The losing that first crept into Duke football’s mindset three years ago and fully took over the last two seasons is Mike Elko’s first target.
Tuesday night, the Blue Devils opened practice in preparation for their inaugural season with Elko as their head coach.
He’s in this job because Duke has lost 17 of its last 18 ACC games, including the last 13 in succession. Former coach David Cutcliffe, who had led Duke to six bowl games in seven seasons from 2012-18, departed the program after 13 seasons.
The 45-year-old Elko, the former Texas A&M defensive coordinator hired last December, continues to stress competition and accountability as he strives to return Duke to competitiveness.
“We’ve left everything in the past,” Duke redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said Tuesday night. “Forgetting everything that I was kind of raised on, this being my fourth year here. It’s what the new staff wants, what coach Elko wants.”
The Blue Devils are changing their everyday habits because they long to change their gameday results. It won’t be easy and it’s not likely to happen quickly. Opponents outscored Duke by an average of 17 points per game last season after doing so by 14 points per game in 2020.
Since going 8-5 in 2018 and winning the Independence Bowl in current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones’ final season at Duke, the Blue Devils have gone 10-25 overall.
Elko and his staff are working to eradicate any acceptance of losing that lingers.
That means spirited competition in the weight room over the summer, where the staff set ambitious strength-and-conditioning goals.
One of Elko’s first hires, on Jan. 4, was bringing David Feeley to Duke as the football team’s director of football sports performance. He worked as Miami’s football strength and conditioning coach the last three seasons.
Tight end Nicky Dalmolin is but one success story produced by Feeley and his staff. The 6-foot-4 junior bulked up from 217 to 239 pounds and is more prepared to make an impact both as a blocker and in catching passes.
“I give credit to coach Feeley and the new strength staff for that,” Dalmolin said. “They’ve worked really hard, and they push us to get our goal weights. And, you know, as a tight end, I really want to gain weight and move people ultimately. So I was determined in the offseason to put on some more pounds.”
In addition to changing the returning players’ mindset, Elko brought in seven transfers with expectations for them to help this season.
Defensive back Darius Joiner, for example, was an FCS all-American at Western Illinois last season. I intercepted a pass during an 11-on-11 session in Tuesday night’s practice. Cornerback Datrone Young, who started 25 games in the last four seasons at Iowa State, brings much-needed experience to Duke’s beleaguered secondary.
Offensive linemen Chance Lytle (Colorado) and Andre Harris (Arkansas State) are pushing for spots on the two-deep depth chart up front even as Duke returns four starters from last season.
Duke opens the season Sept. 2 against Temple at Wallace Wade Stadium. Road games at Northwestern and Kansas, two of the teams the Blue Devils defeated last season, lie ahead in September.
But, before lining up to try and beat another FBS opponent, the Blue Devils are getting their minds and bodies right to push aside recent on-field failures.
Tuesday night’s first practice was an important step.
“Our culture has shifted here,” Dalmolin said, “and we’re really forming a true brotherhood. We’re all super excited to get out on the field today and it showed on the field.”
This story was originally published August 3, 2022 11:17 AM.