DURHAM – Duke football head coach Mike Elko met with members of the media on Monday afternoon for his weekly press conference.
Duke hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday for its regular season finale. The game will be broadcast on ACC Network with kickoff slated for 12 noon. The contest can also be heard on the Blue Devils Sports Network from LEARFIELD through the varsity app or goduke.com.
Mike Elko Duke Football Head Coach
(Ref.: Opening Statement)
“Thank you everybody for coming out. I think this is our last press conference until we get into bowl season so appreciate everything you guys have done all year covering Duke football. To recap last week, I think what I said after the after the game in the press conference really holds. When you look at the things that you have to do to win a football game on the road in the ACC, we just really didn’t do it. We lost the turnover battle, 2-0. We played our worst special teams game across the board. We didn’t do a really good job there. I thought defensively against the run game, we really struggled with angles and leverage and missed tackles, which has certainly not been something that’s been a problem for us this year. We gave up too many explosive passes, which again is not something that’s really shown up much this year. Hats off to UVA for making those plays. I just didn’t feel like we put our best foot forward from an execution standpoint. Offensively, when you look at the whole game, it boils down to a handful of third-and-ones that we didn’t convert to keep drives alive, a second-and-one that we take a sack, that kills a drive and two turnovers so that’s five out of 12 drives that end in situations that they probably aren’t ready to end. It’s disappointing, but we’ve got to bounce back and that’s the nature of football. We’ve got one more chance to go out there as a team in the regular season and kind of right this ship and put a good finish on this thing.
“That kind of brings us forward to Pitt. We’ll have 37 seniors walking on senior day. I don’t know what that actually means in terms of who’s coming back and who’s not coming back. That is a really interesting world nowadays with COVID and those years still going on, but there’s a lot of really special kids that are going to be out on that field getting recognized for senior day and a lot of kids who have meant an awful lot to Duke football and certainly have meant an awful lot to this two-year resurgence of Duke football. It’s going to be a really emotional and special day. Obviously, a lot of people in our building and in our locker room want to make sure that this group goes out the right way on Saturday and has a really strong finish to what has been a really strong two years. That kind of becomes a rallying cry for this week.
“When you look at Pitt, offensively, the first thing that jumps out to you is they’re really talented at the wide receiver position. I think they’re athletic. I think they run really well. Upfront, they’re really big. They’re playing a couple young guys on the right side of the offensive line, but they’re a big physical group. They’ve got three backs that they kind of rotate through. C’Bo Flemister and Rodney Hammond kind of play the majority but they bring the [Daniel] Carter kid in as a third guy. Then they’re just trying to kind of solve the quarterback position. They’ve kind of settled now on Nate Yarnell and he looked really good last week against Boston College, so certainly expect him to continue to improve. We know we’re going get their best on offense for sure. They’re starting to kind of put it together as the year has gone on.
“Defensively, it’s a Pat Narduzzi, Randy Bates defense. Those guys have coached and played a lot of really talented defenses for a long time. It’s a challenging scheme, in terms of it’s not overly multiple, but they play it exceptionally well. There are really good changeups to kind of complement what they do as a base. They make it really, really challenging for you because you’ve got to earn everything. They’re going to be in the box loaded and not allow you a lot of easy run lanes and then they’re going to be in your face outside covering you in a lot of man to man. Winning one-on-one matchups against this group is critical and our ability to go out and do that Saturday will play a big role in it. So, it’s another great opportunity for us and a chance to finish the season undefeated at home in ACC play, which is something that we’re really taking pride in in how we protect Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium. So, it’s another great opportunity to go out and do that.”
