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Duke Football’s Spring Showcase

After a tough year, things may be looking up

Duke v Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Mataeo Durant #21 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes in the first half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

It’s no fun losing nine of 11 football games. It’s really no fun losing nine of 11 football games in empty or largely empty stadiums during a global pandemic.

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg addressed the media following today’s Spring Showcase and told us that regaining that sense of fun was perhaps the biggest priority going into the spring.

“That’s been one of our biggest goals for the off-season. Even talking to Coach Cut one-on-one, we weren’t having a good season and it’s not fun. There’s no secret behind that and so we know that if you want to have fun, winning is very fun but to win you have to make it fun. If the guys aren’t loving football, if guys aren’t excited to come in here and get better every day, you’re not going to have a great team. To see guys having fun, just playing football and not thinking too much, that was one of our goals.”

Holmberg is the starting quarterback, hale and hearty after a bumpy few years. So, yes. He should be having fun.

But defensive lineman Ben Frye confirmed that narrative.

“It’s been a hard year for everyone all around the country. Playing football brings people together. Just be together, have fun. We’re doing what we love. We have a lot of guys who are excited to get back to normalcy and play some real football.”

If you are a close observer of Duke football, you might have noticed that I referred to Frye as a defensive end. Frye played tackle last season, well under-sized at 255 pounds. He fought it out every game, using many of the techniques he’s learned as a top wrestler.

But still. That’s awfully small to play that position.

But his defensive tackle days may be behind him. Or not.

“Right now I’m back running ends but I can always come inside. I know the plays. I’ve been here three years. I was recruited at defensive end and I’ve stayed relatively the same size.”

Duke lost a lot of talent from last season’s defensive line. Ends Chris Rumph and Victor Dimukeje expect to hear their names called in the NFL draft, while end Drew Jordan (Michigan State) and tackle Derrick Tangelo (Penn State) elected to use their covid-generated extra year of eligibility at new schools.

But Frye says not to worry.

“Discipline and conditioning; that’s how you win at Duke. I feel good about the guys we have, just relaxing and being able to play football. It’s still just football. Those guys have showed that they’re reliable and can be trusted in a game.”

Chief among “those guys” is DeWayne Carter. He’s a 6-3, 300-pound redshirt sophomore. Frye and Carter grew up in the same area of Ohio and Frye says he’s long been a fan of Carter.

“He’s a big guy and he can make a lot of big plays. He’s coming along really well. You saw him do some big things last year and he’s going to have a really big season and continue to develop big-time.”

Frye also praised Gary Smith, a 6-2, 320-pound sophomore, saying Smith “looks really good right now. He’s a big body and can stop the run.”

Assuming Frye starts at one end, who gets the second spot? Frye singled out Ahmad Craig, a 6-5, 250-pound redshirt sophomore, while noting that true freshman Aaron Hall has opened some eyes. Hall is a Durham kid who graduated from high school a semester early to join the team.

Carter says he is aware of the hype surrounding him and ready to assume the responsibility.

“I’m really the next man up. This off-season, Coach [Ben] Albert, Coach Cut, Coach G [Matt Guerrieri], challenged me to step up and lead these guys in the right direction. The standard is still the same, to compete at a high level. The expectation is still the exact same.”

There’s another new name in the defensive tackle room, albeit not a rookie. Ja’Mion Franklin is a transfer from Notre Dame and is a redshirt junior. He’s 6-1, 310 and a former 4-star recruit.

Carter describes Franklin as “a good dude. First of all, he’s a great character guy. He works real hard and plays real well in our scheme. He’s picked it up fast.”

Back to Holmberg. Spring games are famously vanilla and this one didn’t change that paradigm. But there’s no question that Holmberg is the presumptive starter going into the fall. David Cutcliffe praised Holmberg’s off-season work in the weight room in a pre-scrimmage interview with the ACC Network.

Holmberg accepted the compliment.

“Getting stronger but not losing and speed is a big goal. You’ve got take it seriously, you’ve got to be smart with it, not really rush it.”

Cutting back on turnovers has to be a high priority for 2021 and Holmberg shared his thoughts on that after the turnover-less scrimmage.

“You don’t have to be a super-hero every play, especially at the quarterback position. That’s something you try to do sometimes and it actually makes it worse. Just doing your part, understanding the offense, understanding the defense, taking it serious, watching the film, prepping yourself, so that nothing surprises you. That leads to ball security. If you know what you’re going to do every play, you have a pretty good chance of ending that series with the ball in your hands, whether that’s a punt, a field goal or a touchdown.”

Increasing explosives is another priority. Holmberg connected with Jalon Calhoun on a short pass that Calhoun turned into a long touchdown, a play that Holmberg called “sweet.”

“Throughout all of our receivers, we have a lot of playmakers who have been here awhile,” Holmberg said. “We have size on the outside, speed on the inside. As I’ve been here [explosives] have become more important every year, especially in the ACC, where every game is tight, every game is competitive.”

Holmberg and backups Luca Diamont, Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard are all more mobile than last-season’s starter Chase Brice, who transferred to Appalachian State.

Duke intends to take advantage of this.

“I think we’ve put in a lot of things,” Holmberg said, “reading the D end, that we took out last year, just with the personnel we had. Things that aren’t necessarily real triple-options but read the D and give it, read the D and keep it or read the linebacker and dump it to a tight end while you’re on the run or throw a bubble to a receiver. We do a lot of scramble drills now that we hadn’t done in the past. Watching guys like Pat Mahomes and how many plays they make on the run, I think it’s big for us to keep an open mind on that. If things break down, we have a very athletic quarterback group.”

We’ll start finding out in about five months, as Duke opens with four non-conference games leading into the ACC schedule.