CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WNCN) – With the beginning of the 2023 season right around the corner, the first of the Triangle’s college football teams took the stage at the ACC Kickoff on Wednesday.

Shortly after being hired in late 2021, Duke football coach Mike Elko got off the plane, walked into the locker room and emphasized to his new players one word – “now.”

Throughout that summer heading into the 2022 season, Elko reiterated over and over again that Duke was going to win now, and it’s hard to argue with the results. The Blue Devils surprised many in his debut season, finishing with a 9-4 record as well as a bowl win over Central Florida.

On Wednesday, Elko repeatedly said the word “elevate” when discussing the upcoming season.

Elko told CBS 17 that only so much can be done in year one, and Duke’s success last year was the result of broad-stroke changes. But now it’s about the finer details for the Blue Devils, elevating the program to the next level.

This goal is certainly easier with 17 starters returning from last season, which is the most out of any team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The reigning ACC Coach of the Year said the roster retention speaks to the culture his coaching staff wants to build at Duke – a place where good football players want to play and want to stay.

With so much talent coming back from the program’s most winningest season in nine years, Elko said that returning experience will help as they focus on building momentum.

“We’re going to play a lot of really close football games this year,” Elko said. “We know that the schedule is elevated, we know we’re going to play some really talented teams, so we’re going to get into some big moments in the fourth quarter where we’re going to have to execute at a really high level and experience is going to matter.”

“As far as my job goes, my job is to get the ball to the playmakers, and all of those guys are coming back,” Duke starting quarterback Riley Leonard said. “So as a quarterback, I’m sitting here smiling for a reason. It’s because my guys are coming back, and I’m excited to make some plays with them this year.”

The Blue Devils will have a pretty good idea of how much they have elevated their game when Clemson pays a visit to Durham for a primetime matchup on Labor Day.

“Being on that national stage is what we want Duke football to be,” Elko said. “Obviously, Clemson has been the gold standard in this conference.”

Both teams will kick off their seasons at Wallace Wade Stadium on Sept. 4 at 8 p.m.