(Ref.: On if he is seeing regression in the pass defense allowing chunk plays down the stretch)
“Yeah, they’re all multiple layered problems. So, if you just look at Saturday, there was a couple of times where we really got out of our lanes and zone drops and created huge voids. The first touchdown, the big third down at the end of the second half, the first touchdown from Malik Washington that was the case and then the third-and-12 that they converted in the second half that was the case. If you look at the big touchdown pass they threw, that was obviously a one-on-one jump ball that got to the kid’s hand pretty quick, and their kid just made a play and we didn’t do a great job locating and getting the ball on the ground, which we’ve been better at. I think at times we could be better at rushing the passer and disrupting the quarterback. So, I think it’s a multi-layered issue, the last three games. I think we’ve just got to get back to our game. Anytime things start going like that, the biggest thing you have to do as a coach is you’ve got to get back to the basic fundamentals. You have to get back to the things that your kids are most comfortable with and then try to put them in positions to go out and execute at a high level and that’s something we’ve got to really focus on Saturday.”
(Ref.: On what Pitt was able to do to challenge Boston College on Thursday)
“I think probably control the flow of the game offensively. They were able to sustain drives more and they were able to stay on the field more. That’s kind of their recipe for success. If they can play complimentary football and extend drives and run the ball and stay within the chains and allow that defense to be rested and fresh when they go out there, that defense is really challenging to go against. And I think that’s kind of what happened. I think at times earlier in the year, whether it was a turnover or just missed opportunities, the complimentary piece of it wasn’t always there. Defensively, they were getting stuck on the field a lot and maybe kind of wearing down a little bit because of that. I think last week, you really saw them put it all together and look like what I think Coach Narduzzi wants Pitt football to look like and that’s certainly what we anticipate seeing this weekend.”
(Ref.: On if seeing missed tackles this late in the season is normal or if there is wear and tear on the team)
“I mean, you don’t want to make excuses. It has been a gauntlet of a schedule, and when that happens, I think sometimes there’s wear and tear that you have to learn how to play through. I think that’s kind of what we’ve talked to the guys about. I think there’s been some emotional roller coasters this year, that maybe these kids are having to experience for the first time. To be a team that’s talked about as a top-25 team and then not a top-25 team and then to go from a big stage to a lesser stage and still getting everyone’s best every step along the way. All of that is new and all of that is a piece of us having to learn how to become a championship level program. We haven’t always handled it the right way at times. We’ve done a really nice job and at times we haven’t. I think that’s a piece of it, but I do think over the course of 10 weeks, the way the schedule has laid out, it certainly has been a physically taxing year for sure. That’s not to make any type of excuse. We’ve run through this schedule, every step along the way with the best of our ability, but I do think there is a little bit of a reality to that.”
(Ref.: On the low energy level from the sideline last Saturday)
“I think when you play 12 games in the season, you’re not going to have the same energy level every week. I think that’s to be expected. I don’t think it’s possible to be at an all-time high like you would be at Carolina or Monday night against Clemson every single Saturday. It just doesn’t always play out like that. I think there’s times where you just have to rely on how you play the game. I think what Saturday was and I don’t think we played flat. I don’t think we didn’t play hard. I don’t think we didn’t compete. It was an emotional game against Carolina. What we needed to do was we needed to go out there and we talk about it all the time, you’ve got to be a pro and go out there and you’ve got to play. You’ve got to execute, and you’ve got to play for each other. We just didn’t. It’s happened twice this year, right? It happen against Louisville, and it happened this week where we just didn’t play the kind of football we’re capable of playing. That all starts with me. I mean, ultimately that falls on my head and it’s my job to get these guys playing and doing the things that they’re capable of doing. Unfortunately, Saturday, we just didn’t do it. Nobody takes that more personal than I do and certainly the guys in our locker room do, so we have to very quickly try to figure out how to resolve it and fix it and come out and have a really good Saturday this weekend.”
(Ref.: On if the potential smaller crowd around the holiday plays a factor into preparation)
“It’s probably just a hope that that’s no longer the reality. I think what we have to do is we have to figure out how to change reality in those types of situations. If that’s ultimately what it becomes, then our job is to go out there and perform and play, but I don’t think this program can continue to accept that as reality. I think if we want to become the program we want to become, regardless of weekend, regardless of circumstance, we need the fans to show up. That’s ultimately where we have to get to and it’s our job to do that. We’ve got to build this program, and we’ve got to make it a product that people want to come out and support and watch and we’ve got to do that consistently. We’ve talked about all the ways we’ve got to build community engagement and all of those things, but we’re certainly not going to accept that on a Saturday afternoon, people shouldn’t be at Wallace Wade Stadium. They should be.”
