Of the necessary overhauling Mike Elko has done since taking the reins as Duke football coach, there was one area of his program, he said, in more dire need of a revamp than the rest.
And Elko noticed it upon arriving in Durham from Texas A&M and greeting his Blue Devils players for the first time.
“Just meeting them,” Elko, the former Aggies defensive coordinator for the last four years, said, “clearly, we needed to put mass on and it was the most apparent thing when I took over. Then, you started digging into, ‘What can we do to help?’ Training table was a big piece of that. Weight room was a big piece of that.”
Essentially, Elko sensed Duke’s strength and conditioning regimen needed rebuilding.
That thought particularly lined up considering the Blue Devils were coming off a 3-9 campaign last season in which they faded and were non-competitive in the back half of the year while dropping their final six games by an average of 36.5 points. A 48-0 shutout loss at Virginia in mid-October began the troubling spiral.
People are also reading…
“That’s something [Elko] said when he first came in,” Duke fifth-year senior linebacker Shaka Heyward said. “He said we needed to get stronger and bigger and that we needed to be able to withstand a smash-mouth football game for four quarters.”
Heyward said individually he heard similar feedback from the NFL, which had a sixth round-to-undrafted grade on him, prompting the defender to return to school for an additional season. So, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder was pleased, he said, when Elko prioritized a plan to bulk the Blue Devils up in preparation for this coming fall.
Elko said another factor previously hurting Duke’s strength program was the school’s COVID-19 rules limiting what players could do in the weight room leading into last season. He hired ex-Miami strength coach David Feeley as Duke’s director of football sports performance and they’ve spearheaded the changes.
“I probably spent more time researching that hire,” Elko said, “and putting a lot of focus and energy into that hire because that’s the one that I know if I don’t get this right, then that’s going to be a problem and going to set our program back for years.”
Now, with a legitimate strength training structure in place and measurable results already showing themselves, Elko said he feels like the Blue Devils will have a better chance to compete in ACC games.
Duke starts the year with four nonconference contests, including a pair on the road against schools from other Power Five leagues — at Northwestern on Sept. 10 and at Kansas on Sept. 24 — before opening ACC play on Oct. 1 against UVa at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Heyward is the centerpiece of the squad’s defense, which should benefit from the return of defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, defensive end R.J. Oben and linebacker Dorian Mausi as well with the Blue Devils adapting to the defense being installed by Elko and new defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Duke was last in the league for total defense, scoring defense and passing defense last season, but Oben had a team-high five sacks and Carter racked up 7.5 tackles for loss while Mausi contributed 59 tackles.
For his career, Heyward has 246 tackles and 26.5 tackles for loss.
“It’s an attack style defense,” Heyward said, “which I like. Learning it wasn’t too difficult for me just because I’m a redshirt senior and I’ve seen a lot of football.”
On offense, Elko and first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Johns have a quarterback competition to evaluate and must find starters at running back and wide receiver, too. But Duke brings back four of five starters on the offensive front including three-year starter Jacob Monk.
In the mix for the quarterback job are sophomores Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard.
As for Elko, the South Brunswick, N.J. native said he’s eager for his first chance to be the man in charge of a team after spending the last 18 seasons as a defensive boss and working for well-regarded coaches like Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame and Dave Clawson at Wake Forest.
“They’re all so different in their approaches to be head coaches, but also very successful,” Elko said, “and so I think what I took from all of that is ‘Just be yourself.’ You take little things from everywhere you’ve been and I don’t want to suggest I haven’t stolen and learned, but I think at the end of the day I have to run my program the way I know how to run it and just be myself.”
His first imprint on Duke was already made in his first offseason there, simply by upgrading the way players train and better preparing them for Saturdays.