“155 pounds soaking wet.”
That’s how former Heritage High School head coach Dewayne Washington would’ve described then-sophomore Gunnar Holmberg when he took over the program back in 2015. And if you only watched him at Duke’s spring showcase in mid-April, the same could have been said of freshman quarterback.
Even with 35 more pounds with an inch or two on his frame, Holmberg still stood in the shadow of the rest of the guys in the Blue Devils’ quarterback huddle—one led by the dominant physical presence of 6-foot-5 starter Daniel Jones.
But in some ways, it was fitting.
Jones, who led Duke to a bowl victory last December and has helped his team to 11 wins in his first two seasons under center, will undoubtedly be the man slinging the pigskin in Wallace Wade Stadium come August 31. Holmberg, on the other hand, very likely will redshirt the 2018 season as he continues his development, both on the field and in the weight room.
Unlike most first-year athletes, however, Holmberg did not arrive on campus in late August. Instead, the Wake Forest, N.C., native finished up his high school classes in December 2017 and enrolled at Duke at the start of the 2018 spring semester, enabling him to partake in the Blue Devils’ spring practices and get his feet wet before the rest of the 2018 recruiting class arrives during the summer.
For a guy who started during all three of his high school seasons at the varsity level, a reserve role is bound to be unfamiliar. Yet it is one that could prove incredibly valuable in Holmberg’s evolution.
“Being an understudy is part of being an outstanding quarterback,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said following the Blue Devils’ spring showcase. “Tee Martin was able to win a national championship on the heels of being an understudy for Peyton Manning, so take advantage of that opportunity.”
Living the dream
A sporting tradition has deep roots in the Holmberg family. Gunnar’s father, Sean, wrestled at Slippery Rock, his sister, Torianne plays volleyball at Emory and Henry and his cousin runs track at Penn State. Perhaps more notably, his uncle, Rob, played football at both Navy and Penn State before becoming a 7th-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft and playing linebacker for eight seasons with seven different teams.
And Holmberg’s great-uncle? That was George Blanda, a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who played professionally for 26 seasons and captured three AFL championships and the league’s most valuable player honors in 1961.
Football has always been in Gunnar’s blood.
“Ever since I was four years old, I was just running around with a football in my hands,” Holmberg said. “It’s always been a dream to play Division I in the ACC…and [my family] always has my back.”
But Holmberg’s childhood was not without tragedy. In 2009, when Gunnar was in fourth grade, his father died after a 10-year battle with brain cancer at age 40, leaving a gaping hole in the “tight-knit” Holmberg family.
When asked about his family, Gunnar neglected to mention his father and Washington noted that the pair never specifically discussed his dad’s death—he said it may have come up once during their three years together and called Holmberg “a pretty reclusive guy.”
That soft-spoken nature still remains, and it has taken time for the rookie to find his place in Durham.
“The biggest thing has been getting acclimated with the rest of the guys. They’re kind of already set with themselves and their classes, so you have to find your way in, find your group of guys to hang out with,” Holmberg said. “Thankfully, my class has had a little more time in the weight room before spring ball, so we’ve been able to get bigger, get faster and just look good.”
‘A legitimate fast guy’
Of course, questions remains as to what type of quarterback Holmberg will become.
ESPN put him as its No. 27 pocket passer in the 2018 recruiting class and 247Sports ranked him 15th among pro-style quarterbacks. And with nearly twice as many passing touchdowns as interceptions during his final two high school seasons, the numbers hint that Holmberg may fit more into the mold of a pass-first, Sean Renfree-type quarterback rather than a dual-threat guy like Thad Lewis or Anthony Boone.
Yet, even just a quick glance at some of Holmberg’s high-school highlights show that he is more than comfortable escaping pressure and showing off his legs.
“What I liked, and Duke liked as well, is that he has a live arm. But what makes him unique is the kid can run and he can throw on the run,” Washington said. “I think he ran a 4.5 [second 40-yard dash] at Duke’s camp, so he’s a legitimate fast guy. It’s not one of those situations where you can judge a book by its cover.
So, who better to model his game after than the guy currently leading Duke’s offense?
Jones, even at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, has been among the Blue Devils’ top three rushers in his two seasons as a starter, and Holmberg could be about the same size when it would be his time to take over the Duke huddle.
But strength is just the start of where Holmberg hopes to evolve in his first year as a Blue Devil. After the showcase, he specifically mentioned footwork and becoming a vocal leader—both crucial parts of being a top-tier quarterback—as other facets of his game where a redshirt season could prove helpful as they did for Jones back in 2015.
And if there weren’t enough similarities between the pair already, add one more to the list: soft-spoken leadership.
“Just be humble,” Holmberg said of the biggest thing he’s learned from Jones thus far. “Not everybody is treated the same. You have to find your role and be humble, you can never get too ahead of yourself. But just be yourself, do you and hope the rest of the guys follow.”
Opportunities were extremely limited during Duke’s spring workouts. Holmberg is fourth on the Blue Devils’ depth chart behind Jones, Quentin Harris and Chris Katrenick, and the true freshman threw just a handful of practice during the showcase scrimmage.
Cutcliffe, however, knows a quarterback when he sees one—the 63-year-old has coached both Eli and Peyton Manning as well as former first-round pick Heath Shuler—and he already has high praise for Holmberg.
“I told the coaches on the headset today, Gunnar’s a natural football player,” Cutcliffe said. “He plays fast, he’s accurate when he throws the ball, he makes good pre-snap decisions. He didn’t get as many reps as you would like, but when you’ve got four quarterbacks and you’re the new guy on the block, that happens.”
‘The sky’s the limit’
Growing up just about 30 miles from Duke’s campus, it was ACC football all the way for Holmberg. He was heavily courted by all four North Carolina-based schools in the conference—it was just a matter of sorting out “minute differences,” as Holmberg’s former coach explained.
The key, though, was a relationship that Holmberg developed during the recruiting process with Blue Devil offense coordinator Zac Roper as well as the rest of Duke’s coaching staff.
“They grew a bond from a knowledge perspective and through the process, they really hit it off the times they were able to sit down and really talk football,” Washington said. “The way Coach Roper teaches in the system and the plays there really resonated with him. He could visualize himself in that system, and obviously, Coach Cutcliffe—the way he recruits and he’s a very humble and contrite man, which really resonated with Gunnar. He’s not a flashy guy and I don’t think Duke’s that way, either.”
Still, Cutcliffe’s program has been far from a quarterback factory, especially when compared to its in-state peers. Former Tar Heel gunslingers T.J. Yates and Mitchell Trubisky each started multiple games in the NFL last season and the Wolfpack can claim a pair of Pro-Bowl passers in Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson.
Even so, the choice to join the Blue Devils was relatively straightforward for Holmberg.
“Just being with Coach Cut, Coach Roper and learning from the best with those guys. They’ve been around the best of the best, quarterback-wise, and you see the way Duke is on an upward trend,” Holmberg said. “I liked everything they stood for academically, athletically and just playing in the ACC is everything I could ask for.”
With the knowledge that—barring any wildly unforeseen circumstances—he won’t see the field at all this season, there will be plenty of time to allow the Blue Devil playbook to sink in further without any real pressure.
At the same time, there is an outside possibility that Jones could turn pro after the 2018 season, meaning that Holmberg’s time in the spotlight may not be far off.
Until then, it’s all about “yearning to learn.”
“I really feel like he has exponential growth when it comes to just being able to decipher the defense and roll out quickly like you need to,” Washington said. “Once you get to that, which will take some time [as a college player], everyone will see his talent…. The sky’s the limit for the kid.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."