DURHAM — The good news is the cupboard isn’t bare at Duke. At least not as bare as one might expect.
The Blue Devils have gone 10-25 over the last three seasons, 1-17 in ACC games over the last two, and they’ve won just two of their last 21 league games.
The team parted ways with longtime head coach David Cutcliffe over the offseason, a move that caused starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and top receiver Jake Bobo to both transfer.
All of that sounds like a recipe for rebuilding from ground zero, but new coach Mike Elko has some talent on hand to get his program started. The Blue Devils return 47 letter winners from last season, including 13 starters and four players who received All-ACC honors (two third-teamers and two honorable mentions).
To hear Elko tell it, all the program needs is a new attitude.
“We have an opportunity to elevate the program,” he said. “Finish what we started. Coach Cutcliffe got the program to a high level for a sustained period of time. We’ve just got to finish it. We’re really close. I think we get this back really quickly.”
While the starting quarterback is usually considered a leader, Duke’s list of team captains will not include anyone from that position this year. That’s because the Blue Devils players voted on their captains before the quarterback competition was resolved.
“We’re in a quarterback battle,” Elko said. “There’s a lot of respect in our locker room for both of those kids. I think when you pick up that pencil and start voting, you don’t want to be the guy picking which quarterback you think should be the guy. And there’s probably a lot of inference if you vote for one of those two kids.”
The candidates both got limited playing time last year — Jordan Moore got 153 snaps, mostly as the goal line and short yardage situation running threat that Cutcliffe loved to employ, while Riley Leonard got 80, including one start.
Whoever wins the job will have a deep stable of wide receivers, led by Jalon Calhoun, and four returning starters along the offensive line.
Elko is a longtime defensive coordinator, and he’ll need to put his fingerprints on that side of the ball quickly for Duke. The Blue Devils ranked dead last in FBS in total defense last year, giving up more than 500 yards a game.
Duke struggled with tackling, gave up big plays in the passing game and seemed to wear down as games went on.
The Blue Devils have some solid returnees up front. Linebacker should be a strong area, with Shaka Heyward bringing back his 98 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss. Up front, tackle DeWayne Carter is stout against the run and had 7.5 tackles for loss, six hurries, 4.5 sacks and three deflections in the pass game. R.J. Oben should also provide pass pressure from one end.
On paper, it looks like the secondary could be the defense’s weak spot. It certainly will be the youngest unit on that side of the ball. Safety Jaylen Stinson returns, but most of the other contributors will be newcomers or returnees who haven’t played much thus far. Corner Tony Davis is among the latter, although he looked good in spring. Iowa State transfer Datrone Young brings experience to one corner spot, but the rest of the unit will be youngsters.
Stinson earned All-ACC honors as a return man, although his responsibilities in the undermanned secondary could limit the time he devotes to that role, where injury risk is high. Receivers Sahmir Hagans and Jontavis Robertson both got looks in the return game last year and could have an expanded role if Stinson is held back.
Junior Porter Wilson was third in the league in net punting average last year. Graduate student Jackson Hubbard, who has spent the last several seasons as Duke’s holder on place kicks, is the only other punter on the roster.
Kicker Charlie Ham also returns for his junior year. He was perfect on extra points last season, although he went just 14 of 20 on field goal attempts after hitting 13 of 15 as a freshman. There are currently only two other kickers on the roster — a true freshman and a redshirt freshman — and both are walk-ons.
Duke also needs a new long snapper due to the graduation of John Taylor. Elko brought in Evan Deckers as a grad transfer from UMass, where he played in 40 games over four years.
When Elko first took the job at Duke, he declared, “Now is the time for Duke football,” vowing that, “We will win championships.”
After spring practice and offseason workouts, Elko is still gung-ho about the future of the program, but the timeline may have slowed a bit. At media day, he discussed using this year to “build a foundation” and “establish how you want the program to run.”
In a wide-open Coastal Division — is there any other kind? — and a nonconference slate packed with winnable games, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Duke competes for a bowl berth in Year 1 of the Elko Era, but it will likely be a stretch.