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Interviewing the Enemy: Q&A with Devils Illustrated’s Conor O’Neill

There are legit ACC title aspirations in Durham.

NCAA Football: Lafayette at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly 700 days without a win in America or at Ryan Field, Northwestern finally snapped its painful drought with a 38-7 romping over UTEP last Saturday. The energy radiating from Evanston was, at long last, quite positive — but a much more formidable stretch of opponents begins for the next three weeks, catalyzed by the No. 21 Duke Blue Devils. To gather more information on Mike Elko’s upstart squad, Inside NU had the pleasure to be joined by Devils Illustrated’s Conor O’Neill, who provided intel about Duke’s talent and strengths.

Inside NU: Following an upset over Clemson and a 2-0 start, what are the expectations surrounding Duke for the rest of the year? What’s the general mood surrounding the program in and around the community, and is there as much optimism from the inside as it seems from the outside?

Conor O’Neill: Yeah, I think so. Mike Elko’s really kind of changed the culture as much as you can for a new coach a year and two games into a tenure. Duke is, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be a basketball school, the “school.” But football rules everything, and there’s certainly an awareness that Duke is going to have to be good at football, too. I think there’s more of a dedication to it than there was under David Cutcliffe. Expectations for this program this year kind of change when you knock off Clemson start the season. I sat there and looked at the schedule for eight months and wrote all kinds of stuff about how much more challenging Duke’s schedule is this year. The easiest way to put it is the ACC moved away from divisions, so everybody’s playing everybody, and Duke was in what I would refer to as the JV division. Last year, they played all five of the ACC that didn’t make bowl games. This year, they only play one of those five schools. They’re the only ACC team that seven of their eight conference games are against teams that were in bowls last year, and then they also get Notre Dame thrown onto their schedule because Notre Dame is a halfway ACC member this year with six games against them. I said stuff like, ‘If you’re gonna get Clemson, it’s good to get them in Game One when you’re theoretically at your healthiest.’ I also cover Wake Forest, and I’ve seen Wake play Clemson in November when their depth is really running thin at a few positions, and Clemson just has so much more talent and so much more depth. They can really exploit some matchups. I said that, ‘If you’re gonna get Clemson, it’s best to get them in Game One of the new quarterback and offensive coordinator combo instead of Game Four, Game Six, Game 10, when they’re probably a little more cohesive, and the communication is a little quicker.’

Then, they go out and beat Clemson 28-7, and you’re thinking like, Oh, this is for real. This is not a rebuilding project where Duke is going to take another two or three years to where they can compete at the top of the league. They’ve positioned themselves to compete this year. That just kind of recalibrates everything that’s out there. I mean, to Elko’s credit: he’s never called it a “rebuilding year.” He’s never said that, ‘We’re just trying to get through this year with a bowl berth. It’s all been about, ‘We’re gonna win with the players that we have right now.’ He’s, he’s 11-4, and [of] the four losses, the most lopsided loss was an eight-point loss at Kansas last year. Things are going pretty well.

INU: In last year’s Duke-Northwestern matchup, RB Jaylen Coleman was a big factor, gaining 83 rushing yards and a score on 11 carries. What’s the status of Coleman for Saturday?

CO: He got hurt toward the end of fall camp. I think it’s an upper body injury. I think he’s kind of a game-to-game, week-to-week situation. The benefit Duke has right now is they’re not in a position to rush him back because they have two other experienced running backs they’re comfortable with, with Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore. I think Waters had a good against Northwestern last year. They pretty much stick with two of them [running backs], and then go to the third if they need it, and Moore was the third if they needed it last year. They didn’t really need it with with Waters and Coleman running really well, but Moore and Waters have run really well this year. They’ve got a freshman they feel really good about in Peyton Jones. As they’ve got three healthy backs that they feel confident in throwing back there and giving the ball to, I don’t know if they’re in any rush to get Jaylen Coleman back. It’s all calculus of the longer you go without Jaylen Coleman, the more likely you are one of the guys you’re playing gets hurt. Then that’s when you actually need Jaylen Coleman to come in, because you always want to have two, and then a third option to throw in there.

INU: Duke’s three scrimmage yard leaders (Waters, Moore, Riley Leonard) have done the bulk of their work on the ground. Who are some of the options for Leonard through the air, and do you expect that to be something the Blue Devils try to utilize against a strong Northwestern secondary?

