ACC: Pitt, Wake Forest out to keep momentum, Clemson hits reset

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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The Atlantic Coast Conference changed significantly last season with Pitt winning the league title, Wake Forest taking the Atlantic Division and conference powerhouse Clemson largely out of the mix by mid-October.

Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi and Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson believe their teams worked hard this spring to stay on top. Pitt defeated Wake Forest 45-21 in the ACC title game, ending Clemson’s run of six straight championships.

Narduzzi spent the spring seeking a successor to Kenny Pickett, who was expected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the NFL draft.

“I was happy we got a lot of work done,” Narduzzi said. “We saw enough in 14 practices that we know who we are and I’m happy.”

The Panthers watched as Nick Patti competed with Southern Cal transfer Kedon Slovis for the starting spot. Slovis, who threw 30 touchdowns as a Trojans’ freshman, called it a “no-brainer” joining his new team.

Wake Forest, the first team other than Clemson to win the Atlantic since Florida State in 2014, won a program record-tying 11 games last year. Clawson took some offseason steps to improve a defense that was 10th in the ACC in points (28.9) and yards (413.2) allowed last season.

Clawson hired Brad Lambert as defensive coordinator. Lambert was linebackers coach at Wake Forest under Jim Grobe in 2006, the only other time the Deacons were 11-3.

“I’m encouraged by some things, and I’ve got a pit in my stomach about others,” Clawson said. “Were we better on defense because we are better on defense? Or because we did not play as well on offense.”

He will know for sure in about five months.

CLEMSON BACK?

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was pleased with what he saw this spring, especially with starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who struggled early with injuries and off-target throws.

Uiagalelei went 17 of 36 for 175 yards in the Tigers’ spring game earlier this month. Still, his body of work was more than good enough to keep him the starter over freshman Cade Klubnik.

Uiagalelei “has had a great spring,” Swinney said. “He has not done anything to not be the starter. Cade is a really talented player. We got two guys, I think, that can win at a high level, just like when Trevor (Lawrence) and DJ were coming out of the spring” in 2020.

It helps that receiver Joseph Ngata has had a injury-free spring. He finished with four catches for 50 yards in the spring game.

NEW FACES

All four new ACC coaching hires after last season came in the Coastal, highlighted by Miami bringing in Oregon’s Mario Cristobal for Manny Diaz. Cristobal was a former Miami offensive tackle who was part of two national title teams. He’s charged with bringing “The U” back to prominence.

The first spring under Cristobal ended April 16 with a commitment to the little details that the new coach regularly preached will determine how far the Hurricanes go this fall.

“There’s no more excuses,” quarterback Tyler Van Dyke said.

The other first-year coaches are former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko taking over at Duke for longtime coach Dave Cutcliffe; ex-Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry succeeding Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech; and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott moving to Virginia after Bronco Mendenhall‘s surprising move to step away.

The Cavaliers had the ACC’s final spring game this past Saturday and Elliott saw what he expected four months in.

“I thought that the majority of the guys were going to buy in, but I was still going to have a couple that were skeptical and kind of one foot in the water,” Elliott said. “And I’ve got a couple of those.”

CLOSING IN

In the Atlantic Division, Boston College, Louisville and North Carolina State all have experienced, play-making quarterbacks.

The Eagles hope for a healthy Phil Jurkovec, the Notre Dame transfer who played just six games last year due to a broken bone in his throwing hand. He completed 8 of 17 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Boston College spring game.

Louisville’s Malik Cunningham threw for 2,941 yards and ran for 1,034 yards last season. The Cardinals have had losing seasons in three of the previous four years and are hoping Cunningham can lead a turnaround.

The Wolfpack feature Devin Leary, who threw 35 touchdowns last season to break Philip Rivers’ school record. Along with finding receivers, Leary has just five picks in 431 attempts.

Duke hires Texas A&M coordinator Mike Elko as head coach

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Duke is turning to Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko to turn around its football program after a two-year slide and a winless Atlantic Coast Conference record.

The school announced Elko’s hiring, ending a nearly two-week process to hire the replacement for David Cutcliffe. The school announced Nov. 28 that Cutcliffe wouldn’t return following the first winless league mark of his 14 seasons. Yahoo! Sports first reported that Duke had reached an agreement with Elko.

Elko, 44, has spent the past four seasons as defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Texas A&M, he has also worked as a coordinator at Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Bowling Green in the past decade. This will be his first college head-coaching job.

In a statement, athletic director Nina King said Elko possesses “an innovative football mind and a natural ability to connect with both players and coaches around him.”

“The university has excelled in everything they’ve ever tried to do, whether that’d be in academics or athletics,” Elko said in a statement. “I’m excited to get to work.”

Elko’s stop in Winston-Salem with the Demon Deacons gave him experience working through similar challenges to what he’ll face in Durham, from working at an elite private university to relying on player development to compete in the ACC instead of repeatedly reloading with five-star prospects.

