As the 2022 season rapidly approaches, the Blue Zone takes a look at each of the eight major position groups on this Duke roster: Specialists, defensive line, offensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, receivers, running backs and quarterbacks.
First-year head coach, first-year starting quarterback.
After a drawn-out competition dating back to spring ball, head coach Mike Elko named sophomore Riley Leonard the lead signal caller Sunday. Leonard and classmate Jordan Moore battled to replace Gunnar Holmberg, who transferred to FIU, with Elko deeming it “a very intense quarterback battle.” Considering his shiftiness in the open field, it would be malpractice not to keep Moore in the fold, and Elko acknowledged that the Maryland native will still be part of the offensive game plan.
How Leonard fits into new offensive coordinator Kevin Johns’ wide-open system, and whether he builds a rapport with featured receivers Jalon Calhoun, Eli Pancol and Darrell Harding Jr., is the question going into Friday.
Key players lost: Gunnar Holmberg
Duke might have gone 3-9 last year and winless in conference play, but most of the blame did not fall at the feet of Holmberg. Prior to an upper-body injury suffered in the first half against Pittsburgh, the 6-foot-3 dual threat—in nine starts—completed 69.3% of his pass attempts, accounted for 13 total touchdowns and directed an offense that hummed in three straight nonconference wins against North Carolina A&T, Northwestern and Kansas. Holmberg was especially dynamic in the 52-33 win against Kansas, racking up 416 yards of total offense and five scores, including four on the ground.
After former head coach David Cutcliffe parted ways with the school last winter, Holmberg looked elsewhere, settling on FIU of Conference USA. Holmberg was named the starter down in South Florida earlier this week.
Leonard and Moore both have a year in the program under their belts, but the quarterback room will definitely miss Holmberg’s steadiness, especially considering the potential for some growing pains in year one under Elko.
Projected starter: Riley Leonard
Leonard, who now dons No. 13 after suiting up as No. 10 as a freshman, was thrust into the starting chair after Holmberg went down against Pittsburgh in November 2021, showing flashes of potential in directing a 14-play, 67-yard scoring drive in the second half. He also was a rare bright spot in Duke’s 62-22 loss to Louisville, distributing the ball nicely in mop-up duty to the tune of 13-of-13 completions for 99 yards, plus a 35-yard touchdown scamper.
The Fairhope, Ala., native has a nice set of wheels, which will give Johns the ability to move the pocket and instills confidence that when things break down, Leonard can make something happen on the move.
For the season, Leonard, who appeared in six games, completed just under 60% of his attempts, accounted for three scores and threw one pick. That made him the co-frontrunner, along with Moore, for the starting job once Holmberg left the program, heading into Elko’s first spring. From there, Leonard had the inside track based on his performance in the spring game, as the sophomore was poised and unafraid to cut it loose.
Not to mention, if you like multi-sport athletes, Leonard is your guy. He made a name for himself as one of the best basketball players in Alabama, being named the Class 7A Player of the Year. He received offers from North Alabama, UAB, Samford and Missouri State to play on the hardwood, and by the looks of his mixtape, Leonard has a silky smooth stroke and some crafty moves in the open floor.
Then, there is the man that Leonard beat out for the job, the undersized Moore. Do not let his 6-foot stature fool you, though: Moore is a tough runner who also showed a command of the pocket in the spring game. Putting him on the field as another weapon for Leonard is an added bonus of having such a dynamic quarterback on the roster, but the Loyola Blakefield alum is certainly capable of running the show himself in case his counterpart struggles or gets injured.
Dark horse: Henry Belin IV
If all goes according to plan, Belin will get his feet wet enough in garbage time while not sacrificing his redshirt. Coming out of Cardinal Hayes in New York, Belin was the No. 4 prospect in the state and was a two-time first-team all-state selection. As a high school senior, he led a dramatic comeback in the regular-season finale against Archbishop Stepinac, as Cardinal Hayes won a 49-48 thriller.
Belin has serious arm talent, but a full year of immersing himself into Johns’ system without seeing meaningful action is the ideal scenario for the freshman. If Moore or Leonard go down, though, he’ll move up to the backup spot on the depth chart, so Belin will definitely stay prepared.
For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.