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College Football Preview 2023: 25. Duke Blue Devils

Riley Leonard, Duke

25. Duke Blue Devils

Even as the ACC goes division-less, the Blue Devils have the weapons to contend for a conference title

2022 Review
After totaling just five victories in David Cutcliffe's final two seasons at the helm, expectations were tampered in Durham entering Mike Elko's debut campaign. And, after a fairly surprising 3-0 start, those expectations appeared justified, as the Blue Devils would go on to lose three of their next four games. However, a road trip to Coral Gables was just what Duke needed to put together a strong second half of the fall. They dropped 45 points on a flailing Miami team and after a much-needed bye, went 3-1 in the month of November. In the Military Bowl against UCF, Duke capped off an impressive Year One of the Elko era, winning 30-13. It was the most victories the program has attained since they played for an ACC Title back in 2014, a resounding debut for the new staff. Now, the program hopes to build on that momentum and achieve even greater things in a new-look ACC.

2023 Outlook
Offense: The Duke offense lacked any bite in the latter part of the Cutcliffe years, but showed significant improvement in Year One under Mike Elko. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns was one of the strongest coordinator hires of the cycle, opening up this Blue Devil offense and unleashing quarterback Riley Leonard.

Leonard was one of the ACC's best last fall, totaling over 3,500 yards and 33 touchdowns. He had a reputation as a solid, accurate passer, but Duke allowed him to use his legs to create more often in 2022, and the results speak for themselves. Leonard ran for 699 yards and 13 touchdowns and showcased an elite athleticism that made him a two-sport star in high school. If he continues to progress, he's a dark horse Heisman candidate, particularly with how deep and experienced the Blue Devils are at receiver.

Speaking of receivers, Duke has just about every important name returning on the perimeter. Senior Jalon Calhoun was the top wide out a season ago and is back to lead this corps once again, while veterans Eli Pancol and Jordan Moore offer plenty of support. Moore in particular made major leaps last fall and seems to have the highest ceiling of anybody on the offense.

That trio leads the way, but the Blue Devils have plenty behind them at receiver. Sophomore Sahmir Hagans was a pleasant surprise a season ago and should be ready for even greater things, while seniors Jontavis Robertson and Malik Bowen-Sims also return to the room.

It will be interesting to see whether Johns features tight ends even more in 2023. Senior Nicky Dalmolin wasn't much more than a red zone threat last year, but the experienced pass-catcher has the potential to be even more. Junior Cole Finney also returns to the fold after notching four receptions in very limited use in 2022.

Although Leonard is technically the top returning rusher on the roster, Duke brings back two quality tailbacks in Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman. Waters finished with 566 yards last fall and Coleman with 480, but I'll be curious to see whether they can reach another gear this season. Both have proven their reliability, but aren't considered very explosive. If they can provide an additional spark alongside Leonard, this offense becomes even more terrifying.

The line may be considered the weakest position group of the offense, but this should still be a stellar unit. Senior left tackle Graham Barton has All-ACC potential and a likely NFL future, and both Maurice McIntyre and Jacob Monk have played plenty of snaps in the collegiate ranks, entering their respective fifth seasons. The right side of the unit could be a recipe for concern, but Duke has reinforcements set to arrive in the form of Stanford grad transfer Jake Hornibrook. Hornibrook primarily played guard while in the Pac-12, but the expectation is that he should handle right tackle duties this year.

It's hard not to feel good about this offense looking ahead to 2023. Leonard under center provides the Blue Devils a dynamic weapon that can change a game on any drive, and there's plenty of pieces surrounding him. After finishing 32nd nationally in scoring offense a season ago, at  32.8 points per game, it seems likely Duke will be able to bust into the Top 25 in 2023.

Defense: Elko and coordinator Robb Smith engineered a nice turnaround on this side of the ball, holding opponents to just over 22 points per game a year ago. There's less star power here compared to the Blue Devil offense, particularly with Shaka Heyward and Darius Joiner moving on, but an abundance of experience.

