Quentin Harris wasn’t the best quarterback Duke has ever had.
He wasn’t the worst either.
But he certainly was one of the most used, at least last season.
Duke’s quarterbacks attempted 370 passes last season. Harris attempted 357, Duke’s other quarterbacks attempted 13.
And Harris is gone, his eligibility used up.
“Other” quarterbacks is a bit misleading. Chris Katrenick was the only other healthy recruited quarterback on Duke’s roster last season and he completed three of those 13 passes. Some walk-ons took practice snaps but that’s about it.
Katrenick is one of four quarterbacks vying to replace Harris, an interesting blend, two career backups, a true freshman and a once-promising prospect recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season.
That fight promises to be perhaps the most compelling position battles at Duke this fall and Duke’s ability to find a quality starter will be a key in the program’s ability to get back on the right side of .500.
The loss of most of Duke’s spring practice complicates that decision. Chase Brice is a grad-student transfer from Clemson and he was still finishing up his academic work there. But the other three hoped to use spring ball as a chance to get some separation from the other two and establish themselves going into the fall.
They also lost the chance to work with a receiver corps made much younger when Scott Bracey and Aaron Young transferred out of the program.
Katrenick looks the part. He’s 6-3, 215, from the Chicago suburbs, ranked as the no. 33 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports.com. as a prepster.
But he originally committed to Bowling Green over schools like Buffalo, Toledo and Illinois State. Duke got involved after Jack Sears de-committed from Duke in favor of Southern Cal.
That’s not the recruiting profile of a starter at a Power-5 school. Sure, Daniel Jones did it but Jones is an outlier and by definition outliers don’t come along very often.
“We’re always excited to get new guys in the Duke Gang,” Katrenick said of the competition in early March. “It’s going to make everyone better. We have a good group. It’s fun. I’m just focused on getting better. We’re all out here competing.”
Katrenick entered spring ball as the number one quarterback. But he likely needed a big spring to position himself to challenge Brice in the fall and he didn’t get that chance.
Katrenick will be a redshirt junior and said on a recent Duke football podcast that he’s using the imposed isolation on leadership, film work and getting into the best condition of his life.
Gunnar Holmberg is a local kid, a graduate of Heritage High School in Wake Forest, N.C. That’s the town, not the school and it’s located in Wake County, one county east of Durham.
Holmberg was a consensus high three-star recruit but ESPN ranked him as a four-star and he was recruited with high expectations. He played at the end of Duke’s 2018 Independence Bowl win over Temple and had a solid 2019 spring. But he injured a knee at the beginning of fall practice and didn’t play a down.
So, he’s entering his third year at Duke with three plays under his belt.
Holmberg entered spring 2020 healthy and raring to go.
“Definitely ready to get back with the guys” he told the media on the first day of spring ball. “It’s been since August for me. Knock a little rust off, getting the legs under me, throwing routes against a defense instead of against air.”
Holmberg added that he had spent the down time watching film and gaining a better understanding of the game.
He only had three days of rust-shaking.
Holmberg is back home now, trying to make the best of an unusual situation.
He recently talked to the media through a Duke football podcast.
“Not a big backyard,” Holmberg said. “One of my old coaches from high school gave me some stuff from their weight room. I’ve got some dumbbells, kettle bells, things I need—little things that’ll help as compared to trying to lift a book bag—which is what a lot of people are doing right now. I can do footwork anywhere. I can do a three-step drop anywhere, just in my backyard, driveway. I can do a 10-yard shuttle, even just playing with my dog, working on some quickness. You’ve got to get creative.”
Holmberg says he’s far from a finished product.
“I definitely felt like I hadn’t played in awhile. I got better every single day. It felt good to know there are things I need to work on, even though I thought I had everything down. Little things are huge, especially being quarterback; catching the snap, calling plays to the center, little things you forget about doing it in your backyard. Coach Cutcliffe and Coach Roper are big on getting your first step down, even in the shotgun, some under center stuff, just being quick with footwork, identifying defenses quickly. Timing-wise, my feet and arm are very connected.”
Cutcliffe has consistently praised Holmberg’s running ability. Holmberg is 6-3, 190, big enough to run through an arm tackle, quick enough to turn the corner.
