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New Duke football coach Manny Diaz embraces challenge in front of him

Manny Diaz is not Mike Elko.

The new Duke football coach has more of a corporate, CEO look, feel and tone to him. Elko, who left Duke for Texas A&M, has that burly ex-football player’s girth and whistle-around-the-neck grittiness to him.

But they both embraced the same mission at Duke: keep the football program moving forward, especially at a time when college athletics seem to be changing daily and patience with coaches can quickly dissipate.

Diaz was formally introduced Saturday in a ceremony at Pascal Field House, the Blue Devils’ indoor facility adjacent to Wallace Wade Stadium. The pep band played and cheerleaders waved pom-poms and Diaz said all the right things after president Vincent Price and athletic director Nina King made their remarks.

King called Diaz the “right fit” as most ADs do when naming a new coach, and Price said Diaz was the “ideal coach” to lead the Blue Devils’ program.

“Manny’s career has been marked by determination and his dedication to the sport of football,” Price said. “And we think the best is yet to come here at Duke.”

Diaz, 49, believes so, too. His first comment: “There’s something about Duke.”

Diaz realizes Elko went 9-4 and 7-5 the past two seasons before bolting for A&M. He said he watched as the Blue Devils hammered Clemson 28-7 in the season opener, and said he continued to be impressed by “what Mike Elko did and the energy he brought to this program.”

Strong defensive background

Diaz, who has been in college coaching for more than 20 years, comes to Duke from Penn State. He served as defensive coordinator on James Franklin’s staff the past two seasons and helped mold some of college football’s most effective defenses.

That came after three years as head coach at Miami, where he had a 21-15 record and the Hurricanes received bowl invitations each season.

“His track record is impressive,” Duke freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis said Saturday.

Diaz, 49, has embraced the new wave of college sports, with the collectives and NIL fund- raising and the constant patrolling of the NCAA transfer portal.

“You have to be constantly evolving because the landscape is constantly evolving,” Diaz said.

Once named coach Thursday, Diaz said he quickly arranged Zoom sessions with the Duke players, then those recruited players committed to Duke and then the parents.

“What matters right now is we’ve got to keep our team together,” Diaz said. “There’s great talent, there’s great people in that locker room, and we’ve got to build on that. The first order or business is they’ve got to go win a bowl game. The graduating seniors deserve to go out as winners.”

The Blue Devils will face Troy in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 23 under interim head coach Trooper Taylor.

Diaz said while December once was a month of bowl practices and recruiting visits, it’s now filled with “re-recruiting” the players, on the roster after the season, looking to add through the portal and also signing high-school recruits.

“We’re at a time where time is of the essence,” Diaz said. “We believe it’s an outstanding recruiting class and we need to push that across the line. And we all know the reality of the portal.”

Time to get to work

Duke has 22 commits in the Class of 2024, including 4-star quarterback Tyler Cherry, and ranks 36th nationally, according to 247Sports.

Among the players the Blue Devils have lost to the portal are quarterback Riley Leonard and running back Jordan Waters, Duke’s leading rusher in 2023.

Diaz, a “defensive”: coach because of his background, said he picked up different strategies and methods at each of his coaching stops.

He learned from longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews at Florida State. Then there was Chuck Amato, who gave him first first full-time assistant’s job at N.C. State after Amato left FSU to coach his alma mater in 2000.

Buddy Green and Reggie Herring were defensive coordinators at NCSU who gave him a chance to expand, coaching linebackers, the secondary and special teams.

“I think he’s pretty cool, pretty chill,” Duke linebacker Tre Freeman said Saturday. “Hearing him lay out his plan for us as players, it makes you feel good that you have a coach that cares about you and your standard of living,”