With all four starters returning to the defensive line, expect the Blue Devils to be after opposing quarterbacks early and often in 2023. Senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter finished tied for the team lead in sacks and led all Blue Devils with 11 tackles for loss. His quickness and powerful first step makes him a pain for opposing interior linemen, and he has real All-ACC potential. He'll be joined at tackle by senior Ja'Mion Franklin, while R.J. Oben and Vincent Anthony Jr. are set to reprise their roles at defensive end. Anthony is the name to watch as a potential breakout candidate; the former four-star prospect impressed as a true freshman and has the potential to be a superstar.

The linebacker corps will have to make do without Shaka Heyward, a long-time staple of the Duke front seven. He was all over the field for the Blue Devils last fall, stuffing the stat sheet full. Replacing his 93 tackles, six tackles for loss, and six pass deflections won't be easy.

Expect veteran Cam Dillon to play a leading role in the middle, as the former Columbia transfer acclimated quickly to ACC play in 2022. There's nothing particularly flashy about the way he plays, but Dillon is a disciplined, well-rounded defender who should be even more effective with another full offseason in Durham. More important is who will start alongside him in what is expected to be a 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Senior Dorian Mausi appears to be a good bet, although sophomore Tre Freeman will battle him. Freeman has played sparingly during his first two seasons with the Blue Devils, primarily on special teams, but the former two-way high school star has an interesting skillset. 

Although Duke recorded quality defensive numbers overall in 2022, the pass defense left something to be desired. They relied primarily on forcing turnovers and when they struggled to do so, big plays were an unfortunate consequence. After finishing 105th nationally in passing yards allowed, four starters returning to the secondary bodes well.

Chandler Rivers and Joshua Pickett provide proven playmaking ability at both cornerback spots, but Duke also brought on a pair of transfers to push them. Myles Jones played in 49 games and made 29 starts with Texas A&M and at 6'4", his length is a real pain for opposing offenses. Fellow newcomer Al Blades Jr. is another guy who has played a bunch of football and knows the ACC landscape. Blades played for five seasons at Miami and made 15 starts, proving to be a reliable defensive back for the 'Canes. This should be an interesting position to watch throughout fall camp as these four vie for snaps.

Junior Brandon Johnson is set to handle nickelback duties in 2023 and may be the star of the defense now that Heyward is gone. He's not only a reliable tackler, Duke will feature him in exotic blitzes, as he tied with Carter with 5.5 sacks. Expect new coordinator Tyler Santucci to have some fun with Johnson and use his versatility to his advantage.

The departure of Darius Joiner opens up a starting spot at safety, but senior Jaylen Stinson is a proven commodity. He was third on the team in tackles last fall, finishing behind only Joiner and Heyward. Free safety is a position to watch, with several players competing for the starting gig. Senior James Hopson II seems like he could be the favorite, although he has played sparingly over a long period of time in the program.

Losing long-time contributors like Joiner and Heyward always creates a leadership gap, but the prognosis for the Duke defense in 2023 still appears promising. There's proven experience at every level of the unit and the weak spot a year ago, the secondary, brought in some additional help. Duke may not have the turnover luck they enjoyed a year ago, but they might not need it if they can stay healthy.

Special Teams: There's plenty of experience among the specialists, as Duke returns two proven kickers and a solid punter in Porter Wilson. Sophomore Todd Pelino should be slated to handle primary placekicking duties after going 8-9 a year ago, although Charlie Ham also brings a big leg to the equation. Jaylen Stinson and Jalon Calhoun were the two primary kick and punt returners, but expect Sahmir Hagans to feature into the mix heavily.

