DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – There is no way to sugarcoat it – 2020 was a tough year for college football and a brutal one for David Cutcliffe and the Duke Blue Devils.
In a system that requires a lot of repetitions, COVID protocols robbed them daily of the precious minutes needed to make carrying out plays second nature.
The team missed out on 140 days where they weren’t able to get together or come to campus.
The end result was predictable.
The Blue Devils finished 2-9 (1-9) last year.
“There are no excuses. You go play to win, and regardless of what your team looks like. I think I learned the culture, the chemistry of a team is built from January,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. “There’s an old farmer’s saying that you plant well in the spring or beg well come fall. I think I realized more and more how critically important planting from January all the way through the summer is to be able to sustain a season.”
The Blue Devils returned just 10 of their 22 starters from last year so needless to say, program sales will be brisk at Wallace Wade stadium.
One new, old face will be quarterback Gunnar Holmberg.
All signs point to the former Wake Forest High School star being under center for Duke.
I say old/new because he is more than familiar to those that follow the program.
As a grad student, he’s bided his time playing behind Daniel Jones and Chase Brice.
He’s made seven appearances and thrown for 161 yards along with two interceptions checking in with 72 percent accuracy.
He’s also rushed for 28 yards on 24 attempts and scored a TD as well. Gunnar is more than familiar with and comfortable in the system.
“Gunnar has always looked great. I’ve known Gunnar since a junior in high school. We always built that relationship,” said Duke running back Mataeo Durant. “Now I’m glad that he’s going to be able to get the opportunity to showcase his skills because he’s a very talented quarterback, he’s an unquestionable leader, he always make sure the team is fine whether it’s on the field or outside the field.”
“Gunnar came into quarterback camp and was just so impressive as an athlete, as an enthusiastic young quarterback,” said Cutcliffe. “Watching him develop not only as a player but as a person has been extremely important for me.”
“I think just being consistent and being confident, whether that’s telling the play to the guys in the huddle, being consistent with things like accuracy. Ball security was of course a big focus for us in spring coming off this season,” said Holmberg. “Really just being a guy that guys on the team can ask any question to regarding the offense, whether that’s an O-lineman, running back, wide receiver, always making sure I have the right answer to that so I can help them out. Continue to fill my shoes as the leader of this team the upcoming season.”
He won’t be alone in the backfield.
Mataeo Durant was one of the bright spots from last year’s team.
Last year, Durant led the Blue Devils in rushing yards (817) and rushing touchdowns (eight) while ranking second on the team in scoring (54 points). Durant recorded four games with 100-plus rushing yards, including a career-high 163 yards at Syracuse so it was easy to see why he was a preseason All-ACC selection.
He knows without Deon Jackson to split time with all the focus, and carries, will fall on him. He took extra care of this offseason to get his body ready for the extra workload.
“I’ve just been able to get in prehab and rehab, make sure everything is great. Also get the younger players ready who are under me. You never know what’s going to happen,” said Durant. “Preparation is always key. Me and the younger players will go out, do a lot of individual drills, a lot of things we need to work on prior to the season. That also helps build the depth in the backfield, which we have.”
The biggest loss this offseason was on the defensive side of the football.
A unit that gave up just under 40 points per game also lost arguably their 3 best players. Defensive back Michael Carter II, linebacker Chris Rumph II and defensive end Victor Dimukeje all had their names called in the in NFL Draft. They may be gone but they left a great example for the players still in Durham.
“I took away from those guys how they pursue the quarterback, how they pursue the running back, how they give their all every snap no matter what the score may be.” said defensive tackle DeWayne Carter. “Off the field in the film room, I have a very intelligent position coach named Benjamin Albert who imparts that knowledge on them. Seeing how they carry themselves in the film room, how they prepare, how they study teams, how they study scheme, how they study individual players. It’s kind of something that stuck with me from day one.”
The upside is the Blue Devils have a ton of people competing to step in to those starting jobs and competition always brings out the best.
“I think this team, since we’ve been at Duke, and this is going into year 14, has the most balance and competition at every position,” said Cutcliffe. “That is always in my past made a football team better.”
The season starts in just over a month. Duke opens up against Charlotte on the road September 3rd.