Duke photo: Gunnar Holmberg leading the Blue Devils in practice.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quarterbacks arrive on a college campus with talent and supreme confidence. The competition they face in high school isn’t enough to shake their ego for the next level.
What happens to those tangible and intangible qualities as a college backup, though, determines their future. There is no place to hide for a quarterback. All eyes – among coaches, teammates and the omnipresent social media world — are focused on the most important position in the most intricate team sport.
Gunnar Holmberg spent the past three years as a Duke backup, and he’s passed the trust test with coach David Cutcliffe and his teammates to take over as Duke’s starter in 2021. The Blue Devils open the season on Sept. 3, a Friday, against Charlotte at the 49ers’ Jerry Richardson Stadium.
“Gunnar has always looked great,” said senior running back Mataeo Durant, the team’s top player as a preseason second-team All-ACC pick. “I’ve known Gunnar since he was a junior in high school. We’ve always built that relationship.
“Now, I’m glad that he’s going to be able to get the opportunity to showcase his skills. He’s a very talented quarterback, he’s an unquestionable leader. He always makes sure the team is fine whether it’s on the field or outside the field. I’m ready for him to get his opportunity to shine.”
Holmberg, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound fourth-year junior from Wake Forest’s Heritage High, is coming off spring football as the No. 1 QB following Chase Brice’s transfer to Appalachian State.
Charlotte was one of Duke’s two wins last year, 53-19, with Holmberg scoring the game’s final touchdown on a 1-yard run. But overall Holmberg wasn’t happy with his six games seeing the field. He completed 18-of-25 passes for 161 yards, but he was without a touchdown and intercepted twice. He rushed 23 times, often for his life, for a net 9 yards when sacks were factored in.
But he doesn’t consider it a lost season.
“I think I gained a lot,” Holmberg said during the ACC Kickoff media days at the Westin Charlotte. “I think gained last year more than I had the past two years ahead of that. I was able to get all the 2 (backup) reps in practice that would have been my redshirt freshman year, but I hurt my knee. I think practice reps go a long way toward being comfortable with the offense and familiarity with what you do.
“I think it went a long way, even with the little game time I got, to understanding the moment. That way I can step on the field this year and not have a shellshock feeling for me. And seeing the conversations the quarterbacks and offensive coordinators have with coach Cutcliffe’s help. Last year was my first time seeing it.”
He added he learned from observing 2018 starter Daniel Jones and 2019 starter Quentin Harris he has to be prepaared to cope with a season’s ups and downs. Holmberg redshirted in 2018, missed 2019 with a knee injury and then missed spring football in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“I’ve always said it, when you go to college, college football, the program you walk into, it’s probably never going to go the way you planned it,” Holmberg said. “I think I learned that from Dan and Quentin — hearing their stories. Even people within my family that have played college football, played a bunch of sports — seeing the adversity they’ve gone through, how you handle it.
“I think you also have to step back from the game, understand it’s really just the game you love, the game you grew up playing. Just really enjoy it, embrace it. Like I say, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m just trying to enjoy the ride while I’m here.”
Football setbacks are merely game for Holmberg compared to life. He was a fourth-grader when his father, Sean Holmberg, died from brain cancer. But through the challenging times, Holmberg kept growing.
The family’s deep athletic gene pool has also provided support. His uncle Rob Holmberg played linebacker at Penn State and eight years in the NFL, mostly with the Raiders. He’s always only a phone call away.
“Growing up, I think that’s really what gave me my love to play college football, football in general,” he said. “Always hearing the stories about my uncle, who played at Penn State, was a linebacker under Joe Paterno. I’m always learning from him, kind of wanting to see what that experience is like. Really cool to learn from him.”
On his mother Jennifer’s side of the family, Gunnar’s great uncle is George Blanda, a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback/kicker. Blanda died in in 2010 at age 83, but the quarterback genes have been passed on.
And then there are his sister and cousins as college athletes.
His older sister Torrianne played volleyball at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.
Two cousins, Maddie and Gabrielle, Rob’s daughters, were college heptathletes, the women’s track and field version of the decathlon. Maddie Holmberg Nickal is still competing as a world-class athlete from Penn State. She was fifth in the heptathlon U.S. Olympic trials last month in Eugene, Oregon. She had a best college finish of third in the in the 2018 NCAA track and field finals. Gabrielle Holmberg competed at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Holmberg also showed on stage in Charlotte at ACC media days he is comfortable in his skin. He was asked who is the better athlete in the family – his cousin Maddie, who almost made the Olympic team, or him, an ACC starting quarterback.
“Maddie is a stud,” he said. “We’ve all been track runners. I ran track up until high school. She’s always been fast. We go against each other. I think nowadays she might get me. So, I’ll give that crown to Maddie.”
Not all guys would make such a concession, and Holmberg sounded at ease expressing it. But at the same time, there was quarterback confidence in his voice. It’s not hard to imagine he could have been saying under his breath, “… for now.”
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