DURHAM — When the Blue Devils run onto the field Friday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, Mike Elko won’t be the only one making his head coaching debut.
Stan Drayton comes to Temple after nearly three decades as an assistant, mostly as a running back coach and most recently associate head coach and run game coordinator at Texas.
Elko didn’t face Drayton on the field as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator the last four years, but the rivalry between the Longhorns and Aggies still exists on the recruiting trail and in the court of public opinion. Now the two will go head-to-head in their first time running the sideline.
“I’ve been around coach Drayton and have a lot of respect for the job that he does,” Elko said Monday. “Obviously, this is a little bit of a unique opener. You’ve got two first-time head coaches with a new program. So, there’s not a lot of information out there about either side.”
With both teams coming off disappointing seasons — the Blue Devils and Owls each went 3-9 last year, leading to Ron Carey’s dismissal at Temple and David Cutcliffe leaving Durham after 14 seasons — and with new systems, Elko has told his team to focus on fundamentals for the opener.
“The biggest thing,” Elko said, “is playing a clean game. … We want to make sure that we give ourselves every advantage to win the game and certainly not put ourselves behind the eight ball with things that we can control.”
But the new coach still had big personnel decisions to make with his new team, the most pressing being naming a starting quarterback to replace Gunnar Holmberg, who transferred to Florida International.
Sophomore Riley Leonard will get the call.
Leonard played in six games for the Blue Devils last season, completing 37 of 62 passes (59.7%) for 381 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
“I thought he stepped up and had a really good camp throwing the football,” Elko said. “I told our team this the other day, Riley won the job.”
Four-fifths of last year’s offensive line returns, giving Leonard some experienced protection, and top target Jalon Calhoun (56 catches and 718 yards last year) leads an experienced receiving corps that will try to exploit a Temple defense that ranked 122nd a year ago with 37.5 points per game allowed. Only two players on Drayton’s defensive depth chart have played more than three FBS games.
Duke’s defense was even worse last season, finishing ahead of just three teams in the country by allowing 39.8 points.
Elko and coordinator Robb Smith — who comes to Durham after two years at Rutgers and coached with Elko at Texas A&M in 2019 — will try and fix the Blue Devils’ defense.
“It’s Robb’s defense. He’s running it the way he’s comfortable running it,” Elko said. “Obviously, I have input in it, and we’ve worked collaboratively to come up with what we think is the best for this group to go out there and be successful.”
The Owls’ offense should give Elko and Duke a chance to start off on the right foot.
Temple ranked 125th in total offense last year and returns quarterback D’Wan Mathis, who threw for 1,223 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions in seven games a season ago. The former Georgia starter and four-star recruit oozes talent but has yet to put it all together on the field.
Drayton will get to apply his expertise to running back Edward Haydee, who rushed for 321 yards and three touchdowns on 87 carries a year ago. Graduate senior Isaac Moore, a 6-foot-7 and 300-pound left tackle, leads a very young offensive line.
The game will be decided by the players on the field, but for Elko and Drayton, it’s a chance to finally run the show.
“You get into this profession, and you dream of leading a team out of the tunnel one day,” Elko said. “If you’re honored to do it at a place like Duke, it’s even more special.
“They’ll certainly be a lot of emotions when I walk down the tunnel Friday night. And then you’ll run out on the field, and you’ll put a headset on and you’ll have to go back to coaching football.”