“I think Gunnar is competing to be a player,” Cutcliffe said this past March. “He’s got great speed. He’s very elusive as a runner. He’s continued since he’s been here to become more consistent throwing the ball.”
“I’m a mobile guy. I can run, but I’m not going to unless I need to. We’re always taught, ‘Never turn down a completion. Never shy away from taking a shot.’ We’ve got big bodies on the outside that we can do that with. In high school, I think I threw a good deep ball. As I get back into the groove, I think that’ll come back to me. I’m not a guy that’s going to solely try to run. I’m going to see who’s open while I do it. I think it’s big. Throwing on the run is something I’m good at.”
Katrenick and Holmberg haven’t played much. But they have been in the program long enough to know their way around the block.
How much will that help them in competition with the two newbies?
Luca Diamont is from Venice, California. ESPN rates him as a four-star quarterback and he picked Duke over lots of big boys, Alabama among them. He graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at Duke for the spring 2020 semester.
Back in December Cutcliffe was asked if Diamont could compete for the starting spot as a true freshman. This was before Brice came on board.
Cutcliffe didn’t hesitate in answering in the affirmative.
“He’s versatile, aggressive, great speed, great arm, dedicated to the game. He’s a football junkie and I really love that about him. He’s worked all his life about him to be what he is today and that’s a quarterback. I like those kinds of people.”
But Diamont had an elbow procedure prior to spring ball and his throwing was limited. He was expected to be cleared for practice without limitations later on before events sent him back home to California.
“Doing a lot of running, a lot of lifting,” Diamont says of his spring, some of that running on Venice Beach.
Diamont says he’s a passer who can run when circumstances dictate. He also played some defense, safety to be exact, showing a toughness that bodes well for the future, a toughness that Cutcliffe noted on signing day.
Diamont says that his elbow is fine and he’s lifting and throwing normally.
Cutcliffe decided that three was not enough, adding grad-student transfer Chase Brice to the mix, a somewhat surprising move for a coach typically not all that fond of grad-student transfers.
Technically Brice is a career backup. But that was backing up Trevor Lawrence, who was going to keep anyone on the bench except for Joe Burrow and perhaps Tua Tagovailoa. And given the depth at Clemson working your way up to second team on the depth chart is an accomplishment.
And, to borrow from Steve Winwood, when Brice saw a chance, he took it.
It was September 29, 2018, Clemson hosting Syracuse. Clemson had started its season alternating freshman Lawrence and incumbent Kelly Bryant at quarterback. Dabo Swinney announced that Lawrence would be the guy and Bryant announced that he was leaving.
That left Brice, a redshirt freshman, as Lawrence’s backup.
Lawrence took a hard hit to the head late in the second quarter and was ruled out for the game. Syracuse jumped to a 23-13 lead. But Brice and running back Travis Etienne led the Tigers back. Etienne rushed for 203 yards. But it was Brice who kept alive the 94-yard winning drive when he connected with Tee Higgins on a 20-yard completion on 4th-and-six, with 2:50 left.
He followed up that completion with a 17-yard run. Etienne’s touchdown run finished the 27-23 win, one that made Clemson’s 2018 national title possible.
Brice ended his Clemson tenure with 82-of-136 passes completed, for 1,023 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for 187 yards on 30 carries.
Brice and Duke knew each other from his high-school days and once Brice entered the transfer portal it didn’t take long for him to become a Blue Devil.
“I knew what I was looking for. It was easy once I started talking to Coach Cut. I kind of knew.”
Brice graduated from Clemson in three years and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Even before COVID-19 introduced ZOOM to the world, Brice was taking advantage of the internet to look at game film, schemes and all the things he needed to do to familiarize himself with the Duke program.
Cutcliffe says Brice is taking advantage of the opportunity.
“He’s gotten the terminology, all the things we can legally send him. He’s studying, he’s working.”
“I’m just going to go in and be myself,” Brice says. “My knowledge and experience and winning attitude. You work to get to this point in your life. I’m just going to go in and compete. I’ve been around it and know what it takes.”
Cutcliffe refuses to anoint a starter at this point, saying that whoever starts will have to earn it. Certainly Brice appears to be poised to win the job but his three competitors are conceding nothing. Holmberg says “iron sharpens iron.” Sure it’s a cliche but cliches become cliches because they contain an element of truth.
Should be an interesting fall camp.