DURHAM, N.C. — Somewhere, deep, deep down, Riley Leonard has to know he is a pretty decent quarterback. His 13-4 record as a college starter says as much. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. says as much, listing Leonard at No. 19 on his latest Big Board for 2024.
But here’s the thing. Leonard doesn’t want to hear all the praise. Back in high school in Fairhope, Alabama, he sat down with his parents and told them he wanted help to keep his edge and stay motivated.
“I need somebody to tell me I suck sometimes,” he told them.
Heather Leonard looked at her son.
“Hey,” she said. “I got you.”
Thus a tradition began, one that continues now that Leonard and No. 17 Duke are 4-0 and receiving the type of national attention usually reserved for their championship-winning basketball program. With No. 11 Notre Dame (4-1) coming to town Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be set in Durham for the first time for football.
Heather Leonard will do what she always does before kickoff. She will tell Riley: “You suck.” If he needs another reminder, all Riley has to do is look at the blue wristband he wears with the phrase emblazoned on it. A gift from his mom, naturally.
An intrepid fan made similar wristbands and handed them out to anyone who would take one before a recent home game. Offensive tackle Graham Barton still has his tucked away in his jacket pocket.
“I think it fits us perfectly,” Leonard said. “All of us in this entire program carry a huge chip on our shoulder. We want to prove people wrong. I think it’s a great message for our team.”
Now that Duke is winning, being reminded “You suck” serves the same motivational purpose for the team as it does for Leonard.
As an exercise back in the spring, second-year coach Mike Elko asked his players. “How many of you were five-star recruits?”
“How about four stars?” he asked.
A few hands went up. Leonard was not among them.
Elko then pointed out their opponent in the season opener, Clemson, had a roster full of them. But why should that matter?
Six months later, 4.4 million viewers tuned in to watch Duke beat Clemson 28-7, Leonard had his “You Suck” wristband featured on national television and then went viral after asking his professor for a homework extension.
The result may have stunned casual observers wondering how a team like Duke beat six-time College Football Playoff participant Clemson. Those inside the program? Not so much. They have watched the transformation from hopeless to hopeful over the past 21 months.
They also know their story starts well before Labor Day night.
ELKO WALKED INTO his first team meeting as Duke head coach in December 2021. He knew what an ACC team should look like, having spent time as defensive coordinator at Wake Forest earlier in his career. At least physically, this did not look like a team that could compete.
The record bears that out. Duke had a dazzling run of success — relatively speaking — under former coach David Cutcliffe, including its only appearance in the ACC championship game in 2013 and six bowl game appearances. But the program started to slip in 2019, going 5-7. Then the pandemic hit in 2020, and players say tight restrictions that limited normal weight room activities took a toll.
Based on conversations he has had with the players, Duke director of football sport performance David Feeley estimates they had about 80 total workouts over a two-year period between 2020 and 2021.
Duke won five total games those two seasons, and parted ways with Cutcliffe in November 2021.
“I call it a fever dream,” veteran defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “In essence, it didn’t seem real.”
As the losses started to mount, confidence waned. Duke went 0-8 in ACC play in 2021.
“You’re getting up every single day, you know you’re not doing very well, and you get in a negative headspace,” Carter said. “Like, why are we even preparing? You think you’re going to lose, and it’s hard to get out of that mindset. There was no escape, because of the circumstances.”
In between all the losses, those two seasons forged a feeling that unified the returning players. Barton recalls a brief phone call he had with Elko after he was hired.
“He probably doesn’t even remember, but I told Coach Elko, ‘I speak for a lot of guys — we’re ready to win,'” Barton recalled. “He was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see who wants to win.'”
Elko hired Feeley, and the two immediately set out to remake the entire roster through hard work inside the weight room. Carter recalls the very first day of winter conditioning when the players could not get the warm-up quite right.
Feeley stopped them and told them to start doing up-downs, where you go from a standing position, jump down into a plank, and then jump back up to a standing position.