Wake Forest, led by coach Dave Clawson, won the league’s Atlantic Division and played in last weekend’s ACC championship game.

Elko led this year’s Aggies to rank third in the FBS in scoring defense (15.9 points per game) and No. 20 in total defense (327.5 yards). His defensive experience could be particularly valuable in helping Duke stabilize after a wobbly few years, which included surrendering 46.6 points per game against ACC opponents in 2021.

Duke was last out of 130 FBS teams in total defense (518 yards per game) and 127th in scoring defense (39.8 points).

But the defensive troubles were only part of what became a steep, and rapid, decline from the past two-plus seasons. That has returned Duke to the bottom of the ACC after Cutcliffe had transformed the program from one of the nation’s worst performers into a regular bowl contender and even an ACC division champion in 2013.

Duke won 77 games in Cutcliffe’s 14 seasons with six bowl appearances and three postseason wins, the program’s first since 1961. But the Blue Devils struggled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Duke having lost 23 of 29 games – including 21 of 23 in the ACC – dating to midway through the 2019 season. That includes 13 straight in league play since beating Syracuse in October 2020.

Still, Elko will inherit a program with better infrastructure than when Cutcliffe arrived in December 2007. That includes renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium to remove the track and add the Blue Devil Tower of suites, meeting space and media areas, as well as the construction of an indoor practice facility.

This marks the second major hire for King in her first year as athletic director. Shortly after King’s predecessor Kevin White retired, Duke announced that Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski would retire after the 2021-22 season, with associate head coach and former Blue Devils player Jon Scheyer named his successor.

Duke’s David Cutcliffe won’t return after ‘mutual’ separation

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
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David Cutcliffe won’t return for a 15th season as Duke’s coach after the school announced a “mutual agreement for separation” following the Blue Devils’ winless Atlantic Coast Conference record.

The school’s announcement came a day after the Blue Devils (3-9, 0-8) closed a three-win season with a 47-10 home loss to Miami. That marked the first winless slate for Duke in league play under Cutcliffe, who transformed the Blue Devils from one of the nation’s worst performers into a regular bowl contender and even claimed a division title in the ACC in 2013 before the program slid badly in the past two seasons.

In a statement, Cutcliffe, 67, said the decision came after “some detailed and amiable discussions” with new athletic director Nina King, who took over earlier this year but has worked at Duke since 2008 and handled primary administrative duties for the football program.

“I’m not sure just yet what the future will look like, but I am looking forward to some family time to reflect a bit on the past and see what the future holds,” Cutcliffe said.

Associate head coach Trooper Taylor will serve as interim coach while Duke searches for Cutcliffe’s permanent successor. Cutcliffe had one year left on his contract.

The Blue Devils were adrift when they turned in December 2007 to Cutcliffe, the former Mississippi coach and Tennessee offensive coordinator who tutored both Peyton and Eli Manning at the college level. The Blue Devils had just completed a 13-year run with four or fewer wins each season, including Ted Roof going 2-33 over the three seasons that preceded Cutcliffe. And the Blue Devils had gone 19-117 with just eight ACC wins over 12 seasons.

By Cutcliffe’s fifth year, Duke had reached its first bowl game since 1994. A year later, the Blue Devils completed a stunning climb to a 10-win season that included an AP Top 25 ranking, the ACC’s Coastal Division title and a berth in the league championship game.

That 2013 season started a three-year run that saw Duke go 27-13, including 15-9 in ACC play, and was part of a run of six bowl games in seven seasons – most recently an Independence Bowl victory over Temple in 2018 behind quarterback Daniel Jones, who later became the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Duke won 77 games in Cutcliffe’s 14 seasons with six bowl appearances and three postseason wins, the program’s first since 1961.

“We are extremely grateful for David’s leadership over the past 14 seasons,” King said in a statement. “He lifted our program to unprecedented heights, both on and off the field, while maintaining the core values of the university and we could not be more appreciative of his mentorship of every student-athlete who played for Duke during his tenure.”

The Blue Devils lost momentum after a 4-2 start to the 2019 season and failed to reach six wins for bowl eligibility. Things then came apart amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Duke committing 39 turnovers – at least 14 more than any other Bowl Subdivision team – during a 2-9 season in 2020.

This year, Duke started 3-1, only to lose all eight ACC games. Seven of those came by at least 25 points, a rare example under Cutcliffe of the Blue Devils being consistently unable to play competitively. The Blue Devils have lost 23 of 29 games, including 21 of 23 in the league.

Still, Cutcliffe spoke about making sure the Blue Devils ran toward, not away, from their problems and shrugged off a question about his future earlier this month.

“I don’t think about job security,” Cutcliffe said. “How can I do that and do justice to the players that I’m coaching right now?”