Mike Elko’s new-look Blue Devils debut in spring game

The incoming coach promises his first season won’t be a rebuild

Duke's Jordan Moore, pictured last season against North Carolina A&T, is among those competing to be new Blue Devils coach Mike Elko's starting quarterback in the fall. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Don’t call it a rebuilding year.

Duke is coming off three losing seasons, introducing a new coaching staff for the first time in more than a decade, and saw its leading passer and rusher depart.

Expectations would appear to be low as the Blue Devils seem to be starting from square one, but head coach Mike Elko won’t hear talk of a rebuild.

“It’s never ever not going to be our goal to win now,” Elko said. “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.”

Elko’s new-look Blue Devils had their first chance to show their stuff as Duke held its spring game over the weekend.

One thing the Duke players showed: They’re taking Elko’s teaching to heart.

“We have a mentality about how we want to play the game and attack people,” Elko said. “We don’t run out of bounds. We play hard to the whistle. We finish blocks. That’s the mentality you want in a program — to go out and not take a back seat physically to anyone.”

While the schemes may be new to the players and the coaches are still learning what everyone’s capable of, the Blue Devils were able to play hard and compete.

The Blue and White teams found themselves tied at 14 as the fourth quarter started. That’s when sophomore Jordan Moore stepped up and led his team to victory down the stretch. The quarterback, who showed off his mobility in short yardage situations last season, had 56 of his 91 rushing yards for the game on the go-ahead drive before finishing it off with an 11-yard scoring run by Jaylen Coleman, who will be taking over lead running back duties after record-setting rusher Mataeo Durant’s departure.

Moore added a 24-yard touchdown pass to Eli Pancol later in the quarter. He finished just 9 of 24 for 97 yards passing, while Pancol had five catches for 54 yards.

On the other side, fellow sophomore passer Riley Leonard had a big day, going 17 of 27 for 246 yards and a score, while receiver Sahmir Hagans had six catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Hagans also had a touchdown in Duke’s previous scrimmage.

“New staff, everyone wanted to put their best foot forward,” Hagans said of his spring highlights. “You only get one first impression.”

After only seeing the field for 60 snaps in his freshman year, Hagans appears ready to be a breakout addition to the offense, regardless of whether he’s catching passes from Moore or Leonard.

“They both bring their own skill set to the table,” Hagans said. “I think both of them are very useful to this team. No matter what that is or what role they play. Both of them bring something different to the table.”

Freshman Terry Moore also appears to be a promising new face. The running back had 66 yards on 12 carries and scored from seven yards out. He also found the end zone in the previous scrimmage game.

The defense also had plenty of new faces — and an old one in senior linebacker Shaka Heyward — lead the way. Sophomore linebacker Tre Freeman led the way with nine tackles, adding an interception and a pass breakup. He also preached Elko’s message.

“Practices have been very physical,” he said after the game.

The defense showed a hunger for turnovers, with sophomore Trent Broadnax forcing two fumbles. Another freshman newcomer, defensive back Chandler Rivers, also established himself as a potential immediate contributor, tallying four tackles and two breakups.

Elko said he was more than willing to play true freshmen, promising that the “best 11 guys” will be on the field.

The names may not be familiar, but Elko is confident that Duke will be competitive this season.

“I like the way we’ve competed,” he said. “We’ve come out every day and worked. We really pushed them, and I think they’ve responded to that. You throw a lot at them and see what sticks. Then you take it in summer and refine it. Hopefully, you’ve got a better product in the fall.”

Just don’t call it a rebuild. Whatever you do.

“You don’t do that in college,” Elko said of the R-word. “By the time you’re done rebuilding, you’re going to watch someone else live in your house.”