Duke is one of the teams I’m most interested in seeing how their season plays out. Head coach Mike Elko entered year one taking over a program that had only won 10 games combined in the past 3 seasons. However, he already has the Blue Devils turning heads after winning 9 games for only the third time since joining the ACC in 1953. Elko’s year-one success earned him the ACC Coach of the Year last season.
Before we go too far, I want to dig into that 9-4 record because it’s not all it seems. First, I’m not downplaying how big nine wins are at a place like Duke. However, they only beat 2 FBS teams with a winning record last year. One was Wake Forest, amid a late-season collapse, and had lost 3 of their last 4 games before playing Duke.
The other was UCF, who was also a 9-win team but dropped 3 of their last 4, with the lone win being over a 1-win South Florida team by 7 points. To go even further, six of their nine wins came against four 3-win teams, a 1-win team, and an FCS school. Their strength of schedule ranking was down at 96th, but ending the season with a pair of nice wins over Wake Forest and UCF gives them momentum heading into 2023.
I’ll be interested to see how they do against a more challenging schedule this year, and they’ll get it jumping over 70 spots to the 22nd hardest schedule. They open week one with Clemson at home, and while I’m doubtful we’ll see an upset, it will tell us how “for real” the Blue Devils are. Either way, with 18 starters back and a year under the new staff, you can no longer overlook Duke. (Just ask Miami how good they are.)
Another wildcard for Duke this season is they finished +16 in turnovers last year. According to Phil Steele, the odds aren’t in a team’s favor when finishing the season with double-digit turnovers. His research shows that only 13.6% of teams that finished +14 in turnovers over the last eleven years had a better record the following year.
While I admit, Duke is much better than what we’re used to, with a turnover margin that historically self-corrects, and knowing they face a much more challenging schedule this year, I feel Duke’s win total may come back to earth this season.
There is one thing that makes Duke a potentially dangerous team to play this season, and that’s the amount of returning production on offense. The Blue Devils return 99.5% of their yardage from last season, the highest percentage in college football. They also bring back 122 combined starts on the offensive line, which ranks 20th.
Duke had a solid year on offense. They finished 32nd in scoring offense (32.8 PPG), 45th in success rate, and 26th in sacks allowed. Starting QB Riley Leonard returns for 2023 and might be one of the more underrated quarterbacks in college football. Last season, Leonard went 250/392 (63.8%) for 2,967 yards with 20 TDs and 6 INTs. He also led Duke in rushing last year with 699 yards on 124 carries (5.64 YPC) and 13 TDs. Leonard’s QBR of 73.7 was 26th in the country. It was only year one as a starter, so he should be improved with the added experience. Duke might have a quality starter, but they lack experience at backup, with Henry Berlin IV having only 6 pass attempts for 43 yards last season.
The good news for Riley Leonard is that almost his entire receiving core is back for 2023, except for one depth player. Jalon Calhoun (76.5 PFF) led the team in receiving yards last year with 873 yards on 62 receptions (14 YPC) and 4 TDs. Jordan Moore (71.0 PFF), who is a converted QB, was second with 656 yards on 60 receptions (10.9 YPC) and 5 touchdowns in his first year at the position.
The next four leading receivers (3WR & 1 TE) are all back and combined for 1,108 yards and 10 TDs last season. With all but 3 catches for 21 yards of production returning, Riley should have plenty of experienced targets to throw to.
Duke used a running back-by-committee approach last season with three main guys who all return this year. Jordan Waters (73.4 PFF) led with 566 (4.6 YPC). Jaquez Moore (77.0 PFF) missed two games but was their #2 with 508 (6.43 YPC). Their #3 back was Jaylen Coleman (72.8 PFF), who missed four games but still put up 480 (4.71 YPC). Duke may not have any “high-end” guys, but they have a handful of quality backs with experience, which gives them depth.
With a lack of experienced depth at QB and three solid backs, I would imagine Leonard won’t lead the team in carries this year from the QB position. Riley is a legitimate run threat, but the backs should bear more of the load to keep him healthy.
Duke has a solid offensive line unit led by 1st team All-ACC LT Graham Barton (88.2 PFF). Last year, Duke had eight offensive linemen play over 100 snaps, which helped build some experienced depth. They brought back four guys with starting experience and added four transfers (1x P5 guard from Stanford, 2x All-Ivy League players, and 1x FCS All-American)
However, they lost a RT who started 11 games last season and his backup, who started the other two. They also lost a 12-game starter who played right and left guard and an 8-game starter at center who played the most snaps by +493.