“We got to 10 and I’m like, maybe we’ll get to 20,” Carter said. “Then we got to 30, and then 40 and it just kept going. I think that set the precedent for how things were going to go.”
Feeley knew Duke was a developmental program, but the team was further behind because of all the weight room time it missed. Still, he and Elko did not waver in their plan — to push the players to their limits through Olympic-style weight training and a heavy dose of competition.
“Confidence was at an all-time low. I don’t know if I’d ever seen a program like that before,” Feeley said. “There are three words on my whiteboard in my office: hope, belief and know. We weren’t even in the hope phase. But you saw a group of kids that were starving for a chance to be successful.”
Soon, defensive linemen and offensive linemen were competing with each other to see how many reps they could get, or how fast they could lift the bar. Then, players in other position groups got in on raising their max efforts. Within months, Carter said his power clean jumped 50 pounds; offensive tackle Jacob Monk said his went up 70 pounds.
Feeley says when he arrived, there were seven players who could power clean 300 pounds or more. As of last week, 49 players had hit that benchmark.
Forty-six players from the 2021 roster still play for Duke. Elko has repeatedly told his team from the moment he arrived: “We’re living in the now. We’re going to win now. We’re not here to rebuild.”
“I don’t exactly know when they knew they could be a good team,” Feeley said. “I think it happened somewhere around the third or fourth game last year. But when that clicked for them, take the wins and losses out of it. That’s really one of the greatest gifts you can give an athlete is the knowledge that they can go out there, and they’ll have a real chance to be successful.”
BACK IN APRIL, Elko sat in his newly remodeled office — complete with his 2022 ACC Coach of the Year trophy sitting on a shelf. Elko had just led Duke to a 9-4 turnaround season, and to explain how that happened, he goes over to his computer and starts pulling up numbers.
The year before he arrived, Duke had lost all eight ACC games by an average of 31.8 points per game. Turnover margin was minus-7. The defense allowed 206 yards rushing per game, among the worst in the country.
Gains in the weight room would give Duke a foundation. But now would come the more challenging part: learning how to win. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they had a defensive coordinator for a head coach who could help fix the defense.
On offense, they had Leonard. They just had no idea what he would become when the new staff arrived. Elko describes him as “a diamond that was hidden in this locker room.” Leonard won the starting job last fall, but so few knew who he was, he was ranked No. 14 among ACC quarterbacks on one preseason list.
He didn’t need his mom to tell him, “You suck.” It was right there on paper.
Leonard relished seeing that, especially considering his journey to Duke. He planned to play basketball after high school, but a late offer from Cutcliffe changed his mind. Leonard arrived at Duke as a three-star prospect in 2021, largely under-recruited in part because the pandemic made it difficult for anyone to take visits. Asked how a player with prototypical quarterback size at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds had so few Power 5 offers, Leonard shrugs and says with a sheepish smile, “I just wasn’t very good.”
But from the very start of last season, Leonard proved he was, in fact, very good. He threw for 328 yards and completed 80% of his passes in the season opener against Temple, and showed off his athleticism as a runner, too, adding 64 yards on the ground. He stabilized a position that had been lacking consistency since Daniel Jones’ final season in 2018 — not coincidentally the last time Duke had a winning record.
Leonard finished with 2,967 yards passing, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, and led the team in rushing with 699 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
“Having a quarterback is really important,” Elko said. “Twenty-one really talented players without a quarterback doesn’t win a lot of games.”
With Leonard guiding the offense, and improving each week, the defense tightened up — tackling better, playing with more physicality and forcing turnovers. Duke became a top-25 rush defense, and ranked No. 2 in the country in turnover margin, at a whopping plus-16.
“A nine-win season, that was a result of just hard work and dedication and passion for winning,” Barton said. “I think we might’ve surprised Coach Elko a little bit with the buy-in there.”
Nobody was happy with nine wins, though.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Leonard said. “Our goal is to win the ACC championship and then a national championship. As of right now, we haven’t done any of that. So all these wins are good, but 20 years from now, are you going to be remembered? Are you going to be the team that went from 3-9 two years later to win the ACC championship? That’s for us to decide.”