CO: There’s kind of a feeling of, I don’t think they’re gonna run the ball for 220 yards against everybody. I think they are going to open it up at some point — I just don’t know when that is, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be their emphasis to start a game. I think Kevin Johns, the offensive coordinator, is just going to stick with a run, run run to set up the pass. The top options, there’s basically three with Jalon Calhoun, Jordan Moore and Shamir Hagans. Those are the three guys that played a ton of snaps last year at receiver positions. They’re all pretty small and shifty. Losing Eli Pancol in the first week of fall camp, really robbed Duke of their big body, downfield receiver threat. He had a 100-yard game against Northwestern last year, and I think 81 of it came off the same catch and run all the way down the sideline. They haven’t ruled him out for the year, but he’s not playing in this game. He won’t play until I think November at the earliest. That’s one of the things that we’re kind of waiting to see who: the downfield, deep ball threat will be, because they don’t have anybody experienced in that category, other than a tight end with Nicky Dalmolin, which which could be an option there. It’s kind of, you don’t know what you don’t know. We saw some fall camp practices. It’s just, it’s a difference between doing it in fall camp against your own DBs, and doing it in a game. They haven’t had to do it in a game against anybody yet.

INU: Defensively, the Blue Devils have allowed only 14 points all year. What do you think has been particularly successful for that unit?

CO: The biggest area of emphasis for Elko moving past last year and throughout spring and summer fall camp was, he wanted to see them play ball more aggressively in the air. He wanted to see some more of their technique that he teaches. I’m not into the football Xs and Os enough to be able to describe exactly what it is, but it’s one of those where you know it when you see it. This team does play the ball a lot better in the air. They’ve got three interceptions already; one against Clemson was off a deflected pass into the air, so that was decent. The other two against Lafayette — which granted you’ve got to throw the FCS caveat in there — but it was Myles Jones, a seventh-year guy who transferred from Texas A&M; Six-foot-4, probably the biggest corner I’ve ever seen on college team — and Joshua Pickett — a returning starter who’s actually not a starter this year. They both just went up and made one-on-one plays on the ball for interceptions. They did not do that very much last year. Part of it was who they were trying to do it with, and part of it was the technique wasn’t there. So to see them do it — again, it’s a Lafayette — but to see two of those plays happen. If I’m remembering the box scores correctly, they’ve got 12 passes broken up by 10 different players. It’s a lot of guys getting into the mix and getting their hands on balls. One of the storylines last year that’s kind of continued is, their defensive line is really good at coming up with batted passes. It’s just something that I think their Defensive Tackles Coach Jess Simpson and their Defensive Ends Coach Harland Bower do a really great job of teaching like the clock in a defensive lineman’s head: of, one, two, three, , I didn’t get to the quarterback, let me get my hand up and get an arm in his throwing lane, or get an arm in his vision. That kind of thing. They seem to be pretty decent at that, and that continued from last year to this year.

INU: How does the Duke community view Northwestern as an opponent, especially after the scandals of the last few months?

CO: I think there’s some acknowledgement of obviously a tough situation. The Duke staff has three coaches on it that come from Northwestern. Adam Cushing, the offensive line coach, he was a Northwestern lifer. I think 15 years or so on the staff. Kevin Johns, the offensive coordinator, spent some time there. I think Patrick Dougherty is the other one, the tight ends/special teams coach. There’s some acknowledgement of the scandal. Mike Elko, I think it was after the first fall camp practice, gave a statement of support behind Adam Cushing. As far as how the Duke community views Northwestern, I think it’s an acknowledgement of a like-minded school that we play in athletics. I can’t say with certainty that anybody wants to play Northwestern every season. I think Duke makes the trip back up there in ‘24, and then I think that’s the last game that’s on the books against Northwestern. But, I can’t see them having any reason to not schedule each other for 20 years, right? It makes too much sense. I get the sense Northwestern wants to play Power Five teams at least one time in the three-game non-conference slate that they get. [For] Duke, it’s certainly always beneficial for ACC teams to play Big Ten or SEC schools.

INU: How do you see this game shaking out?

CO: I want to see which team opens it up first, whether that’s Duke coming out and throwing right away, whether it’s Northwestern with any number of quarterbacks. I want to see that. It’s tough to see Northwestern winning. I think Duke is really good. I think Duke is a pretty driven team. They looked great in the opener against Clemson, and even if Clemson is not the Clemson of years past where they had the ACC in a stranglehold and they were a top-10 program, still a really good team with a lot of talent. Duke went up and down the field and scored 22 unanswered points on them and threw a second-half shutout. It’s an impressive team that I think is going to keep climbing until the Sept. 30 matchup against Notre Dame. In a Q&A, I gave somebody a score of 27-14 Duke, so I would stick with that.