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‘There’s a hunger to get better.’ Duke football’s offense shows signs of improvement

·5 min read

Gunnar Holmberg dreamed of being Duke’s starting quarterback before he arrived on campus.

He worked behind the scenes for three seasons to prepare for this job.

Now that he’s doing it, he’s doing pretty well.

In Duke’s first two games of the season, representing Holmberg’s first two collegiate starts, he completed 71.4% of his passes while rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for another.

Most importantly, given how the Blue Devils’ season went last season, Holmberg has yet to throw an interception.

Two games do not make a career, of course. And stronger tests lie ahead, beginning with Saturday’s game with Northwestern that marks the beginning of 10 consecutive games with Power 5 conference opponents.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and Jeff Faris, the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who is calling plays for the first time this season, know more improvement is not only possible, but needed.

But, thus far, Duke’s offense has played well in games with Charlotte and N.C. A&T and Holmberg’s play is a big reason for that.

“I think a lot of that leads back to preparation,” Holmberg said. “That’s something that coach Cutcliffe and coach Faris talked about in the offseason as a way to lead the ball security. Putting the ball in places where only your receivers can get it.”

Big improvement

That wasn’t the case last season for Duke, a fact that’s been hammered home both inside and outside the program throughout the offseason. Duke turned the ball over 39 times in 11 games while going 2-9 last season.

Quarterback Chase Brice, having transferred in from Clemson, threw 19 interceptions. He left after the season and is now starting at Appalachian State.

To say the least, his transition from Clemson to Duke, in the middle of the pandemic with no offseason work, was rocky. Compounding that was Duke’s in-season protocols that had the team separated into two different groups to use two different locker rooms to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.

It wasn’t as simple as the defense in one locker room and the offense in the other. Some players were in the main locker room while the rest used the visiting team locker room in another building with a sprinkling of offense and defense in both rooms.

Cohesion never occurred and it showed in Duke’s performance. That is not the case this season, thanks to the team’s vaccination rate above 95%.

Last season saw forced throws, mistakes in route timing or misreading defenses result in turnovers. Duke turned the ball over five times in a 26-6 loss to Boston College in its second game and seven times a week later in losing 38-20 to Virginia.

Also helping this season is that Holmberg is in his fourth season at Duke, so his relationship with his teammates is naturally closer than Brice’s ever could have been.

“A lot of guys that are really close, that care about each other,” Cutcliffe told the News & Observer. “We are playing a lot of people. We are playing a lot of linemen, even.

I like the fact that they care about each other. They are, to some degree, comfortable with each other. They are starting to understand what’s expected of them. I think our offensive staff has done a really good job.”

It’s still early

Admitting that the season is still young and it’s far too early to say the turnover issue is 100% fixed, Cutcliffe did allow that the lower number of miscues is a sign of progress. He took blame for not coaching and communicating with last year’s team, notably Brice, well enough and doing a better job this year.

“I’m telling on myself, to be honest with you,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve done a better job of teaching, or I shouldn’t say we, I should say, I’ve done a better job of teaching. And the student is listening better.”

Cutcliffe said the team’s work in practice this week told them the players know they have room for improvement.

“There’s a hunger to get better,” he said. “We know we have a tough Big Ten opponent. A team that we respect and a program we respect. Focus is more on what we have to do to get better.”

Duke’s first two games were against Charlotte, from Conference USA, and Football Championship Subdivision foe N.C. A&T.

Northwestern, from the Big 10, represents a higher level of competition. Considering Duke lost to Charlotte, that means the Blue Devils still have plenty to prove about their offense that’s averaged 36.5 points per game so far.

“Just the unit has a lot of pride,” Cutcliffe said. “Do we need to start faster, better? Yes. Do we have to prove we are worthy against a better opponent? Yes. But, not to be deterred, we are going to go out there and get better. I believe that in my heart Saturday we’ll come ready to play.”

Game day details: When is the Duke game kickoff?

Teams: Duke Blue Devils vs. Northwestern Wildcats

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

Date: Saturday, Sept. 18

Time: 4 p.m. EST

TV: ACC Network

Streaming: https://www.espn.com/watch/player?network=acc

Betting line: Northwestern is a 2.5-point favorite.

Series history: The teams have met 20 times and split them 10-10.

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