Wake Forest Travels to Durham

Wake Forest Travels to Durham

Hang around enough college football coaches and you become convinced they all know each other. Their paths have crossed at other jobs or they see each other at any number of coaches conventions that used to exist before NIL and the transfer portal started consuming what downtime they had. And there are the inevitable public comments from each of them about how much respect they have for the coach of that week’s opponent. Private comments are often differing, but that is for another time. This week, two familiar friends face off as Wake Forest travels to Durham to play Duke.

The regular season finale actually pits two coaches who legitimately like and respect each other. If you need actual proof, Wake’s Dave Clawson has given Duke’s Mike Elko a coaching job at numerous stops along their coaching journey. Elko coached for Clawson at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green, and Wake Forest. Elko was on the staff in Winston-Salem from 2014-2016 as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach before leaving to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. It was a year in South Bend, four in College Station, and then on to the head coaching job at Duke where he is about to complete his first season.

“He’s done a remarkable job in one year of transforming their football program,” Clawson said of Elko Tuesday. “Mike’s very smart. He’s a very hard worker. And that combination usually yields results.” Elko is the only assistant who has been at every stop where Clawson has been a head coach.

And while they are legitimately friendly, send the occasional text during the season, and have real respect for each other, make no mistake. Things are different the week of the game. “It’s not like we’re enemies. But we’re certainly not going to talk this week,” Clawson said. “Before the game, I’m sure it will be pleasant. And then once kickoff starts, he’ll want to kick my a**, and I’ll want to kick his. That’s what competitors do. Mike Knows I’m that way, and I know he’s that way. I think that’s why we have respect for each other and why we work so well together.”

That gets us to the actual game then….otherwise known as the part before any postgame friendliness.

Duke is far overachieving what many imagined for them. The Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division at the ACC Media Days back in July. But they come into the regular season finale at 7-4 overall and 4-3 in conference play. Their three conference losses have been by a grand total of eight points.

Riley Leonard has settled in as quarterback for Duke. He played sparingly last year behind Gunnar Holmberg, throwing all of 62 passes in seven appearances. This year, the second-year sophomore is completing 62.5% of his passes for more than 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. It is enough to have impressed Clawson. “Riley Leonard is going to be one of the top quarterbacks in this conference for the next few years,” he said earlier this week. Adding to his skill set, he also leads the team in total rushing yards and is picking up 5.8 yards per carry. He has 11 rushing touchdowns, making him the exact kind of dual-threat quarterback that has given the Wake Forest defense problems this season.

Elko said that Leonard is still learning the ropes as the full-time starting quarterback. “It is all a learning curve for him as a first-year starter. He is learning how to do it in every element and how to do it in every environment, against every defense and he’ll come out of it and be better this week for it.”

Clawson called the Duke offense, “Well coached,” and “extremely efficient.”

Conversely, with Elko having come from the Clawson coaching tree, you would think there would be a depth of knowledge with regards to the Demo Deacons offense and the slow mesh offense that is so enigmatic to some defenses. Not so, according to Elko. It honestly didn’t start until I left. It was really something that started to show up in the last game I coached in the bowl game against Temple. I wasn’t really there when it was running the way it is running now,” he said this week. “I don’t know that I have the inside knowledge that I wish I had from my time there.”

Putting Wake’s conference record somewhere else for the moment, the 7-4 overall record assures the Demon Deacons of a decent enough bowl game. That 8th win though could be big. If Clemson gets elevated, then so does the rest of the conference. Even as we head into the final week of the regular season, there are so many variables for the postseason. This means leaving nothing to chance becomes vital for Wake.

“If you get eight, then the bowl game gets a little better,” Clawson said. “You know you get to the end of the year, you know you want that number in the left-hand column to get as big as you can make it.”

And he set the expectations for the fans as the season closes out. “This is a very, I think, evenly matched game. It’s two 7-4 teams. I can’t imagine this game won’t go late.” He means it will be close late in the game. It’s not a reference to the time of day. Wake has had more than its share of games ending near midnight.

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