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Meet Duke’s Next QB, Gunnar Holmberg

Duke v Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Gunnar Holmberg #12 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes in the second half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Location, location, location.

We all recognize this as the three keys to success in real estate.

Let me switch it up a bit and suggest that preparation, preparation and preparation may be the three keys to Gunnar Holmberg’s 2021 football season.

And perhaps Duke’s 2021 season.

Holmberg is the presumptive starting quarterback for Duke’s football team. By accepted metrics, he projects to be the least-experienced starting quarterback in the ACC. Holmberg has played 74 snaps at Duke, thrown exactly 25 passes. Most of these have come in games whose outcome had already been decided. He’s never started a college game, never once had the outcome rest of his shoulders.

But perhaps the experience coin has a different side.

First, some background.

Holmberg is from Wake Forest, North Carolina—the town, not the university. It’s a Raleigh suburb. Holmberg played at Heritage High School, in a highly competitive conference that sends lots of players to big-time schools. The 6-2 Holmberg has a strong and accurate throwing arm and was considered a major recruiting prize for David Cutcliffe. ESPN.com rated him as a four-star recruit. The website 247Sports.com rated him as the 15th best pro-style quarterback in the prep ranks.

That was in 2017, a lot of did-not-plays-ago.

Holmberg enrolled early, in January 2018. But fall 2018 was Daniel Jones’ last season at Duke. Holmberg waited his turn, getting in for a handful of plays in Duke’s Independence Bowl win over Temple.

Jones left for the NFL after that season. But Holmberg was never in the mix to replace him. He suffered a season-ending right-lateral meniscus injury at the beginning of fall camp.

Redshirt senior Quentin Harris was probably going to be the starter in any event. But seven of Duke’s games that season were decided by margins of at least three touchdowns, a perfect opportunity for a backup to get some reps, an opportunity Holmberg lost to surgery and rehab.

Cutcliffe wasn’t entirely comfortable with the post-Harris options, Holmberg among them, so he introduced Clemson grad-student transfer Chase Brice into the mix.

It looked like a good move at the time. But for a number of reasons, it simply did not work. Brice struggled mightily and transferred again in the off-season, this time to Appalachian State.

Even with Brice’s struggles, Holmberg could barely get into games. But this off-season Cutcliffe showed confidence in Holmberg, staying out of the transfer market for quarterbacks.

By all accounts, Holmberg has taken advantage of the opportunity. He’s 100 percent healthy-fingers crossed-and there’s no one ahead of him on the depth chart.

And he’s put in the preparation. Big time. As early as the beginning of Duke’s spring practice Cutcliffe said that Holmberg was “playing like a veteran now. What I can tell and what I’ve liked about Gunnar’s performance, to start with him, is that he has not sat on his time. He is further ahead mentally. He has studied the game. He has taken advantage of this opportunity.”

Holmberg has always been active in the meeting room and the film room. But with his body healthy, he’s been able to work on his body, lifting, running, fine-tuning his body. He ran a 4.5 40 in high school but he’s added strength and endurance to that speed.

“Gunnar Holmberg is in the best shape he’s been in since he’s been here,” Cutcliffe said at the beginning of fall practice. “He is fit, he’s stronger. I thought today [first day of practice] other than one critical error on a turnover, he knew when to take a shot down field. He managed our offense well.”

Three years of waiting and working and learning constitutes a different kind of experience and Holmberg says he’s ready to transfer that into real games.

“Just taking it one play at a time and listen to everything Coach Cut and Coach [Jeff] Faris tell me. There’s a couple of times I’ve made a bad play and Coach Cut will call me up to the booth and talk me through it, which has been pretty big, with all the experience he has. As a quarterback you listen to everything he says and take it to heart and try to improve on it. Just trying to watch as much film as I can on our opponents, trying to watch as much practice film as I can, really just show that on the field, really just show that I have the game in my hands to instill confidence. That goes a long way.”

Holmberg certainly has the confidence of star running back Mataeo Durant.

Durant told me last week that Holmberg has been leading the summer workouts, throwing the ball to anyone who might be on the receiving end.

“I know how good Gunnar is. He’s a really, really good player. He’s smart and he’s quick on his feet. I’m expecting really good things. I’ve known Gunnar since my junior year of high school and I trust him. I know he’s ready to go out and perform to the best of his ability.”

We should expect to see Duke take advantage of Holmberg’s running ability. Most of Cutcliffe’s Duke quarterbacks have been able to effectively run, both on called run-pass-option plays or eluding the pass rush. Brice was not especially mobile and that set Duke’s offense back last season. Look for the return of the RPO.

“He’s really a gifted runner,” Cutcliffe says of Holmberg “and I’m going to continue to remind him of that.”

Holmberg is on the same page.

“ In this league you’ve got to do whatever you can to get yards. If me running as a component [of the offense] makes defensive coordinators think about something else, then that’s a bonus for us. If it makes the linebackers and the safeties and the corners kind of slow down for a second that helps us a lot. It opens up the playbook a lot.”

Duke has three recruited quarterbacks behind Holmberg. Luca Diamont saw action at the end of the 2020 season finale against Florida State. He still has four years of eligibility remaining. Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard are true freshmen.

Getting improved play from the quarterback spot is crucial to Duke rebounding from last season. Duke opens with four non-conference games, including matches against Charlotte and North Carolina A&T. Opportunities to turn all that non-game work into game-time production. All the waiting is over. It is Gunnar Holmberg’s time.