ACC Kickoff: Duke looks to sustain success after turnaround season

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Thursday, July 27, 2023
ACC Kickoff: Duke looks to sustain success after turnaround season
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The Blue Devils posted the program's seventh nine-win season, making Mike Elko the most successful first-year head coach for Duke since Herman Steiner in 1922.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Mike Elko's first year as head coach of Duke football was nothing short of historic.

The Blue Devils posted the program's seventh nine-win season, making Elko the most successful first-year head coach for Duke since Herman Steiner in 1922.

On Monday, Duke rewarded Elko's turnaround of the program with a contract extension that keeps him in Durham through 2029.

With 18 returning starters and one of the conference's most underrated quarterbacks -- and a challenging schedule ahead - Elko feels a new boost of confidence and calm heading into his second season at the helm.

At "ACC Kickoff" preseason media day on Wednesday, Elko said the Blue Devils' success isn't a one-time thing: It has to become the expectation.

"We know for us to be the program we want and to get the respect that we really want, this is something that has to happen year in and year out," Elko said. "We've got to be successful year in and year out. I don't think we're there yet. We had a big offseason. I think we worked really hard this offseason. We're really excited for fall camp and look forward to go out there this fall and showing that hopefully, we're a program that can sustain this level of success."

Elko's vision of success will be challenged in the very first game of the season - when Clemson pays a visit to the Bull City on Sept. 4.

If Duke hopes to send shockwaves throughout the ACC on opening day, quarterback Riley Leonard will be one of the keys.

While there are a lot of eyes on North Carolina's Drake Maye and Florida State's Jordan Travis, Leonard is one of the most underrated, dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

Last fall, Leonard led a Duke offense that averaged 416 yards and more than 32 points per game.

Leonard threw 20 touchdowns and added 13 more with his feet, making him the second Duke quarterback to reach double-digit numbers in both* of those categories.

During the summer, he attended the prolific Manning Passing Academy with 45 of college football's best quarterbacks.

Leonard said that experience gave him some confidence and taught him that he is capable of playing with the best.

"Going out there and throwing with those guys who are like the best quarterbacks in the nation and rightfully so, I realized hey, you know, physically, I'm there," Leonard said. "And as far as throwing goes, I really can compete with these guys, so the next step I have to take is being the smartest guy out there and taking all the intangibles with it."

Though Leonard's strong debut as the full-time starter is a big reason why the Blue Devils won nine games last year, don't think that means his mother, Heather, is going to go easier on him.

Leonard has talked about how they had maintained a tradition since high school for her to bash him a bit so he stays humble and motivated. That includes Leonard wearing a blue bracelet with white lettering proclaiming "You suck."

Sporting that bracelet on his left wrist Wednesday, Leonard said the tradition included getting ready for the ACC Kickoff interviews. She called Tuesday night, then texted him Wednesday not to mess up.

"I could pull out the text right now, it's pretty funny," he said, adding: "It's always good to have a tradition."


Florida State pass rusher Jared Verse remembers watching the game film closely, studying moves and absorbing every possible lesson. So too does star quarterback Jordan Travis, recalling those gatherings in the team meeting room.

But this wasn't about scouting an opponent ahead of a season of heightened expectations. It was film from some of the Seminoles' past great teams. And it left an impression.

ALSO SEE: Big challenges the theme as 'ACC Kickoff' preseason media days begin

"You watch these teams," Verse said, "and you're like, 'These guys play different.' ... We're like, 'All right, we've got to live up to this standard.'"

Consider it an example of how Mike Norvell's program is reaching into the past to teach lessons for what could be a big season ahead. The Seminoles are trying to return to the national-elite status they held for much of the past three decades, and Norvell wants his players to dream big of matching the high level established in that footage - grainy by today's HD standards - from years earlier.

"There's great expectations here in this program," the fourth-year coach said Wednesday at preseason media days. "I've been asked about expectations so much. If you don't like them, this is definitely not the place to come because we want to have those type of expectations year in and year out."

That's why this is such a big season for Florida State. The Seminoles are emerging from a nadir of four straight losing seasons from 2018-21, which included the tumultuous two-year tenure of Willie Taggart preceding Norvell's arrival from Memphis.

Last year's team jumped to 10 wins - the kind of mark the Seminoles used to reach with regularity - and returns 17 starters that include Travis and Verse while adding coveted transfer defensive back Fentrell Cypress II from Virginia.

As linebacker Kalen DeLoach put it: "Just by the mindset, you can see the mindset is different now that we watch it. We're hungry for it."


Pittsburgh defensive back M.J. Devonshire made sure Wednesday to wear his 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference championship ring - bulky and hard to miss as it enveloped much of his right pinky finger.

The same goes for Pat Narduzzi.

"Nobody reminded me to bring my ring today," the Panthers' coach said during the league's "ACC Kickoff" preseason media days.

The Panthers' title run two years ago marked a rare bit of success for the old Coastal Division. Pitt was the only team from that topsy-turvy division to win the ACC title game against the Atlantic Division winner since 2010.

But with the league having eliminated divisions this fall, the path to contention figures to be much different.

"I think it will be because if it's the Coastal compared to (the Atlantic), they had to beat Clemson," Pitt offensive lineman Matt Goncalves said. "But our (division), it was up for grabs every time. So now I feel like it definitely could be more of a competition getting into that championship game for sure."

Pittsburgh beat Wake Forest in the 2021 title game, marking the end of perennial power Clemson's six-year run atop the league. Still, the Panthers won that year's regular-season meeting with the Tigers, who returned to the Atlantic and ACC summit last year.

That's why Narduzzi dismisses the notion things will be tougher for teams in the former Coastal Division, which had every team win the division at least once after 2013.

"You took care of business," Narduzzi said. "When you are in the Atlantic or in the Coastal Division, pretty much you have to beat Clemson to get there, correct?"


Virginia Tech tight end Nick Gallo wasn't trying to pull off his own version of coach Brent Pry's sartorial flair. He did a good job of it all the same.

Gallo and Pry both wore the Hokies' school colors for their interviews: a maroon suit, white dress shirt, and orange tie.

"He copied me," the second-year coach yelled.

So how did it happen?

Gallo said a recent tailoring session offered numerous design options, but the maroon suit was a had-to-have choice. So was the orange tie, though he knew he was running the risk of an item-for-item match with Pry.

"The other ties, I wasn't crazy about," said Gallo, who wore a Hokies logo lapel pin. "So I picked this one. We came out of our rooms this morning, we saw each other and we just started laughing."


Virginia's first season under Tony Elliott abruptly ended in tragedy after the shooting death of three players, which led the school to call off its last two games. Receivers Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. and linebacker D'Sean Perry were killed in the November shooting while running back Mike Hollins was wounded.

Elliott said his returning players have "accepted the challenge" that comes with returning to the sport.

"They understood that they have a responsibility to Lavel, Devin, and D'Sean to move forward in the right way, not moving on," Elliott said. "There's a difference. That was a big message within the program is we're not moving on. We're never going to forget this. We're not going to put this to the side and act like it didn't happen.

"Unfortunately for us, it's our new normal. It's a part of our lives and will be a part of our lives forever, and we'll constantly be reminded of it."


The ACC Kickoff concludes Thursday with a final wave of teams: Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest.

The Associated Press contributed.