Duke coach says UVA defense one of the most improved units in the nation

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Duke coach Mike Elko (Photo: Duke Athletics)

Not long ago, Tony Elliott was taking a long, thoughtful look at Duke’s head coaching job. The Blue Devils were competing with Virginia for Elliott’s attention, and finally lost out to their northern neighbors.

Elliott left Clemson for UVA and Duke hired Mike Elko, the former defensive coordinator for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. The two old friends, who got to know each other while Elko was at Wake Forest, meet as rival coaches on Saturday at Duke.

While Elko has been busy getting the Blue Devils off to a 3-1 start, losing for the first time this season at Kansas over the weekend, he is well-versed on Elliott’s Cavaliers.

“When you look at them offensively, they are an exceptionally talented offense,” Elko said of Virginia. “I know it hasn’t completely clicked for them like they would like yet, but they have lots of weapons.

“Brennan Armstrong is an exceptional quarterback. He has a lot of arm strength and runs the ball really well. He is able to do things with his feet and is a really gritty, tough football player. He is a kid we have to pay attention to.”

Elko also pointed out Virginia’s receivers, as most opposing coaches have.

“Defensively, I think they are one of the most improved defenses in the country,” the Duke coach said. “They are doing a really good job with their scheme and they know what they want to do.

“They are very comfortable with running it, and the kids are playing really fast and physical. Chico Bennett up front has been a handful for people (Bennett was the ACC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week for his play against Syracuse). He has been extremely disruptive.

“They have some really big, athletic bodies up front, which will certainly present a challenge for our kids. Nick Jackson, I know he won’t play the first half [was charged for targeting in the second half at Syracuse], but he is one of the best linebackers, not only in the ACC, but in the country. They have a lot of length in the secondary.”

It hasn’t been lost on Elko that Duke has lost seven straight games to Virginia.

He also realizes that his Blue Devils can’t afford to start slow. Neither can Virginia. The Cavaliers fell behind early at Illinois and at Syracuse, and while they were never really out of those games, they couldn’t climb out of the hole.

“Getting out fast is always important, and certainly it’s important in a league game,” Elko said. “It’s important in a home game and against Virginia. When you get out fast and get out in front of people, it changes how you dictate the game.

“When you have to play catch-up, it puts more pressure and stress on your guys. The other team can be more diligent about how they go about their plan. We always want to start fast and get out in front. I think not counting the drive that started on the 1-yard line, I think we are 4 for 4 on first-drive touchdowns. If we want to keep doing that, I think it will be a recipe for success.”

Duke’s offensive line needed to step up and show more stability this season for the Devils to be more efficient, and thus far it has. Elko believes UVA’s defensive front may present the biggest obstacle yet.

“I think we challenge our offensive line every week,” the coach said. “This one is a little bit of a different challenge. These guys [UVA] are physical, but they are really athletic. This is an explosive, twitchy, athletic front.”

Elko said this is the first time this season Duke will have faced this type of defensive front.

“They blitz a little bit more and they are more exotic on third down,” he said. “That is where some of those stats are coming from too. I think this one is unique, and certainly protecting our quarterback and running the football will always be essential to us to have success.”

On the other side of the ball, Elko recognizes the threat that Armstrong presents. While the UVA fifth-year quarterback has struggled out of the blocks with a new offensive system, he can still be lethal when things click.

“When Brennan pulls the ball down, he scares you,” Elko said. “He has long touchdown runs on film already this year (60 yards against Richmond). He throws the ball really well and that’s what translates. He has a really elite wrist, and the ball comes out of his hands with a really tight spiral. When you see kids do that, that is what projects to the NFL level.

“What do we have to do? We have to disrupt him. We have to do a much better job up front disrupting the quarterback. We need to make sure we get into throw windows and pressure him. We can’t let him get comfortable back there.”

Duke will be presenting different looks to Armstrong in hopes of confusing him and throwing him out of rhythm.