In today’s era of college football, it is becoming increasingly rare to retain a large senior class, especially one that is chock-full of big-time contributors, as the best players nowadays often either dart for the NFL early or transfer for a bigger opportunity.
On Saturday, however, Duke bucked this trend, honoring 39 seniors, including three of its captains in DeWayne Carter, Ja’Mion Franklin and Jacob Monk. While these players were key cogs all season, it took their efforts plus the work of several promising youngsters to take down Pittsburgh 30-19, showing that the legacy of the 2023 senior class will continue via the rest of the roster.
“They committed to Duke when Duke was really humming. They had to endure a little bit of a dip and they won four games in their first three years, had to endure COVID, and endure everything that came along with that,” head coach Mike Elko said. “In this day and age, kids don't stay together. They splinter, they go other places, they look for the easy way out, and not one senior in that locker room did that.”
When Elko inherited the program just under two years ago, he was tasked with taking over a team that had not seen a lot of success in previous years, but had a roster with some surefire talent. Players like Monk and Jalon Calhoun were already proven commodities in the ACC, and Elko made it a focus to keep players of this caliber around to help rebuild the foundation of Duke football. These efforts obviously paid off, as the elder statesmen had huge impacts on the success the Blue Devils had Saturday afternoon.
The offensive line unit has been banged up all season, losing both Monk and fellow senior Graham Barton for periods due to injury, while also dealing with injuries to other key pieces. Against the Panthers, Duke faced a similar issue, as multiple starters, including Barton, either were out for the game or got injured during the contest. For some groups this may spell disaster, but not for the Monk-led offensive line, as the group was able to endure and keep freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis clean throughout the afternoon, allowing zero sacks.
“We're down three starters and [redshirt freshman offensive lineman] Matt Craycraft is out there and he hasn't been out there very much at all this year. And then we go through the game and we don't give up any sacks,” Elko said. “That's a credit to those guys, it's a credit to the next man up being ready. I think it's a credit to coach [Adam] Cushing who I truly believe is the best o-line coach in the country.”
Out wide, Calhoun has been integral to the success Duke has seen on offense both during the Elko era and prior, as the redshirt senior has had 300 yards or more in all of his five seasons in Durham. The Greenville, S.C. native was similarly productive in Saturday’s regular-season finale, hauling in seven receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown, becoming just the fourth Blue Devil to ever cross 3,000 career receiving yards in the process.
On the other side of the ball, Duke fans have become accustomed to seeing the same faces dominate at the line of the scrimmage, and they were out in full force Saturday, as the efforts of Carter and Franklin were enough to hold Pittsburgh to a measly 43 rushing yards. On top of that, graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis intercepted redshirt sophomore quarterback Nate Yarnell to help stamp the graduating defensive class’ impact on the contest.
Looking at all of this production that will soon be lost, one may be quick to assume that Duke is doomed going forward, leaving an assortment of inexperienced players to hold down the fort in 2024. But if Saturday is any indication, the Blue Devils are in good hands.
Loftis was thrust into the spotlight after injuries sidelined both starting quarterback Riley Leonard and backup Henry Belin IV for the season, and the freshman proved once again in his fourth start that he has the makings of an excellent future signal caller. The Gaffney, S.C., native turned in another solid performance, going 20-for-37 passing for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception, but it came on the last play of the first half as he was hit attempting a Hail Mary. As has become tradition at this point, Loftis looked better as the game progressed, hitting his stride on a late first-half score and playing an efficient second half to help steer Duke to a win.
The main beneficiary of Loftis’ Saturday performance was junior wideout Jordan Moore, who has established himself as an elite receiver during Loftis’ stint as starter. It is clear that the Loyola Blakefield product and his quarterback have a very tight chemistry, as Moore is clearly the favorite target for Loftis, evidenced by his astonishing 18 targets, of which he caught eight for 106 yards and a touchdown. These stats could have been even better, as he had a touchdown called back due to holding, and was also overshot by Loftis while he was wide open in the end zone. Moore finished the season with four touchdowns in his last three games, making him the favorite to be the next star of the Blue Devil offense.
“I think Jordan has really come into his own in the last few weeks,” Elko said. “We needed that, because Jalon Calhoun has gotten so much attention, dealt with teams in the slot and different things, and so it's been really good to see Jordan Moore come on in the last few weeks and I think really become a go-to guy.”
On defense, it is not just all guys on the way out that can make plays, either. Redshirt sophomore linebackers Nick Morris Jr. and Tre Freeman were both excellent Saturday, going for 11 and seven tackles, respectively. Junior nickel Brandon Johnson was also his usual self, racking up eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Up front, sophomore Vincent Anthony Jr. showed why he started as a true freshman last year alongside Carter, Franklin and another senior in R.J. Oben, as the Durham native got the game-sealing sack in the fourth quarter.
It is also worth mentioning special teams, as the third phase of the game has helped Duke win several times this year, especially in its opener against Clemson. In terms of veterans, Duke will be decently stripped during the offseason, as standout punter Porter Wilson and kickoff specialist Charlie Ham are out of eligibility. But, the group does have one promising youngster in sophomore kicker Todd Pelino, who was perfect on Senior Day. Pelino did not miss a single kick all game, going 3-of-3 on field goals including a 48-yard snipe that all but wrapped the game up for Elko’s squad.
“I was just like, I don't know, gut feeling is Todd’s gonna go out there, he's gonna bury this thing and we're gonna win the game,” Elko said.
Moore will return along with Sahmir Hagans out wide and running back Jaquez Moore, who scored a touchdown against the Panthers. Leonard’s status for next year is unsure, but Loftis has proven himself capable of taking the reins if needed. The defense has plenty of talent, especially if players like Jaylen Stinson and Dorian Mausi take their extra year of eligibility. Add in certain additions from the transfer portal, and the Blue Devils could be primed to make some noise in 2024.
In the immediate future, Duke awaits its placement in a bowl game with a chance to finish the season 8-5. But beyond that, Saturday’s all-around win indicates that the roster seems to have a chance to be impressive next year, too, even if the veterans who brought it to this point will be moving on.
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