As the saying goes: good things come to those who wait.
So is true for Duke football’s Gunnar Holmberg. The graduate student has waited more than his fair share of time to take the helm for the Blue Devils, and now the time has come.
Although it was suspected for nearly the entire offseason, head coach David Cutcliffe announced in an Aug. 25 press conference that Holmberg had claimed the title of starting quarterback. And to go one step further, the team announced Holmberg was one of three captains for this season. The Blue Devils will take the field in Charlotte for the first game of the season on Friday, and the 22-year-old will finally be leading them out.
Of all the waiting that Holmberg did—over three years—none of it was passive. The kid from Wake Forest, N.C., used that time to learn and absorb information. He had some pretty great teachers too.
Holmberg saw three different starting quarterbacks in his three full seasons prior to earning the starting role. The lessons and wisdom imparted down to him from the leaders prior are now guiding him in his journey to become QB1.
“It covers a lot of different categories from being a great teammate. All three of those guys were all that,” Holmberg told The Chronicle. “[They were] somebody guys look up to, a pretty consistent presence in the locker room on the field, whether that be in a game, or on the practice field.”
The starting quarterback in Holmberg’s first year-and-a-half was none other than current New York Giants starting quarterback Daniel Jones.
Jones was a great teammate, but Holmberg’s most memorable moment with him was during Jones’ first season away from the team when he came back to Duke during the Giants’ bye week.
“I reached out to him to watch film, and he was responding in a second and was really excited about it, too. So just to know that, it's still the same guy—still somebody that really wants to give back and loves football and the family that we have here,” Holmberg said. “Just knowing that somebody is always in my corner whether I have a question for him, no matter how busy he is, he will always respond to anybody in the Duke gang that needs his help.”
Holmberg was a four-star recruit coming out of Heritage High School. There was a lot of excitement surrounding Holmberg’s strong arm and dual-threat style, combined with Cutcliffe’s notorious ability to develop quarterbacks. Despite this, it was very much assumed that Holmberg would not compete for the starting role in his first year, and would instead spend that time learning from Jones, eventually having the opportunity to fight for it during his junior campaign.
At the beginning of fall camp in 2019 however, Holmberg suffered a season-ending tear of his right-lateral meniscus. The opportunity to compete for the starting spot vanished seemingly before it had ever begun.
Jones was replaced by then-redshirt-senior Quentin Harris, who compiled 2,078 passing yards from scrimmage and 23 total touchdowns in his only season as Duke’s main starting quarterback.
Knee injuries happen in football all the time, and from the outside, it’s easy to dismiss it as just another fallen player. But to the player himself, those injuries can derail careers, especially in the limited window that college players have. The dread of missed opportunity can be depressing and draining for players, but Holmberg did not let that happen. He instead used his teammates and former teammates, the very guys who usurped him on the depth chart, as resources to stay motivated.
“I know Daniel reached out to me, texted me and said ‘Whatever you need…’” Holmberg said. “Quentin was a great guy just to have around as just a very consistent presence. Pretty easy-going guy, somebody easy to talk to. A guy who had a lot of experience I could ask him about, life experience or football and at that point, a lot of it was life and just an older guy who's been through college and kind of has been through the ups and downs of it. I think it was good to talk to him.”
Harris graduated, and when it finally seemed time for Holmberg to claim his crown, Cutcliffe recruited Clemson transfer Chase Brice. Brice brought his own hype to Duke after backing up Heisman-winner and No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence the previous two years—and he carried it into the starting role for the 2020 season.
Brice’s time at Duke was less successful than his predecessors and short-lived (he transferred to Appalachian State this offseason), but he and Holmberg were still able to form a connection as two quarterbacks with the same goals.
“Just keeping up with him at App State. That's a guy who, we didn't get to spend a lot of time together,” Holmberg said. “But I think that's a good friend and a good guy to have him in my corner and vice versa, for whatever questions we have, just trying to learn the game of football as much as possible.”
With all the wisdom in his head, and the lessons behind him, Holmberg has focused his attention on being the best quarterback he can be. At the center of that goal is having the confidence to be a leader.
“I think a lot of what goes to the preparation is what [Cutcliffe] always preaches,” Holmberg said. “It’s kind of something that the longer I've been here, what I've realized is, the more of a game plan I have in my mind coming out to practice or working out to a scrimmage, the better I feel, the more confident I feel.”
The Fuqua enrollee is not brand new to game-action. In seven appearances, he is 18-for-25 with 161 passing yards, 28 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. Holmberg is still seeking his first collegiate passing touchdown, something all quarterbacks dream about.
“That's gonna be a really exciting moment for me. Hopefully, there's a lot of them. It's crazy to think that's gonna be in the near future here,” Holmberg said. “Feels like I got here a week ago and now here I am four years later. So yeah, it's gonna be really cool moment.”
For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.
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