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Gunnar Holmberg And Josh Blackwell Talk About Friday’s Game With Charlotte

Football season is just days away

Miami v Duke
 DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 30: Josh Blackwell #31 of the Duke Blue Devils tackles Will Mallory #85 of the Miami Hurricanes in the first half of the game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke defeated Miami 27-17.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and cornerback Josh Blackwell met with the media Tuesday to discuss Duke’s 2021 season opener. The Blue Devils travel to Charlotte where they’ll play UNC-Charlotte Friday night.

The 49ers, who prefer to go by just “Charlotte” for athletic purposes may look like an easy opener for Duke. After all Duke is an ACC team, Charlotte is in Conference USA and Duke mauled Charlotte last season, 53-19.

But Duke isn’t looking at it that way. Charlotte re-established its moribund football program in 2013. Coach Will Healy compares his program to those of schools like Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Liberty, ambitious mid-majors who can take on and beat the big boys.

Duke is the big boy on their radar. Charlotte has never beaten a Power-5 team and Friday will be the first time they’ve ever hosted one. They are expecting a full-house at Jerry Richardson Stadium.

An energetic full house.

Holmberg says its crucial for Duke to match that energy.

“Start off hot. Get a jump on these guys.”

Blackwell is on the same page.

“You kind of have to go into every game like it’s a big game. We can’t look at them like an easy win. We have to play our brand of football. You can’t get lackadaisical out there.”

Holmberg will be making his first start since high school. He says he has some butterflies but there’s nothing wrong with that.

“A mix of nerves and excitement. It’s good. You need that after a while. It shows your love for the game of football that you’ve been playing since the first grade, for me. Just going out there and having fun with the guys.”

Having fun is going to start with protecting the ball and getting it to Duke’s play-makers in space.

Holmberg describes the long wait.

“Whenever you’re going through it and making your way up the ranks, it’s something I always knew I wanted, something that I always worked for, something that gave me hope in every practice. Since I was in the seventh grade, I’ve wanted to be the Duke quarterback.”

He’s not just the starting quarterback, he’s a co-captain, selected by his teammates.

“It goes a long way, knowing guys trust you, guys look up to you for doing the right things. Everyone has seen the work I’ve put in to get to this position.”

Blackwell is also making a comeback. He injured a knee in the second game of the 2020 season and underwent season-ending surgery.

“I knew I was going to play again,” Blackwell said. “It was more how quick can I get back and help my team. It sucked to be in the stands watching but now that I’m back, it’s a full head of steam.”

Charlotte only played six games last season due to the pandemic and lost four of those. Healy brought in a bunch of transfers and that has complicated Duke’s preparation.

“Scheme wise, still pretty similar,” Holmberg says. “All you can do is look at film from last year and assume that based on their personnel, those guy’s body types. Right now it’s really just a guessing game of what they’re going to do. Nonetheless you have to have a set of plays that work for whatever they plan on doing and find a balance on focusing on yourself and also hoping that the defenses we’re focusing on in practice and what we’re watching on film is similar to what they come out in and if not, we’re going to play football. We have a set of plays that pretty much work against anything.”

Charlotte returns their starting quarterback, Chris Reynolds. But they’ve added Texas A&M transfer James Foster and touted freshman Xavier Williams.

Blackwell says Duke is prepared for whatever they see.

“Chris, the guy who has been there, is more of a pocket presence and not really much of a runner. The other two quarterbacks are more likely to run so we’ve kind of adjusted to that and schemed for when they’re in the game and we think they have the potential to scramble. They have new personnel but I think we are going to play the same brand of football we normally play, change a few things up on the back end but everything is pretty much the same.”

One of the challenges will be defending senior wide receiver Victor Tucker, who had averaged 4.5 receptions per game for his Charlotte career.

“We think he’s going to play more in the slot. We’ll play him normally. He’s obviously their go-to guy and if we have to match up, we’ll match up and play him like a normal receiver.”

A somewhat new name has emerged at Duke in recent days. Safety J’Marick Woods transferred from Michigan State last season but played sparingly. But he was named first-team going into the opener and David Cutcliffe said Monday that Woods had earned it.

“J’Marick has really improved himself physically and his knowledge of the defensive scheme and his confidence level. I mean, back there, in our safety positions you’ve got to react like this [snapped his fingers]. They’ve got to be right. You can’t be fooled by run fakes and it’s all of a sudden pass. You have to have man-to-man discipline, zone discipline. He has worked so hard. I’ve watched J’Marick. He’s been over here on weekends when they were off, and I will run into him in the building and he’s doing some kind of footwork. I’ll see him in the speed and agility room by himself, or he’s over there watching tape. I like any player when it’s really important to them. Football’s important to him and his team is important to him and he fits our culture and fit who we are.”

Blackwell has seen the same thing.

He calls Wood a “football genius. He’s really smart. Now that he’s actually has the grasp of the scheme and what we’re doing, he’s playing full speed. Last year he was just learning the scheme a little bit and was hesitant in what he was doing. Now that he knows it, he’s out there balling.”

Duke is preparing for everything. Freshman Bailey Rice is one of Charlotte’s newcomers. He’s a 24-year-old former Australian Football League player and he’s their punter. Blackwell is Duke’s primary punt returner and Duke has had their regular punter Porter Wilson practicing rugby-style punts with Blackwell.

Leave nothing to chance.

One of Gunnar Holmberg’s relatives is uncle Rob Holmberg, who played eight seasons in the NFL. Gunnar says his uncle texts him often, reinforcing the message that no one has to be a superman. Trust your teammates, trust the process.

We’re only days away from finding out if that’s a winning recipe for Duke’s 2021 football team.