Editor's note: This article was written before the Blue Devils postponed spring activities due to a COVID-19 cluster within the program.
Days are finally getting warmer at Wallace Wade Stadium, and it’s already time for the return of Duke football.
The Blue Devils kicked off spring practices Feb. 26 and competed in full pads March 3. NCAA rules permit 15 practices in the spring, which includes an annual Spring Showcase March 27.
Duke will look to build a solid foundation for next season after its 2020 campaign finished in disappointing fashion. In an unusual season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad tallied a 2-9 record with just one win against ACC competition. Quarterback Chase Brice, who led a Blue Devil team that topped the FBS in turnovers, has moved on after one year, leaving a new direction for the offense.
While there will be a new face under center—likely redshirt junior Gunnar Holmberg—that’s not the only changes that Duke will see in 2021. Five players received invites to the NFL combine, and an additional two are expected to try their hand at the professional ranks. The Blue Devils have solid returning talent at wide receiver and linebacker, but this spring will be important in finding the next generation of playmakers in a Duke uniform.
Cutcliffe, wide receiver Jake Bobo and cornerback Leonard Johnson met with the media last week to discuss the outlook of the program and next season. Here are some highlights:
Cutcliffe on the team getting back to work:
“I think one of the things that we learned from a year ago with so much time away was the conditioning of our squad never really reached its max. I think we've already hit a level much beyond where we've been. I think our strength levels are up, our conditioning levels themselves and that's conducive to better practice habits.”
Cutcliffe on what he wants to see from quarterback play:
“The less balls that hit the ground or land near or in the hands of a defender, you've got a real good shot of having a good year at quarterback. That's the biggest circumstance, and the other part of it is learning who's going to make the plays. What you would call progress, I'm not talking about spectacular plays. Making the plays that you're supposed to make, and we're grading that on a daily basis. And as I said, Gunnar [Holmberg] is playing like a veteran right now.”
Cutcliffe on Duke’s search for a new athletic director:
“I had a good chance to visit with Dr. (Vincent) Price one-on-one. I certainly think they're going to do their due diligence. They're going to work very hard at this. Parker's Search Firm is involved. They're not in the business of maintaining one of the highest levels of respect in the search industry, in athletics, without having good pools of candidates. There's qualified people on the committee. I think Dr. Price is understanding, he understands the role of Duke Athletics within Duke University. It's a huge role. Kevin White has been like a dream. Those are big, big shoes to fill.”
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Bobo on the team’s focus during the spring:
“To be honest, what we’re trying to do is just cut off 2020. In terms of looking back, just cutting that off. With that being said, there are obviously some things that we need to correct. One is obviously ball protection on offense. [We] led the FBS in turnovers in the fall of 2020. That’s something we definitely dove into here early, whether that’s drills against the defense where they’re trying to punch the ball out and we have to protect it or just looking at the little things.”
Bobo on the transition in the quarterback room:
“[The quarterbacks] are just genuine good guys. They bring a lot of positive energy, and I think that the important thing when you look at receiver and quarterback connections is honestly just being friends and having some sort of chemistry off the field where you can feel each other on the field, you can talk to each other, you can come back to the sideline and say, ‘Look, straight up, as friends—I need you to do this next time we go out.’ [Holmberg] is the guy that I’ve kind of always been with off the field, and I think you can see that, especially the guy that he is. He has such good chemistry with every receiver that you’re not really seeing a drastic transition period. And it’s the same thing with [redshirt freshman quarterback Luca Diamont] when he’s out there.”
Leonard on replacing defensive leadership:
“A lot of guys have to step up. We lost some leaders, some great guys, but we do have some guys who are going to step up. A big word we’ve been working on is encouragement. So with those guys like me, Josh [Blackwell], Ben Frye on the line, DeWayne Carter—we’ve got a lot of guys that are stepping up and being leaders, which we need.”