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Michigan State football: Pros and cons of Mike Elko as next head coach

Something to consider.



Michigan State football coaching candidate
© James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

As the Mel Tucker era comes to a close, let’s consider the pros and cons of Duke’s Mike Elko as a candidate to lead Michigan State football.

I think we can agree as a fanbase that we’ve never been through a week like this before. With the recent statement from the university that Michigan State football will be firing Mel Tucker with cause on Sept. 26, we can move on to the next stage in the process: finding a new leader for the program.

It goes without saying that this could be the most important coaching hire the university has made.

With NIL and the better half of the Pac-12 joining the Big Ten next season, Michigan State must nail this hire, or it risks being left in the dust as the conference moves forward into a new era. All that being said, let’s look at a name and their pros and cons, that I’m seeing near the top of every Spartan fan wish list, current Duke head football coach, Mike Elko.


  • Duke turnaround

Historically a sub-.500 football program, Duke has been far from being a national powerhouse, let alone an ACC contender. The end of the David Cutcliffe era ended rather unfortunately for the Blue Devils, with back-to-back nine-loss seasons. Duke football found success in the middle of Cutcliffe’s tenure but could not maintain the same level of success.

Enter Elko in 2022.

The Blue Devils ended the year at 9-4 and a victory in the Military Bowl over UCF. Duke suffered losses to a rising Kansas team, Georgia Tech, Drake Maye’s North Carolina squad, and Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. All these losses were by a combined 16 points.

Looking at 2023, Duke is off to a fantastic start upsetting Clemson at home and destroying Lafayette and Northwestern; Elko has his team playing great football. Duke’s season is set up with opportunities for more upsets in the spotlight. Notre Dame goes to Durham on Sept. 30 and then road games at Florida State and North Carolina later in the year. The path is there for another nine-win or a possible 10-win season for Elko and the Blue Devils.

Duke is sitting at 3-0, while Elko has a 12-4 overall head coaching record, all at Duke. Also worth mentioning, Elko won ACC Coach of the Year in 2022.

  • Defensive coordinator success

Defense is Elko’s calling card. His experience as a defensive coordinator began at Bowling Green in 2009 and has taken him to Wake Forest, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M with success at every stop.

At Bowling Green, the total defense was No. 87 in the nation in 2009. In 2012, it was ranked No. 6 in the nation and in 2013, No. 10 in the nation. The Falcons’ passing defense was No. 69 in 2010 but improved to No. 6 in the nation in Elko’s final year (2013).

At his most recent stint as defensive coordinator of Texas A&M, the total defense ranked No. 34 in 2018 and improved to No. 9 in 2020. It is also important to note that Texas A&M’s passing defense ranked NO. 107 in Elko’s first year, 2018 but improved to No. 19 in his last year of 2021. Also in 2021, the Aggies ranked No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 12 in sacks, and No. 16 in third-down defense.

As you can see, there is a clear theme of improved passing defense in his career as defensive coordinator. Why is this history of improved passing defense important? Michigan State’s passing defense has ranked near the bottom of the country every year since the Mel Tucker era began with little to no sign of improvement. According to ESPN, in 2021, Michigan State ranked dead-last in passing yards/game at 337.7. The second to last team? Duke at 311.8 passing yards/game. Mike Elko has improved that statistic in 2022 to 262.3 a game. So far in 2023, 153 yards per game.

I can only imagine that this type of history of defensive improvement would be welcomed with open arms by the Michigan State football program and fanbase.


  • Lack of head coaching experience

This head coaching hire by MSU must hit or we may experience a string of years near the bottom of the expanded Big Ten.

Mike Elko has coached 1.25 seasons at Duke with fantastic success. With the lack of experience, it’s fair to ask if is capable of building and sustaining a program with the size and resources of a Michigan State football? Maybe most importantly, could Elko rebuild a program in shambles? While his success as defensive coordinator is without question, it is fair to ask these questions.

Yes, Elko is doing wonderful things at a school that, historically, is not easy to win at. But could he do it at a top-40 winningest college football program all-time in the newly expanded Big Ten. His biggest competition on and off the field would become Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, USC, Washington, and Oregon.

Could Elko’s success translate to Michigan State? Could he rebuild a program, that, less than 10 years ago, appeared in the College Football Playoff. And could he get the Spartans back there? There’s only one way to find out.

Final thoughts

Duke is one of the hardest places to have success at and Elko is off to a fantastic start. He has also had coordinator experience at two elite programs, like Notre Dame and Texas A&M. His head coaching resume is short, but Elko is young and has proven that he is capable of a quick turnaround at a place like Duke. While it is fair to question his lack of head coaching experience, Elko has a theme of improvement throughout his coaching experience.

Elko has proved that he can improve a defense and a program, quickly.

As the Tucker era with Michigan State football comes to a close, let’s consider Mike Elko.