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The Chronicle's Duke football 2021 season preview

Duke's ground game will be led by senior Mataeo Durant.
Duke's ground game will be led by senior Mataeo Durant.

The long-awaited return of Duke football is finally here.

It’s been a long offseason after a sour ending to a disappointing 2-9 year in 2020, but the Blue Devils have some familiar faces stepping into new, large roles. After wrapping up fall camp last week and releasing the depth chart Monday, the Blue Devils are ready to kickstart their season Friday against Charlotte. 

Duke opens up with some winnable games, but stuck in the middle of its nonconference slate is a tough matchup with Northwestern, which is coming off a Big Ten Championship game appearance.

The Blue Devils begin ACC play against North Carolina, a game that figures to be a huge challenge early on against quarterback Sam Howell and the high-powered Tar Heels. The rest of Duke’s conference schedule is relatively difficult too, highlighted by two road games against Virginia and Virginia Tech and a date with D’Eriq King and Miami Nov. 27.

Leading Duke along the way is graduate student Gunnar Holmberg, who now has the keys to Cutcliffe’s offense after sitting behind Daniel Jones, Quentin Harris and Chase Brice, respectively, the past three seasons. It’s been a long journey for the Wake Forest native, but after recovering from a meniscus injury he will be behind center Week One. 

Redshirt senior Jack Wohlabaugh is Duke’s starting center and has worked through knee injuries just like Holmberg, but he’s fully healthy now and anchoring down the offensive line. He’ll be flanked by redshirt sophomore John Gelotte at right tackle, who won the starting job in fall camp and will get his first-ever start in the opening game. 

And of course, senior running back Mataeo Durant is back in the backfield, this time as the feature back after rushing for 817 yards as the No. 2 option last year. Durant hails from the small town of Plum Branch, S.C., something that leaves him uniquely prepared for the bright lights as the go-to offensive weapon. Elsewhere in the running back room, Duke men's lacrosse star Nakeie Montgomery enters the fray as a dual-sport athlete.

You can’t watch a Duke game this year without seeing linebacker Shaka Heyward all over the football field. Heyward led the Blue Devils in tackles last season, and is back as the centerpiece of a defense in need of some continuity as it adapts to its new personnel. 

First up on the docket this year is Charlotte Friday at 7 p.m., and all eyes should be on Durant as the player who can tilt this contest in Duke’s favor. The 49ers bring back quarterback Chris Reynolds and Duke will have to watch out for both his arm and legs.

The Blue Zone has you covered with breakdowns of specialists, linebackers, defensive backs, defensive line, offensive line, running backs, quarterbacks and receivers and tight ends.

If you aren’t already following us, check us out on Twitter @chroniclesports for coverage of Duke football all year. Also, take a look here at our beats’ season predictions


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