Bottom Line
Duke's renaissance in 2022 was no one-year fluke for Elko and company. The defensive-minded head man has a great understanding of talent development and is hands-off when necessary on offense, which has allowed Riley Leonard and his supporting cast to flourish. The Blue Devils would likely be my ACC Coastal Champion pick if the league hadn't eliminated divisions heading into 2023. That will likely cap Duke's ceiling in a conference that includes such heavyweights as Clemson and Florida State, but don't overlook this program. The offense is loaded with weapons and is genuinely fun to watch, while the defense returns enough to more than make up for the departures of Heyward and Joiner. Add to that a manageable schedule, the Blue Devils should once again hover around the 8-9 win mark and if things go right, sliding into double-digit win territory doesn't seem like too mighty of a challenge.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Mike Elko has been a staple of East Coast college football since his start as a grad assistant at Stony Brook in 1999, and now enters his second season as head coach at Duke. It's just his fourth job at the Power Five level, with previous pit stops as defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M. The offensive coordinator is Kevin Johns, who has bounced around since a seven-year stint at Northwestern from 2004-2010. He's coached under numerous offensive masterminds, including Kevin Wilson at Indiana and Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech. The new defensive coordinator will be Tyler Santucci, who replaces Robb Smith. Santucci, a 34-year old, is considered a rising name in the coaching ranks, and his ties to Elko go back to their time together at Wake Forest. Santucci spent the 2022 season as co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and before that, was the Aggies' linebackers coach.

Recruiting Breakdown
Elko's first full class at Duke may rank 55th nationally in the 247Sports Composite, but there's ample upside with this group. A bunch of offensive talent leads the 2023 Class, namely tailbacks Perry Jones and Marquise Collins, two similar prospects who could both be heading for redshirt seasons. Collins was an impressive get for the staff, going into Texas and securing a 5'9" speed demon who is a proven commodity in track and field. Quarterback Grayson Loftis could be the QB of the future in Durham, while linebacker Kevin O'Connor is generally considered the top defensive guy the Blue Devils reeled in. Keep your eye on safety DaShawn Stone out of Asheville, North Carolina, a guy who most thought would go to one of the Virginia schools but instead stayed inside the state. The 6'3", 190 pounder has a build I love for his position, and should be even more impressive physically once he spends some time in the program.

2023 Schedule Analysis
It's a mixed bag for the Blue Devils schedule-wise in 2023. They open with three straight home games, but one of those happens to be against the mighty Clemson Tigers. However, it might actually be more advantageous to play the Tigers early on, as they will still be breaking in their flashy new play-caller, Garrett Riley. A home game against Notre Dame will cap off the first month, but the final two months feature an abundance of difficult road trips. Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina, and Virginia could all be losable with things go sideways, although the Blue Devils do get UNC on a long week (they play Wake Forest on a Thursday the week prior). On its face, it's not necessarily a brutal schedule, but there's nothing easy about it, either. How Elko gets his team prepared for those late-season road games will decide Duke's ceiling in 2023.

2023 X-Factor: Cam Dillon, LB
Shaka Heyward is not the type of defender you can easily replace at a place like Duke. His production over the last several seasons was unmatched, which is spelt out in all the accolades he earned. Heyward was a two-time All-ACC player, a former team captain, and a multiyear recipient of the Vincent Rey Award, given to the team's top linebacker. As he moves on, Duke is hopeful veteran Cam Dillon can step in and fill some of the void left by him. Dillon has proven he can handle ACC football, finishing fourth on the team in tackles after coming over from Columbia, but his leadership will be particularly crucial in 2023. The Blue Devils need a guy who can not only eat tackles in the middle of the field, but also project an aura of confidence and energy that allows them to thrive. That doesn't mean Dillon has to be some All-American linebacker, but solid progress from him would go a long way in keeping the Duke defense in good shape.

Team Projections 
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)
Offensive MVP: QB Riley Leonard
Defensive MVP: S Jaylen Stinson
Impact Freshman: LB Kevin O'Connor
Impact Transfer: CB Myles Jones
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Sahmir Hagans

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