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Duke football's mix of young talent, experienced returners preparing for 2021 season

Head coach David Cutcliffe's squad went 2-9 overall in the 2020 season.
Head coach David Cutcliffe's squad went 2-9 overall in the 2020 season.

CHARLOTTE—With the 2021 football season just over a month away, head coach David Cutcliffe and his Blue Devils have their eyes set on a turnaround season. 

Cutcliffe, along with quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, running back Mataeo Durant and defensive tackle DeWayne Carter spoke at the ACC 2021 Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C. to give an update on the team's preparations. 

After finishing just 2-9 (1-9 in the ACC) last year, Duke will return just 10 of 22 starters this season, leaving the door open for younger players to step up into key roles. Headlining the new faces on the Blue Devil first team will likely be Holmberg, a dual-threat graduate student.

“Watching him develop not only as a player but as a person has been extremely important for me. [And] to see his mother celebrate his success…” Cutcliffe said of Holmberg. “He’s [already] a graduate student. Can you believe that?... I’m just really proud of him.”

Graduate student Gunnar Holmberg looks to be locked in as Duke's starting quarterback.
Graduate student Gunnar Holmberg looks to be locked in as Duke's starting quarterback.

If Holmberg is indeed the starter come September 3, it won’t be the first time he’s seen action as a Blue Devil. In seven appearances for Duke, he’s thrown for 161 yards and two interceptions on 72% accuracy. This is in tandem with his 28 rushing yards and one touchdown on 24 attempts. 

Holmberg has waited his fair share of time to be deemed the starter, having sat behind three different quarterbacks including the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones. But perhaps the most redeeming part about moving into this starting position will be the implication of a complete recovery from a 2019 knee injury. 

“I think you also have to step back from the game, understand it's really just the game you love, the game you grew up playing. Just really enjoy it, embrace it,” Holmberg said. “Like I say, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm just trying to enjoy the ride while I'm here.”

He also explained the importance of adversity in anyone’s life and that playing college football never goes the way you expect, something he attributes to learning from Jones and 2019 starting quarterback Quentin Harris.

Another significant difference in this year’s offense will be the look of the backfield. Duke’s two-headed backfield of Deon Jackson and Durant will no longer feature Jackson after he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts earlier this year. The question now becomes will Durant shoulder the load for the Blue Devils or will a young back step up into the spotlight? 

“I [have] just been able to get in prehab and rehab, make sure everything is great. Also get the younger players ready who are under me,” Durant said about the situation. “You never know what's going to happen. Preparation is always key.”


Durant contributed 817 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground last season at an incredible 6.8 yards per carry. He tacked on another 107 yards and one touchdown through the air, as well. 

The Blue Devil defense is perhaps the biggest question mark heading into the season. Last year they allowed an abysmal 38.1 points per game, surrendering the most touchdowns in the ACC by a large margin.

And then they lost their three best players. 

Linebacker Chris Rumph II, defensive back Michael Carter II and defensive end Victor Dimukeje were all selected in the 2021 NFL Draft—three big-impact players on the defensive side of the ball leaving large holes that need to be filled. 

“We have a lot of room to make up and production in that area, but those guys left stepping stones for us to follow, so it’s a direct path in terms of film room and practice habits and things like that,” Carter said. “They’re going to lead us in the right direction.” 

Carter also detailed what the new defensive identity is going to look like for the Blue Devils. 

“This year what you're going to see from this defense is a defense that likes to fly around, run to the ball, play hard. We're going to be disciplined,” he said. “Emphasis for us is tackling, as well as stopping the run. That's what we lacked in the back half of the season. This year our focus is disciplining, strength.”


Allowing 38.1 points per game while only scoring 24.8 is not a recipe for success, and on the surface, this team looks like it could wind up in a similar position to last year, but Cutcliffe sees the deeper picture.

“We got a lot of young talent. We've got more depth than we've had [on the defensive line]. Competition always strengthens a team,” Cutcliffe said. “Really, I think this team, since I’ve been at Duke, and this is going into year 14, has the most balance and competition at every position. That has always in my past made a football team better.”

There are no guarantees, according to Cutcliffe, which means there is a lot of mystery with just a little over a month until opening weekend. But mystery means anything can happen, so don’t count the Blue Devils out just yet. 


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