This weekend finally marked the first opportunity to see the new faces and future of the Duke football program.
The Blue Devils got back to a semblance of game-like action with their annual Spring Showcase Saturday morning at Wallace Wade Stadium. Head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad had its two-hour practice broadcasted live on the ACC Network as Duke ran through individual, special teams and situational drills before ending the day with an intrasquad scrimmage.
The biggest storyline heading into the event was how things would shake up under center after the departure of last year’s starting quarterback Chase Brice. Signs appear to be pointing toward soon-to-be redshirt junior Gunnar Holmberg as the heir to the position with two promising assets behind him in Luca Diamont and midyear freshman Jordan Moore.
“It feels good to be with the guys that I’ve been here for the past three or four years with and to finally be with the ones with them,” Holmberg said. “I think confidence-wise, we’re all building that, especially me. Being able to build off the last few years that we’ve been here, continuing to learn the offense and continuing to expand on that—put in things that we know work for our guys.”
Once the 11-on-11 portion of the practice began, Holmberg wasted no time getting the offense rolling, as he fired a quick slant to junior wideout Jalon Calhoun for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the scrimmage. A year after Duke quarterbacks were sacked 37 times, Cutcliffe now turns to a much more mobile signal caller, as the Heritage High School product found ways to escape pressure and throw on the run.
“We put in a lot of things, reading a defensive end, that we kind of took out last year just with the personnel we had,” Holmberg said. “So things that are not necessarily real triple-options, but give you a lot of options.... We do a lot of scramble drills now that we haven’t done in the past just from watching guys like Patrick Mahomes and how many plays they make on the run. I think that’s big for us, just keeping an open mind that not everything has to be done in the pocket. If things break down, we have a really athletic quarterback group.”
Holmberg finished the scrimmage with 107 yards and a score on 5-of-9 passing attempts. The Blue Devils’ offense certainly looked like a conservative one Saturday morning, mostly operating with quick throws and designed runs. However, Duke will be well-suited to establish a solid offensive foundation that takes care of the ball a year removed from leading the FBS in turnovers.
The headliner for that offense in 2021 will undoubtedly be running back Mataeo Durant, who dazzled in a shared backfield role last year to the tune of 817 yards and eight touchdowns on nearly seven yards per carry. The rising senior saw limited action throughout the day, though, with backup Jordan Waters getting a chance to show why he is primed to take on more carries with the departure of 2020 starter Deon Jackson.
Duke’s offense faced a 4th-and-short midway through the scrimmage and decided to hand the ball off to Waters on a sweep. The North Carolina native promptly broke an initial tackle at the line of scrimmage and left the defense in his dust for a 51-yard score.
With new pieces still trying to fit together on offense, it was still a day in which the Blue Devil defense made its presence known. Even with stars Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje off to the NFL, the defensive line should be the strong suit of the team thanks to its depth. Co-defensive coordinator Ben Albert has had a massive impact on the program since his arrival in 2016, as Duke's pressure upfront—and a returning linebacker corps—should lead a strong group on that end of the field.
“We’re all expected to do the same thing, no matter how old you are or whatever your depth is on the team,” defensive lineman DeWayne Carter said. “The one thing about Coach Albert, he’s very intelligent and he imparts that knowledge on us. So as young defensive linemen coming up, maybe when we’re not getting many snaps, we can still go in and play that same scheme and still know how to play off of each other just due to our attentiveness in the film room.”
Duke began spring practices Feb. 26 for its allotted 15 workout dates, though things came to a screeching halt two weeks ago as in-person activities were shut down due to a COVID-19 cluster within the program just three practices into the schedule. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils are still the first ACC team to hold its spring game this year.
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“When we had that little COVID stop, it wasn’t anything that we hadn’t faced before due to the adversity that we faced in the summer, being one of the last teams to come back and everything else,” Carter said. “One thing about us as a team—we’ve got grit, we’ve got heart and we’ve got workers. We found ways to work out safely, mitigated and still get our work in. So that way when we were allowed to come back, we could hit the ground running, and there was no drop off.”
While the program has missed postseason play each of the last two years, and will try to improve on a 2-9 season with some key names leaving the program for NFL or other collegiate opportunities, there still seemed to be a high level of excitement to hit Brooks Field and get back to some normalcy.
“It’s been a hard year for everyone all around the country, and playing football brings people together,” defensive lineman Ben Frye said. “If you’re out here dwelling on 2020 and what’s to come in 2021, that was a huge point of emphasis, was just to be together and to have fun. We’re doing what we love—it’s still football. I think that showed today.”
The Blue Devils kick off their 2021 campaign this fall with a Sept. 4 battle against Charlotte.