across two years in Durham.
Former head coach Mike Elko put together a combined 16-9 record across two years in Durham.

In his two seasons in Durham, Mike Elko turned Duke into a team worth keeping an eye on.

He converted it into one of the better defenses in the conference and made it a unit capable of executing explosive plays on offense, especially off the right arm and legs of star quarterback Riley Leonard. When at full strength in 2023, the Blue Devils were a tough team to topple, with perennial powerhouse Clemson falling at the hands of Elko and company and Notre Dame needing a miraculous fourth-and-16 conversion to escape Wallace Wade Stadium with a victory. Even with Leonard going down to injury and other key pieces missing time, Duke was still able to put together an impressive season, reaching a bowl game in back-to-back seasons. Elko is just the second coach in program history to do so. 

Senior Day against Pittsburgh saw Duke say farewell to one of its best graduating classes to date, as captains DeWayne Carter, Jacob Monk and Ja’Mion Franklin were just three of the 39 seniors recognized. Replacing this special group was already going to be a tough task, but with the news that Elko is darting for Texas A&M, the Blue Devils and whoever is brought on to coach them next will have an extremely steep hill to climb.

Elko was brought in with a reputation as an elite defensive mind, helping Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M all hold formidable defenses during his stops there. During his first year in Durham, this pedigree translated, as the Blue Devils improved from the 127th-best scoring defense in 2021 to the 31st in 2022. A point of emphasis was also discipline, as Duke rarely committed unnecessary penalties and also protected the football better, finishing second in the nation in turnover margin with a +1.23 mark. 

When Elko took the reins, he practically transformed the backups from the David Cutcliffe era into a winning team, electing to not bring in a mass amount of transfers like many other programs have, while also maintaining an outstanding percentage of the roster over his two years. This strategy paid off in droves, as the standouts from the Cutcliffe era, like Monk and Carter, along with players who did not play as much under the previous regime like Leonard, became instant contributors and proved themselves to be among the best players in the conference. 

“At the end of the day, we're just a bunch of backups from last year really, especially on offense,” Leonard said at 2022’s Senior Day. “Me, the running backs, wide receivers for the most part, everybody, we're all just the backups from last year, so you never know what's gonna happen.”

On Nov. 20, Elko said “We’re probably about 13 days away from complete anarchy and the Wild West. It’s literally open free agency for all of college football.” 

With his departure, that statement could not be any more true than right now in Durham. 

Elko may want to take some of the standouts from Duke’s current roster with him to College Station, Texas, making many of the best-performing Blue Devils potential flight risks. In addition, many players who have already received their degree may elect to take their remaining years and either join the movement at Texas A&M or go elsewhere

It will be a major challenge for whoever athletic director Nina King hires to retain the team’s on-field ability, and Duke would be wise to move quickly in its search for a new head coach due to the inopportune timing of Elko’s departure. 

The transfer portal opened for Blue Devil players as soon as Elko’s deal was finalized, making it urgent to quickly find a replacement who can try to salvage the ship before it takes on too much water. This applies to the incoming class of recruits as well, since early signing day is Dec. 20, and it would not be a shock to see a slew of Elko’s commits decommit and flip to a different school at the buzzer, whether that be at Texas A&M or somewhere else. 

As it stands, Duke’s 2024 class ranks 36th in the nation, and the 22-man group is headlined by four-star quarterback Tyler Cherry, who is ranked as the eighth-best recruit to ever commit to Duke. It will be up to the new coach to retain as many of these pledges as possible, on top of their current players and additional high school recruits along with them. 

“I think people are starting to realize that this is a special place. We talked to kids all the time about this being truly the best of both worlds,” Elko said when asked about the recruiting appeal of Duke in the spring. “But you look around the landscape of college football right now, if you want great academics and great football, it's hard to argue that we're not doing as well as anybody and so I think that message is really being sold across the country.”

After the immense success Elko oversaw in his short tenure, King is faced with an interesting decision on how to move forward. After seeing how Elko’s defensive prowess translated onto the field, does the program attempt to hire another bright mind on that side of the football? Does she flip the script and go after a young offensive mind? Does she promote someone within the program like offensive coordinator Kevin Johns? 

There are a number of ways that the quest could take King and the rest of the search party, but it will be pertinent to find a figure who can install the same level of identity that Elko was able to. Duke of the past two years was easily described as a hard-nosed defensive team who loved to run the football and physically wear down teams up front, while protecting the rock and forcing opportunistic turnovers. Whether this is the identity of the new coach or not, the identity will have to be clear from the jump, or players likely will not buy in and the on-field product in 2024 could suffer.

“We have to be physical,” Elko said about the team’s identity at 2022’s media day. “We've said that from day one for us to be a successful program we have to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.” 

Looking at the current roster construction, Duke has the pieces to put together a third-straight solid year on the gridiron. Standout juniors Jordan Moore and Brandon Johnson are among the key players set to return, while the new coach theoretically will have three capable quarterbacks to choose from in Leonard, Henry Belin IV and Grayson Loftis. However, if the Blue Devils have learned anything in the past few days, it is that nothing is guaranteed, and the only thing to do for Duke fans is to wait and see how the offseason plays out. 

It is the “Wild West” after all, and whoever becomes in charge in Durham next better have a quick draw. 


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