Coming off a nine-win season in his first as head coach at Duke, Mike Elko is looking forward to the challenge of welcoming the ninth-ranked Clemson Tigers to town on Labor Day night.
Dabo Swinney’s program has won the ACC seven times in the past eight seasons, and Elko has a tremendous amount of respect for what the head coach has accomplished during his time at Clemson.
“Clemson is coming in and I have unbelievable respect for this program,” Elko said. “I’ve said this all offseason that they’re the gold standard of ACC football. I think it’s seven of the last eight ACC championship games they’ve played in. They’ve been in five straight playoffs. They’ve won two national championships. They’ve accomplished as much as any ACC program has since the ACC has come together like this in this manner. To get them in the opener, I think is an opportunity for our program, but it’s also a huge challenge.”
Clemson brought in Garrett Riley to revamp an offense that has underperformed the past two seasons, and while preparing for a new scheme won’t be easy, Elko knows slowing down the Tigers’ running game will be key.
“They’re going to come in here offensively with two extremely talented running backs that are performing at an extremely high level,” Elko said. “Will Shipley has been around doing it for years it feels like and can do it in a lot of different ways. He can hurt you running, he can hurt you catching it and can hurt you in the return game. They’ve got a really good offensive line. I’ve known Cade Klubnik for a long time all the way back to my years in Texas and so I feel like he’s been winning football games and playing quarterback at a really high level for a really long time even though it hasn’t been as much at Clemson yet. This is his first full-time year as a starter, but we certainly have a lot of respect for his talent level and where he’s at.”
The Blue Devils return 18 of 21 starters from a season ago, including veteran quarterback Riley Leonard. Duke also returns every receiver that caught a pass in 2022. Having that much experience could prove to be beneficial for Elko’s team as they prepare to face one of the best defenses they will see all season.
“Defensively, the length and athleticism just jumps off on the tape but I think it starts through the middle. They’re really good through the middle with their two defensive tackles,” Elko said. “Their two linebackers are really active and effective football players for them. They’re involved in a lot. They create a lot of havoc. Their two defensive ends as well. Those are two kids I remember recruiting a long time ago. Those kids have been at Clemson for a long time, which is never a good recipe for a Clemson player to be there for a long time because they’re going to develop and grow in that program. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re long. The secondary brings back a lot of guys and it brings back a lot of guys with a lot of experience. That group is going to be really talented. It is going to be a huge challenge for us, but we’ll be up for it, and we’ll go out and play our best football next Monday and kind of see where it goes.”
Facing off with a quality opponent in a season opener is never easy, but Elko believes that if his team can minimize mistakes and play clean football, the Blue Devils will have a shot to pull off the upset.
“You do everything that you think you need to do to get yourself ready and then you just try to go out there and play clean football,” Elko said. “If we can limit penalties, if we can limit operational issues, if we can limit turnovers, if we can protect the football, if we can do those things and not make some of those first game mistakes, then in an opener, you feel like you’ve given yourself a chance no matter who you’re playing.”
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