LEONARD STANDS OUTSIDE the football facility, just in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium where the Blue Devils play basketball. He marvels at the place, even now as a Duke student, as if he cannot believe his good fortune, standing in this spot, in this moment. Maybe that is the basketball player inside him. Maybe that is just who Leonard is, sometimes awestruck and disbelieving that all of this is happening to him.
As students and teammates walk past, they all say, “Hey Riley!” Nobody shouts, “You suck!”
“It’s funny, the kids on campus have asked me more about my homework assignment and whether I’ve turned that in than about the Clemson game,” Leonard says with a laugh, confirming that yes, he did turn in his homework and all is well in class.
Sorry @rileyleonard13_ ,
We tried! 😞
However, you are STILL A LEGEND! 😈
Now go study! 📚 pic.twitter.com/CpEdTmhQjX
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) September 5, 2023
Along with Leonard, Duke returned 16 starters this season. Nearly all of them were on the 2021 roster. Redshirt senior Carter — known as “The Mayor” because he is ubiquitous around campus and is the first three-time captain in program history — chose to return because he was simply not ready to leave. Barton had offers to go elsewhere but returned to Duke because “there’s no better situation for me as a person and as a football player.” He, too, projects high on Kiper’s board, though at a different position: No. 2 among centers.
Their veteran experience has been huge. On the defensive front alone, the four starters have combined to take 4,897 snaps. On the offensive line, Duke entered the year ranked second nationally in games played and games started, behind only Florida State. At receiver, Duke returned 98.7% of its receptions from a year ago.
Elko has strategically used the portal to fill holes on the roster. He went out and signed three defensive backs who have made an immediate impact: Jeremiah Lewis (Northwestern), Al Blades Jr. (Miami) and Myles Jones (Texas A&M). Two starters on the offensive line are transfers, too: center Scott Elliott (Harvard) and right tackle Jake Hornibrook (Stanford).
But the truth is Elko has led this turnaround — and the best 17-game start to a head coaching stint in school history — with players he already had on the roster.
“We feel like we built this from the ground up,” Carter said. “So that kind of fight, chip on our shoulder came from our work and especially everything we went through. Somebody had to feel our pain, in a sense, and that was through winning ball games. Playing hard, hitting hard, finishing blocks, dominating blocks, making tackles, finishing tackles. Everything we tried to do and still do today is just show how hard we play and how much we love the game.”
Carter says perhaps the biggest compliment of all is the way opponents now respond to Duke. “There was a certain disrespect we got when teams would play us. Now it’s become, ‘Oh, you guys are tough.'”
Elko has repeatedly made it clear he did not take the Duke job to be average. He took it because he believed he could win, and getting off to a 4-0 start this year is just the beginning.
His straightforward nature and belief in his players have gotten early results. But there are still big tests remaining on the schedule, starting with Notre Dame — a team that has not lost a regular-season ACC game since 2017. After an open date, Duke’s next five opponents are a combined 18-2.
To keep his players focused on making improvements, Leonard said after every game, Elko spotlights where Duke must get better.
“You have about 18 to 24 hours of celebration and then you get brought down to earth again and you realize how far we have to go before we actually accomplish something,” Leonard said. “It’s his own version of ‘You suck,’ and he does a pretty good job at it.”
Elko offers his own interpretation of how “You suck” has come to be a defining, motivational phrase — not only for his quarterback, but for his entire team. It even applies to him, after waiting years for his first opportunity to become a head coach.
“We’re something a little different,” Elko said. “We maybe weren’t the highest-rated kids. We probably weren’t the highest-rated head coach. But we came together, and we built a very strong chemistry. We worked extremely hard. We became very tough, and that’s created a winning formula where we feel very confident every time we go out there.
“That’s something that’s not easy for the masses to pick up on. The masses want star power. They want notoriety. They want those things because those stories are a lot easier to gravitate to. This is really a throwback. This is a group that just works really, really hard and has earned their right to be in the spotlight.”