Top candidates to replace Mike Elko at Duke

Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb is a candidate for Duke’s vacant head coaching position. (Lindsey Wasson / AP Photo)

The seats are starting to fill in the annual game of coaching musical chairs, and Duke’s seat is still vacant.

A week after Mike Elko left the Blue Devils for Texas A&M, Duke’s search for a replacement continues. Two years ago, the search that brought Elko to Durham took a total of 12 days start to finish, meaning that an announcement could be forthcoming at any time.

In the meantime, many of the top Power Five coaching prospects are finding homes.

Tulane’s Willie Fritz was the latest to come off the market. He took the job at Houston, joining James Madison’s Curt Cignetti (Indiana) and Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis (San Diego State).

Duke players are exploring the transfer portal. The team just received its bowl game assignment, and recruiting’s early signing period is approaching. So the team needs to pull the trigger soon. Here’s a look at the top internal and external candidates for the job:

Internal candidates

Trooper Taylor, Duke running backs coach, interim head coach: One of the top recruiters in college football and immensely popular in the locker room, Taylor is a two-time interim head coach. He also took over following David Cutcliffe’s departure while the team searched for Elko. He has no head coaching experience otherwise and was only an offensive coordinator for one season, with Oklahoma State in 2008. However, he would give the team continuity and is the clear choice among the players as the man for the job.

Kevin Johns, Duke offensive coordinator: He would also give the team continuity and clearly showed his readiness to run a team with his handling of the offense this year. Duke managed a seven-win season and bowl bid despite playing a true freshman third-stringer much of the second half of the year. Like Taylor, he would be a popular choice with players and recruits, but like Taylor, he has no head coaching experience.

External candidates

Ryan Grubb, Washington offensive coordinator: Perhaps the top available candidate remaining, he has built a high-scoring offense in the northwest. Like the internal candidates, he has no head coaching experience and will likely carry a much higher price tag.

Jon Sumrall, Troy head coach: It will certainly make for an awkward bowl if the Blue Devils poach their opponent’s head coach prior to the game. He’s young and enthusiastic, like Elko, and Sumrall has head coaching experience as well as experience as an assistant in the SEC. He’s had four gigs since 2018, so there may be a concern that he’d use Duke as a steppingstone.

Jason Candle, Toledo head coach: A young, successful head coach in the MAC, he seems like a good fit. He has head coaching experience, but just about all his experience has been with Toledo, and he’s never coached in Power Five.

Manny Diaz, Penn State defensive coordinator: An intriguing “big name” on the list, his tenure at Miami didn’t go well. He’s still one of the top defensive coordinators around, and he’s only five years older than Elko. Supposedly, he’s already had one round of interviews for the job.

Jim Knowles, Ohio State defensive coordinator: Another intriguing name, he was defensive coordinator at Duke for much of the first half of David Cutcliffe’s tenure. Since then, he’s moved on to some of the top programs in the sport. He has head coaching experience, but it was at Cornell, not in the Power Five or even FBS. He also has supposedly been through the first round of interviews.

Alex Atkins, Florida State offensive coordinator: Primarily an offensive line coach, he’s served as coordinator at both Charlotte and FSU but only for two seasons. He has no head coaching experience, but he’s considered a fast-rising coaching star.

Tony Gibson, NC State defensive coordinator: He’s also rumored to have participated in Duke’s interview process. He has plenty of Power Five coaching experience and has been coordinator at both West Virginia and State. He has no head coaching experience, however. State appears to be on the verge of giving him a big raise to keep him on board, which might take him off the table.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan offensive coordinator: He stepped in as interim head coach of the top-rated Wolverines during Jim Harbaugh’s two suspensions, which has stamped him as one of the biggest stars in the pool of assistants/coordinators. He was considered a candidate for Indiana before the Hoosiers took Cignetti, and he may have his sights set higher than Duke.