PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Gunnar Holmberg scans the field for an open receiver against A&T.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain offered more than a routine break down of the conference’s top five quarterbacks through the first two weeks of the season. He was invited on Tuesday morning’s Packer and Durham Show to list them in order.
Returning starters, naturally, topped his list. He named Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and Miami’s D’Eriq King.
Then, he sounded apologetic for not including Duke first-year starter Gunnar Holmberg, citing the Blue Devils’ competition against Charlotte, a 31-28 loss, and North Carolina A&T, a 45-17 win, as his reasons.
“I mentioned Gunnar Holmberg earlier,” Mac Lain said. “A guy that’s been super-efficient. You look statistically, outside of touchdowns, he’s all over the place with stats and doing well for his team. Not turning the ball over. I’ve been impressed with him.”
This week Mac Lain and the rest of the ACC have a chance to see Holmberg’s emergence under his quarterback whisperer coach, David Cutccliffe. He will be tested by a Power 5 opponent as the Blue Devils (1-1) play Northwestern (1-1), the defending Big Ten West champion, in a 4 p.m. game Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Through two games, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound graduate student with junior eligibility has completed 40-of-56 passes for 498 yards with one touchdown toss and no interceptions. The .714 completion percentage is the highest for a Duke quarterback with at least 400 yards in his first two games. The list includes the New York Giants’ 2019 first-round draft pick, Daniel Jones.
But there always is a subplot. It’s not just Holmberg’s early numbers and the final scores. We’re watching the education of a quarterback through two weeks. That will affect the final numbers and scores down the road.
Against A&T, Holmberg had to show he could bounce back from his Charlotte fumble at the goal line the 49ers recovered for a touchback. An average quarterback – one not cut out to lead a Power 5 team — dwells on the costly mistake. They may regress – or at least struggle to rise to similar future big plays.
“I think of moving on from something like that, especially in the red zone,” Holmberg said. “It’s something you never want to have happen to you. It was something to emphasize, ball security, to keep in the back of your mind. When in red zone, keep two hands on the ball.”
Holmberg beat A&T with 20-of-27 passing for 270 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown toss, but his two touchdown runs also were a sign of growth.
On third-and-goal in the third quarter, he kept the ball over the left side of the line to score. The ball was wrapped up.
“That was something coach Cut talked a lot about doing bag drills or running at any time,” Holmberg said. “Make sure you finish, run keeping your pads down and keep two hands on the ball. Make everything game-like. I think that was his biggest point to me.”
On the next series, he rolled right, saw his receivers covered, tucked the ball and ran 9 yards untouched into the right side of the end zone. Sounds easy, yes. But if he had frozen and forced a pass into double coverage for an interception, he wouldn’t have been the first inexperienced QB to make such a mistake.
Holmberg’s instincts gained as a high school star at Heritage had graduated on that play to the college football level.
Another sign of Holmberg’s growth was driving the team 10 plays and 76 yards in 55 seconds to score as time expired in the first half. He completed a third-and-3 pass from Duke’s 33 to Jalon Calhoun for 14 yards and a fourth-and-4 pass at the A&T 37 for 15 yards to the 22.
Then, after a timeout to discuss the play call on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line with five seconds remaining, he executed the play call, handing off to Mataeo Durant to score as time expired.
“He was much more comfortable, confident, if you will,” Cutcliffe said. “You could sense it in pregame. I could sense it in in the locker room before the game in conversation. That pays dividends, because when you say you’re in the building, sometimes you’re not in the building when you’re in the building, if you understand what I’m saying. I love the term be where your feet are. I have to remind young people that all the time.”
Although this is Holmberg’s fourth year on campus, it’s his first regularly meeting with the media. He’s more comfortable, though, than Jones was when he was thrust into a starting role as a first-year starter his redshirt freshman season in 2016. By 2018, Holmberg saw a Jones grow into the media role. In 2019, he saw Quentin Harris swat away questions like bugs. He was a first-year starter at the podium with the poise of a polished politician.
“I think it’s from being around and seeing how the college football world works,” Holmberg said. “My freshman year I was a shy guy. I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Some days I was nervous just to walk on field. Talking to Daniel, he said he was the same way his freshman year.
“I think seeing how Daniel and Q carried themselves and having been a football fan growing up and seeing quarterbacks do their interviews made the transition a little easier.”
But in this era of college programs limiting access to athletes, Holmberg didn’t have to face the media after the Charlotte game. Durant, with 255 yards rushing and three touchdowns, was the only player made available on a Zoom call interview.
But in the old days, as Holmberg’s uncle Rob Holmberg could tell him from his days playing at Penn State (1990-93) and eight years in the NFL (1994-2001), the locker room was open. Holmberg said he would have stood at his locker to face the music, enduring a circle of prying notepads and microphones.
“It was my mistake,” said Holmberg, “and I have no problem owning up to that, no matter the circumstances.”
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