Despite all that David Cutcliffe accomplished during his 14 seasons as Duke's head coach, the Blue Devils' utter inability to be competitive in ACC games over the last two seasons finally led the school to replace him.
Mike Elko brought with him a stellar reputation as a defensive coordinator, with recent stops at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, to the job when he took over in December. He's now in charge of a program that has not played in a bowl game since 2018 and has lost 17 of its last 18 ACC games.
Elko, though, walked in remembering the Duke teams that he competed against several years ago during his Wake Forest tenure. Back then, the Blue Devils were in the midst of going to bowls in six of seven seasons, including winning the 2013 ACC Coastal Division championship.
"I came here in 2014," Elko says, "and played a Duke team that was extremely talented, extremely physical, and beat us all over the field. So my experience of Duke is just that."
While that was a long time ago, Elko is working to bring back those days of Duke football.
It figures to take a season or two for Elko to turn things around in Durham, since the Blue Devils were last in the ACC in both scoring defense (39.8 points allowed per game) and scoring offense (22.8 points scored per game) last season while logging their first winless ACC season since 2007.
Still, Elko talks like he expects immediate results. "It's never ever not going to be our goal to win now," Elko said after the spring game. "That's the only focus we have. We're not coming in here to build something for four years from now. We're going to put our foot on the gas to go as hard as we possibly can, to win as much as we possibly can as fast as we can. That's never not going to be the goal here."
Previewing Duke's Offense for 2022
The Blue Devils lost leading rusher Mataeo Durant to pro football and their starting quarterback (Gunnar Holmberg) and receptions leader (Jake Bobo) to the transfer portal.
So Elko and Duke offensive coordinator Kevin Johns are rebuilding with a pair of sophomore quarterbacks, Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore, battling for the starting job. Redshirt juniors Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters are the most experienced running backs, but younger backs like Jaquez Moore and Eric Weatherly are pushing for playing time.
None, though, looks capable of another 1,200-yard season like Durant produced.
Duke does have senior receiver Jalon Calhoun returning for his fourth season as a starter, but he's caught only five touchdown passes over the last two seasons. The Blue Devils still need the big-play threat that's been missing the last three seasons to emerge.
At least the offensive line returns experienced players after blocking well enough for Durant to set the school's single-season rushing record in 2021. Starting tackles Graham Barton and John Gelotte anchor that group. Also, Duke added guard Andre Harris (Arkansas State) and tackle Chance Lytle (Colorado) through the transfer portal.
Previewing Duke's Defense for 2022
The Blue Devils have some experienced players in their front seven but figure to face some tough times thanks to a young secondary.
Up front, defensive tackle DeWayne Carter and linebacker Shaka Heyward are back after solid seasons on a unit that struggled mightily as a group. The Blue Devils allowed an ACC-worst 517.9 total yards per game, dogged by poor tackling and coverage errors.
Youth in the secondary doesn't normally bode well, especially at the Power 5 level, and Duke's secondary figures to be a work in progress, which could lead to more long days this fall. The main experienced guys atop the depth chart exiting spring practice were juniors Tony Davis (cornerback) and Jaylen Stinson (safety). But younger players, like true freshman Chandler Rivers and sophomore Cameron Bergeron, will be asked to contribute.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2022
Previewing Duke's Specialists for 2022
This could be the strongest part of Duke's team. Kicker Charlie Ham returns after not missing an extra point last season. He does have room for improvement on field goals, where he made just 14-of-20 after being successful on 13-of-15 as a freshman in 2020.
Punter Porter Wilson was third in the ACC in net punting average (44.8) during his busy sophomore season last fall.
Duke added a graduate transfer long snapper from UMass, Evan Deckers, at the semester break. He took part in spring practice to get comfortable with his new teammates. That's a plus.
Elko and his new staff take over a program that's been the ACC's worst on the field over the last two seasons, so there's plenty of work to be done. They'll be young at quarterback and running back, so expect both Leonard and Moore to be part of Duke's plan on offense, with Leonard the better passer and the speedy Moore able to make big plays with his legs.
Progress this season will be determined by Duke's ability to be competitive against P5 teams, particularly in ACC play. The Blue Devils have to prove they can play at this level, something they didn't do over the last two seasons, and build from there.