(Ref.: On how Grayson Loftis’ development took another step)
“It was his most productive game. From that perspective, I thought it was another step forward for him. He missed a handful of throws that I’m sure he would have liked to have had back but he’s still a young kid, and he’s still learning and he’s still getting all of that under his belt. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I think he was close to 290 yards or 280 something passing. That was by far and away his most productive day and again in the fourth quarter, he continued to make the throws that we needed to make on back-to-back drives. He did what he could do on offense to give us a chance to rally back in that game. I think it’s still continuing to be encouraging and continues to trend in the right direction for him in the way he’s operating and the way he’s playing.”
(Ref.: On what it takes for Duke football to continue to trend in the right direction)
“A lot of support and I think that’s the world that we live in nowadays. I mean, come on, what are we probably about 13 days away from complete anarchy in the wild west? That probably started three weeks ago. You hear all these coaches talking about, people reaching out to guys and recruiting guys and that’s just the world of college athletics. Now, someone asked me like, ‘do you feel like people are tampering with your guys’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what that means anymore’. It’s literally open free agency for all of college football and so our guys are no different than anyone else’s that are going to be in that conversation. I think, again, our ability to continue to elevate our program or continue our ability to move our program forward and continue to provide an elite student-athlete experience is critical. I think our involvement in NIL is going to be really important. I think continuing to support the Durham Devils Club and doing the things that we can do to try to help continue to grow that is going to be really important. It’s a piece, it’s not the whole thing when you talk about a retention strategy, but it’s certainly a piece of the retention strategy. Then just continuing to provide the resources to keep this thing moving forward. I think everybody wants to feel like they’re part of something that’s moving forward. I think, there will be blips in the radar. There always are. I mean, no program is immune to this. I’ve heard it talked about that there are certain programs that are more prone to losing guys. If you got guys moving from the number one ranked team in the country to the number three ranked team in the country nowadays and not to call out any names but like, that’s happening everywhere. So, I don’t know that anybody is immune to what’s going on right now in the transfer portal. It just is what it is and you’ve got to put together a really strong strategy to retain your players and NIL is a big part of it.”
(Ref.: On the development of Mekhi Wall stepping in late when Jalon Calhoun wasn’t available)
“Yeah, I think Mekhi has certainly flashed talent at times. I think there’s probably a level of consistency that we’re still looking for from him, play in and play out, but it was great to see him get in there in some critical moments and operate in the offense really well. He certainly made some critical catches in that drive to keep the game alive.
(Ref.: On the playbook being more open with Grayson’s development and play lately)
“It’s open”ish”. I mean listen; I don’t know that you can put in words how hard this is. I guess I made this analogy to somebody like if you were to go to your local high school and they have to trot out their ninth grader for a playoff game and he was now the starter on varsity. Like, that’s a jump and so that’s not to say that he’s not making the jump well, it’s not to say that he’s not progressing. It’s not to say that he’s not giving us chances to win. It’s certainly not saying we don’t have the chance to win with him as our quarterback, but you do have to do things to not just throw him to the wolves. You can’t just go out there and say, ‘okay, hey, here’s all of our play go run them all. I hope it works out and if it doesn’t, it’s on you’. We have to be smart with what we’re asking him to do. That’s not to say that we don’t let them throw it or we don’t trust him to throw it, but I don’t know that you just unleash everything on him. I don’t think that would be fair to any freshman and that’s no different with Riley [Leonard] last year. Riley was starting for the first time as a second-year player. We certainly didn’t go into the first couple games making him execute every single piece of the playbook. We found what he was really comfortable with and really good at and certainly had no problem with him throwing the ball. You were just trying to find the throw game pieces that he was the most comfortable with and I think we’re trying to do the same thing with Grayson.”