Even with the losses, Duke should still be solid up front. Four of their five projected starters are upperclassmen who have played over 8,400 combined snaps. They also have size up front, with the unit having an average weight of 313 pounds.
Duke’s new head coach is a defensive-minded guy, and he did a great job in year one, considering how bad their defense has been in recent years. In 2020, Duke finished 115th in scoring defense, allowing 38.1 PPG. 2021 was even worse as the Blue Devils finished 127th, allowing 39.8 PPG. However, despite losing 8 of their top 13 tacklers before last season, they jumped to 31st, allowing just 22.1 PPG. Elko has a solid track record of producing good defenses. He had a top-25 scoring defense at Wake Forest and took Texas A&M from 87th to 3rd in scoring defense in 4 years.
While the defense did improve, and they finished top 25 in sacks, they did struggle in a few critical areas. Duke finished 100th in red zone defense, 110th in third-down defense, and 117th in success rate.
Last season, Duke had an interesting spread of offenses they faced. On the one hand, they played against 4 scoring offenses in the top 35. However, they also played against 7 scoring offenses that finished the season ranked in the bottom 35.
Three of those top 35 offenses belonged to Power 5 teams. Duke allowed an average of 509 yards and 34.6 PPG against those better offenses.
On the defensive line, Duke brings back their top three guys on the interior, who played a combined 1,592 snaps last year. The group is led by 5th-year senior defensive tackle Dewayne Carter (86.3 PFF), a 2nd team All-ACC player last year.
On the edge, they get Vincent Anthony Jr. (58.5 PFF) and RJ Oben (78.8 PFF) back, who both started 12 of Duke’s 13 games. They also return three players who were not starters but played a combined 819 snaps last season. Duke may not have the most top-end talent on the defensive line, but they have plenty of experience and depth.
At linebacker, they lost Shaka Heyward, who started 41 games throughout his career and was their #2 tackler last season. They also lost a few backups, so there are some depth concerns. Duke gets three players back who started a combined 14 games last year, but only one finished with a PFF grade above 60. While they aren’t starting completely over at linebacker, losing their top guy and multiple depth players might cause this unit to take a step back in 2023.
Duke had to replace all four starters in the secondary before last season. They added two quality transfers, which helped, but they finished 105th in passing defense. This year, they lost both transfers, (S) Darius Joiner, a 3rd team All-ACC selection, and (CB) Datrone Young, who started 12 of 13 games.
They return 13-game starter Brandon Johnson (74.1 PFF), Joshua Pickett (56.7 PFF), who started 9 games and played in all 13, (S) Jaylen Stinson (72.2 PFF), who started 13 games at safety, and Chandler Rivers (65.7 PFF), who started Duke’s last 6 games and played in all 13.
They also added a pair of Power 5 transfers with a combined 45 starts, but they are both coming on injury. Al Blades Jr. (62.0 PFF) comes in from Miami, and Myles Jones (48.0 PFF) from A&M. Jones is a 7th-year player who played over 2,000 snaps his first four years but only 36 the last two. The two transfers should be an upgrade in talent and experience if they can stay healthy.
Additionally, Duke has a top 20 special teams unit that only has to replace their long snapper this year.
Considering Duke was in year one of a rebuild under a new staff that is trying to establish a football culture at a basketball school. Going from winless in the ACC in 2021 to winning nine games at a school that’s only had one 10-win season in program history is pretty impressive, to say the least. I’m not here to argue whether Duke is a better team than years past because that part is obvious. They tripled their expected win total and were a mere 16 points from going undefeated!
Heading into year two with 99.5% of their production returning on offense should set the Blue Devils up for another solid year. However, I still question how much weight that strength of schedule holds from last year. They lost to GT, who FSU beat by four scores. They beat BC by 7, a team FSU beat by 30. They did blow out Miami, but then again, who didn’t…
This year’s schedule is much harder, with Clemson, Florida State, NC State, Notre Dame, Louisville, and UNC on the docket. Duke has only had one recruiting class inside the top 50 over the past six years, and it was 48th. (They are currently 35th for 2024)
The Blue Devils are a hard team to read, and we’ll know a lot more about them by the time they get to Tallahassee with games against Clemson, Notre Dame, and NC State before the FSU game. Many people consider this the tougher game than it appears for FSU, and that’s probably true.
For me, it comes down to FSU having a more talented roster, being at home, and is also a very experienced team. FSU has never lost to Duke (19-0). The Noles can’t sleep on Duke because they will put up a fight. However, I think FSU will make it 20-0 as Duke gets somewhat returned to reality this year. Thanks for reading! Go Noles!
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