Look Ahead — 2020 Newcomer: Duke’s next QB will have weapons at his disposal

Whether Gunnar Holmberg, pictured, or Luca Diamont wins Duke’s starting quarterback job in 2020, the Blue Devils’ offense should be dynamic. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The North State Journal can state unequivocally that the 2020 Newcomer of the Year will be Duke quarterback Luca Diamont.

Or perhaps Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg.

We’re not sure who exactly will win the Duke job, but whichever young quarterback steps into the starting role will be inheriting a unit filled with returning talent and a chance to make a significant turnaround from last year’s Duke offense.

For much of the year, the Blue Devils’ attack on offense seemed more asleep than sleeping giant. Duke would go through long stretches of defensive play, broken up occasionally by a quick three offensive snaps and a punt as the offense struggled to move the ball at all.

There were plenty of explanations and potential causes, filled with football clichés: The team needed to execute better. Everyone needed to do their job. The team just needed to do better on third down … or first down, to set up more manageable third downs.

At its best, the offense would give opposing coaches fits as they tried to prepare for one of the nation’s most diverse attacks. As UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said before this year’s game, Duke’s most common offensive set in the first half of the season was five wide/empty backfield — meaning all available skill position players are lined up as receivers for a downfield attack. The next most common was the triple option — the run-heavy attack made infamous by Georgia Tech in recent years.

As injuries and three-and-outs mounted, however, Duke scaled back to an offensive set more manageable by its young talent. As the Blue Devils simplified for their players, however, it became easier to defend.

Duke will have a change at quarterback. Quentin Harris, who was a game manager but not the exciting big-arm prospect that ignites offenses, is graduated.

The jury is still out on whether or not the Blue Devils will make a change at offensive coordinator. Zac Roper endured a season filled with criticism. Any staff changes likely won’t be made until after the coaches convention in January. At the very least, however, David Cutcliffe will likely take a long look at the playbook and try to find a way to freshen things up.

Duke also expects to get back some of the injured talent whose absence hampered the offense from the early going. Brittain Brown, slated to be part of a two-headed running attack with Deon Jackson, should be ready to go for spring practice. Duke also got playing time for several young backs when Brown went down with a season-ending injury, so the Blue Devils should have plenty of depth at that spot.

Duke also has a young line. They’ll need to replace center Jack Wohlabaugh, but Will Taylor got valuable starting experience late in the year when Wohlabaugh went down. Two freshmen started on this year’s line, so there should be improvement up front just from natural maturing and experience.

Duke also has one of the most exciting young receiving corps in the conference. Jalon Calhoun started from day one as a true freshman, and two other 2019 recruits — Darrell Harding Jr. and Eli Pancol — got plenty of playing experience. Junior Jake Bobo was hampered by injury much of the year, but he should be back as well, and tight end Noah Gray is an emerging star as a versatile pass-catcher.

All the Blue Devils need is someone to pull the trigger, and they have two candidates. Holmberg was a three-star recruit in 2018 who was expected to contribute as a redshirt freshman this year. He suffered a preseason injury, however, that kept him out all season.

He passed for 6,987 yards and 65 touchdowns at Wake Forest’s Heritage High, earning offensive player of the year honors for his conference as a junior and senior.

Cutcliffe said Holmberg would be ready to go in spring. “I’m counting on it,” he said.

Diamont was the top recruit in the 2020 class that signed on Dec. 18. He’ll enter Duke in January and compete in spring practice. He passed for 4,626 yards and 47 touchdowns in two years while rushing for more than 1,000 yards.

Cutcliffe called Diamont “versatile and aggressive” and pointed out that he was athletic enough to play safety as well as quarterback in high school.

“It’s a very competitive situation,” Cutcliffe said. “Obviously, we’ve got young players here. We’ll have a fun spring and see what happens.”