This weekend, the Seminoles will host the Duke Blue Devils under the lights in a primetime showdown at Doak Campbell.
Each week, as part of our Line of Scrimmage series, we’ll be speaking with members of the beat that covers FSU’s upcoming opponent, getting all the details from those who know those teams best.
Duke comes into town sitting at 5-1, their best start since 2018. The Blue Devils are led by quarterback Riley Leonard, who is currently day-to-day with a high ankle sprain. Head coach Mike Elko has Duke playing at a high level, which could spell trouble for the Seminoles if Jordan Travis and the offense come out of the gates slow. We’ll dive into what to expect from this veteran-led squad with Donald Wine of Duke Basketball Roundup.
Well, if we’re going to talk Duke football, we got to start with the reigning ACC coach of the year, Mike Elko. After leading the Blue Devils to a 9-4 record his first season, he has Duke at 5-1, with just one heart breaking loss to Sam Hartman and Notre Dame. What’s been the secret with Elko? We knew he was a great defensive coordinator, but this is largely the same team that was 3-9 just two years ago right? There wasn’t a secret Colorado-esque roster overhaul that everyone ignored?
He’s got everybody bought into his philosophy —confidence is key. They have understood that entering every single football game this year, starting from that Clemson game on Labor Day to now, that they can win.
And it’s funny, that’s not really a big secret, but it works. And I think the greatest thing is, from the time he stepped foot on campus, he said, “Hey, I want to do things my way. I want to bring my hard hitting philosophy of football to Duke University. But I also need the players to buy into that and I want to make sure that I’m putting them in the best position for success.” And he’s done it so far. I mean, even last year, Riley Leonard, wasn’t the surefire starter, he had to win it in a quarterback competition with Jordan Moore.
And what did Jordan Moore do? He just became one of Duke’s best wideouts. So like that sort of thing, where they’re like, “hey, put me in position where I can be successful, put me in a place where I can help the team win,” and everybody has bought into that. That Clemson game I think really helped this team, even gain more confidence and say, hey, if we can do that against Clemson, we can do that against anybody in the country.
Everyone’s bought in everyone, understands their assignment, everyone executes it and everyone holds each other accountable. And again, it’s not a secret that that’s a key to success, but it works. And when it comes to Duke, they’ve found over the years that sometimes you just need some of those basic ingredients to make make all this thing go well.
Let’s start on offense and with the signal caller, by now we’ve all seen that Riley Leonard can dunk, but the kid does a great job leading this Kevin Johns schemed offense. But Leonard is also coming off the ankle injury so we need to also talk Henry Belin IV. Where do each of these signal callers stand out and where might they struggle on Saturday night?
Mike Elko in his press conference kind of gave a little more of an optimistic outlook on Riley Leonard starting — having said that, I have no idea.
The difference between these two guys is Leonard can beat you on the ground mostly but also in the air, whereas Belin has a cannon for an arm, but he’s not going to run as much.
When it comes to Leonard, if you take away his legs, and he’s not 100% and is unable to push and pivot and all these things and he needs to do, then it neutralizes them a little bit and he becomes more of a one dimensional quarterback. Now, having said that, he’s still very, very good and I will take a 75-80% Riley Leonard on Saturday because I think he gives the best chance to win.
Does he suit up on Saturday? My gut tells me he will. But I think that is you know… I couldn’t give it a sign of a chance percentage or anything like that.
This running game is led by Jordan Waters but that number is a little deceiving as prior to the injury, it was quarterback Riley Leonard as the rushing leader. Overall, Duke is averaging a shade under 200 yards on the ground each game. What type of back is Waters and what can FSU fans expect from this running game this weekend?
He could do a little bit of both — he can ground and pound but he could also take it out on the flank or on the side and go long very, very quickly. But also you have Jaquez Moore, those two guys have kind of been the two headed monster at run at the running back position and both have excelled in different ways — it’s almost like a triple headed monster if you add Riley Leonard to the mix. And the fact that Leonard has led the lead the team in rushing doesn’t discount these two guys because they both are able to just explode with the football.
Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore both had successful 2022 seasons and they’ve picked up right where they left off halfway through this year. They’ve combined for 49 receptions and nearly 700 yards through the first six games. Just looking at the bios, these aren’t the tall targets like the Seminoles have, where has this duo found success these last two years?
Execution — I think when you’re not tall, and you’re not super big, and you’re not incredibly fast, but if you execute well, you can beat any cornerback in the country. And I think that’s what they’ve been doing so far.
They’re very smart. I mentioned Jordan Moore was a quarterback. So he knows what quarterbacks like, he knows how to get into positions where he can get the football and make a move after the catch. And Jalon Calhoun has been incredible at times, I mean, just this past weekend, he had a 69-yard touchdown, where he he just blew by everybody.
