Hello, college football. It’s nice to see you again.
One offseason removed from 2020’s miserable 2-9 showing, this year’s Blue Devils look to right the ship starting with Friday night’s 7 p.m. season opener at Charlotte. Duke thrashed the 49ers 53-19 last October in a true tour de force, leaning on their strengths in the running game and the pass rush to take an early 24-0 lead that they would not yield. As rare road favorites this time around, the Blue Devils will certainly look to put on a repeat showing under the lights.
But season openers can be a tricky thing, and neither Duke nor Charlotte is the same team now as it was then. If the Blue Devils want to start things off on the right foot, they will need to understand that and hit the field ready to compete.
“So it’s truly an opener, and you got to adjust well as it goes,” head coach David Cutcliffe said in an Aug. 30 press conference. “But they will be a good football team. And to open up on the road is always a challenge.”
Gunnar’s first start
Perhaps the biggest storyline for the Blue Devils in their first contest is quarterback Gunnar Holmberg starting his first career game under center. After years of waiting and preparation, he becomes the fourth starting quarterback for Duke in as many years, replacing 2020 starter and now-Appalachian State signal caller Chase Brice.
Brice set the bar pretty low in his lone season with the Blue Devils, tossing 15 interceptions in 11 starts. Holmberg’s directive—to be better than his predecessor was—is in many ways a microcosm of the team’s goal to bounce back in 2021. It all starts with the first-time starter’s play, and he would appear up to the challenge.
“Since I was in seventh grade, it’s always really been my dream to be the Duke quarterback,” said Holmberg during an Aug. 31 media availability. “So [it’s] pretty surreal, I think just in general, but something that I knew I’d always worked for and I hoped this day would come.”
While the Blue Devils managed to get by the 49ers last season with only 127 yards passing, common sense would suggest that Holmberg will have to provide a little more Friday night to return home undefeated. It’s a lot to ask of a player who hasn’t started a game under center since high school, but Holmberg—whose debut performance will answer a lot of questions—knows he can use those nerves to his advantage.
“I think you need that [nervous feeling] after a while without having it,” said Holmberg. “I was talking to [long snapper] John Taylor about it, and he gave me a quote, like, ‘If you’re not nervous, you don’t care.’”
New year, new opponent
Needless to say, this isn’t the same Charlotte team that Duke beat up a year ago: with seven transfers and a healthy Chris Reynolds starting at quarterback—the redshirt senior played through injury in 2020—these 49ers are certainly stronger and better prepared this time around. After having half of their games canceled in their most recent campaign, there really is no telling what their team will look like heading into this one.
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On the other hand, the Blue Devils look a whole lot different, too. The defense lost three starters to the NFL, the offensive line is set to field two first time starting tackles and key offensive playmakers like Deon Jackson and Noah Gray have both moved on.
Across the board, this Duke team is quite different from its most recent iteration. That might initially seem a terrifying thought, but change is inevitable, and these Blue Devils are more than equipped to take down a different-looking Charlotte team even as they themselves continue to mesh and mature as a team.
Down in the trenches
So much is decided in the run game for the Blue Devils. Not only is it where star running back Mataeo Durant makes his impact, but it’s also a point of emphasis for the Duke defense. As good as last year’s duo of Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje was at getting to the quarterback, the team’s rush defense ranked last in the ACC.
That’s not acceptable for a team that wants to win football games, and should change from the get-go here in 2021. Without Rumph, Dimukeje and the supporting cast of offseason transfers Derrick Tangelo (Penn State) and Drew Jordan (Michigan State), it will fall to defensive captain DeWayne Carter, returning starter Ben Frye and the rest of the defensive line to do a better job setting the edge, plugging up holes and generally improving a major problem for what was otherwise one of the best Duke defensive lines in recent memory.
Special teams spark
Duke’s 2020 win over the 49ers included a special performance by the special teams unit, as it blocked two punts on the night. Both such plays set up short fields for the Blue Devils, who turned their two opportunities into two scores in just five total plays.
Special teams were a bright spot for last season’s Duke team and although they plunge forward without the services of key return man Damond Philyaw-Johnson, the unit returns kicker Charlie Ham, punter Porter Wilson, long snapper John Taylor and plenty of other important contributors that should help the Blue Devils field an impactful group yet again this season.
Season openers can get ugly, and the seemingly little things—like field position along with consistent kicking and punting—can be put under a magnifying glass. Special teams coordinator Kirk Benedict and his group always brings energy to the field; the special teams could be crucial in this one.
Will offseason preparations pay off?
Heading into 2020, the Blue Devils were flying blind: they were the last Power Five team to arrive on campus and start summer training, when nearly half the team tested positive for COVID-19. It was an offseason like no other, filled with uncertainty and sorely lacking in usual preparations made ahead of a season opener.
This time around, with a full summer camp and significantly fewer restrictions in place, the Blue Devils have been able to prepare for the fall campaign on their own terms. Friday’s matchup will surely go a long ways towards indicating whether the full summer really has paid off but to many, including starting cornerback Josh Blackwell, the change means a world of difference.
“We didn’t really have as much of an offseason [in 2020] as we did this year,” said Blackwell. “To actually be able to have been in the same locker room and prepare together, it’s been helpful and very beneficial for us.”