Their ability to execute their plays, be in the right places, and also adjust on the fly is huge. If Riley Leonard is running, they still present avenues for him to throw the football which makes him even more dangerous when he has the football. Previous teams, we wouldn’t see them moving the chains methodically down the field, and that’s what these running backs and receivers have helped Duke do. It’s calmed everybody down on the offensive end even when they’re not running the ball well.
The offensive line is anchored by stud left tackle Graham Barton. But it’s not Barton and everyone else. This is an experienced group with four grad transfers. Tell us about this veteran line.
It’s been incredible, these guys learning how to play with each other. Riley Leonard has not had a lot of sacks, he’s not had a lot of interceptions and plenty of time to throw the ball or run the ball, whatever you choose to do.
The Notre Dame game where Duke was missing Barton, it really showed on that on that side of the football, because he just opens up so many holes. This is a guy you are going to see on Sundays, but a lot of these guys could carve out paths in the NFL as well — Scott Elliot, Maurice McIntyre, Jake Hornibrook.
They’ve opened up so many lanes for running backs and for Riley Leonard to run the ball. And even last week, when Duke really struggled a little bit at the quarterback position, he was kept clean, because this offensive line has just been there all year
Let’s flip over to defense, specifically the defensive line. Another experienced group of two grad students and two redshirt seniors. FSU offensive coordinator Alex Atkins specifically mentioned defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin. But just like the offensive line, it’s not just Franklin, this is an impressive unit with I believe 11.5 sacks among the defensive line. Where has this group excelled and is there an area that the Seminoles could potentially have an advantage?
The defensive line has been so so wonderful to watch because they fly to the football. Everybody on this team flies to the football — it’s not just how big they are. It’s not about how they plug up holes. It’s about when they see the football, it’s like a shark seeing chum in the water.
The star for me over the last few years has been Dewayne Carter. You have an Aeneas Peebles who has been incredible so far this year. Wesley Williams, a redshirt freshman who’s come in and done well. And RJ Oben and Anthony Nelson, keep things going on the ends and make it where they force everybody into the middle where you have a Dewayne Carter who’s going to be playing on Sundays waiting for you, or Ja’Mion Franklin. And it’s so great how they work well together, plugging up gaps to make it where they force the football to where they want it to go. The sacks, the fumbles — it’s because of the fact that they’re able to again fly to the football, kind of force it into one path and then bam you see six Duke shirts all around that football trying to make a play.
Onto the second line, Tre Freeman is the team leader in tackles. He and Dorian Mausi both have an interception. This is another experienced unit. How have you felt the backers have performed so far this year?
I think they’ve done well. I think they’ve been unsung in a big way — and I think it’s true with the backers. I feel like that’s kind of how they like it. They don’t want to be the center of attention because then teams will key in on them, they just want to be able to roam free, sometimes rush to get sacks, sometimes drop back into coverage to get interceptions.
So again, they’ve been very good, a lot of times overshadowed but doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re doing the dirty work, they’re getting the tackles, they’re making the plays that need to be made. And at the end of the day, they can take credit of being part of a defense that’s one of the best of the country.
Finally, an area that really interests me, the Duke secondary. So much attention has been placed on Florida State receivers Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson. How do you expect this secondary to hand out the assignments and which of these guys stand out the most for you?
The secondary of this team has been the most improved unit on this football team and it’s not close — I’m proud of how they have worked to limit the big plays and also play clean football. They don’t do a lot of pass interference or defensive holding to get to where they are. They’re just playing clean physical football.
You mentioned the cornerbacks, but you also have Jaylen Stinson and Al Blades as safeties who are coming in and just absolutely destroy people. Stinson had the big fumble recovery run back against Clemson, but he’s second on the team in tackles. He’s everywhere on the football field. Al Blades came from Miami as a grad transfer, and he’s been killing people. The whole unit has basically taken it as a personal challenge that “no one’s getting past us, and they’re not putting points on the on the board.” Duke is fourth in the country in points per game allowed — they’ve only allowed like 9.6 points per game. The secondary has a lot to do with it because there’s not a lot of big plays. And teams realize if they’re going to score, they’d better have a short field because most of the points that have come against Duke have come with a short field.
The secondary has been an Achilles heel for Duke. For so so long. And this year, it just hasn’t been because these guys have said you’re not going to disrespect us by beating us
What are your thoughts on how Saturday plays out?
Duke had homecoming couple weeks ago against Notre Dame — on national TV, a 730 kickoff on ABC, eyes of the world upon ‘em and they came up just short. It was very heartbreaking.
So I feel like they’re going to try and take that heartbreak and apply it to someone else — and sorry, guys, I think it’s gonna be Florida State this weekend.
I think it’s going to be 23-21 There’s one guy we need to talk about on this team. And his name is Todd Pelino. He’s Duke’s field goal kicker. He’s two for two this year from 50 yards or longer, and he hits a 53 yarder to win it at the end.