Scenes from a breakup: Brice, Duke both move on

Brice’s transfer to App State gives Gunnar Holmberg new opportunities

Gunnar Holmberg, left, has taken the reins of the Duke offense and played well through two games, completing 71.4% of his passes for 498 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions while also rushing for two more scores. After a difficult 2020 season with the Blue Devils, quarterback Chase Brice, right, has settled in at App State with 458 passing yards and three touchdown passes through two games. (AP Photo)

Scenes from a quarterback breakup, part 1: In Coral Gables, Florida, Appalachian State’s Chase Brice faced third-and-7 from his own 5-yard line, just under five minutes into the game against No. 22 Miami.

Brice was directing his second series of the game. His first had ended with him being sacked on back-to-back plays. One of them was wiped out due to a penalty, although Brice’s body still felt every bit of it. On the second-down play of his current drive, he was hurried and ended up throwing an incompletion.

It was the same recipe for disaster that Brice had seen all through 2020, back when he was Duke’s starting quarterback. The line was unable to protect him, and he was forced to throw on the run — often running for his life. It resulted in 15 interceptions, which helped Duke lead the nation in giveaways on offense, and was a key factor in Brice’s decision to transfer to App in the offseason.

Sure enough, Brice took the snap in his own end zone, and Miami’s Chantz Williams bore down on him, unblocked. Brice threw off his back foot, and Williams got a hand on the ball. Fellow Hurricane Aman Carter dove and came up with the interception at the 6, setting up Miami’s first touchdown of the day.

The played seemed to stand in defiance, if not outright mockery, of what App State coach Shawn Clark said of his quarterback before the game.

“It’s a new team for Chase. He plays in our system, not the Duke system,” Clark said. “To have a guy that’s played in big-time football games, to be able to manage the game. That’s the thing we talked about with Chase all through the summer and last week is, ‘You don’t have to win the football game. You have to manage the football game. When the time comes to take a chance, it has to be a calculated chance, because we can’t turn the football over.’”

The difference soon became apparent, however. During last year’s nightmare season at Duke, where Brice arrived after spring ball and after the team had been sent home due to COVID, he was never able to get caught up on learning the offense and getting into shape. When things went wrong during games, they seemed to go from bad to worse, and that first early interception would herald another two coming later in the game.

Brice was able to settle down, however, and complete three out of four passes for 23 yards on his next drive, leading the Mountaineers 69 yards for the game-tying score. Brice would finish the day 21 of 34 for 199 yards and a touchdown, with just the one sack and one interception.

Most importantly, he completed five straight passes for 68 yards on his 75-yard touchdown drive to give App the lead late in the fourth quarter before the Hurricanes hit a late field goal to escape with a 25-23 win.

“I’m very pleased with where he is right now,” Clark said. “He has a lot of room for improvement, but we all do.”

Brice is also very pleased to be where he is.

“Last year is last year,” he said. “I moved on from that pretty quickly. I got here in January and really just put my head down and focused on how I can better myself as a quarterback. I worked really hard this offseason to better my body, getting back into shape, connecting with my receivers in the summer — a lot of that lonely work.

“I’m having fun again,” he added. “I’m enjoying football like I used to when I was in peewee, just playing with my guys.”


Scenes from a quarterback breakup, part 2: In Durham, Duke was having trouble with NC A&T. A week after losing to Charlotte, the Blue Devils were getting all they could handle from an FCS power. A&T scored first in the game, and when Duke battled back with a pair of rushing touchdowns, A&T was able to tie the score late in the first half.

Duke got the ball on its own 26 with 56 seconds remaining in the half. In his second career start, Gunnar Holmberg would get a chance at the one-minute drill.

His first pass went for 10 yards to Jake Bobo. His fourth found Jalon Calhoun for 14. His eighth and ninth were also to Calhoun, for 15 and 20 yards. When the dust cleared, he’d gone 6 of 9 on the drive, with one of the incompletions being a spike to stop the clock, for 72 of Duke’s 74 yards to the go-ahead touchdown.

“It is a big deal,” coach David Cutcliffe said of Holmberg’s drive. “But you put him in that big deal in practice. We do that every third day — ones against ones in the two-minute drill. … The trust in him comes through practice. I thought the whole offense executed it well.”

Duke came out of the locker room a new team. Holmberg led three third-quarter scoring drives, completing 6 of 8 for 90 yards and rushing for a pair of touchdowns. By the end of the day, what had once been a 14-14 nail-biter was a 45-17 laugher.

Through two games, Holmberg has yet to throw an interception.

“I told Gunner in any two-minute drill, the most important aspect is you have possession of the ball when the play ends,” Cutcliffe said. “Nothing stops a two-minute drive faster than a turnover.”

Holmberg’s ability to run and throw allows Cutcliffe to add pages back into his playbook.

On two drives against A&T, Duke went to the triple-option for the first time since mid-2019. The Blue Devils also went with tempo on selected drives in both games.

Holmberg’s knowledge of Duke’s system also helps Cutcliffe expand the playbook. While he hasn’t played in many games, he’s been a part of the team since 2018.

“I know I’m not necessarily an experienced football player in the ACC,” Holmberg said before the season, “but I’m a very experienced guy within the Duke building.”

Cutcliffe doesn’t minimize the value of that, pointing out that “in the building” means he’s not only present but engaged and focused, evidence of his willingness to put in the work.

“He’s not an overly talkative person,” Cutcliffe said. “The reason Gunnar was elected captain was his work ethic, his commitment to work every day and to work when it’s not a workday. They see Gunnar’s commitment level. It’s always been there. He leads through how other people see his ethic, and that’s the greatest form of leadership there is.”

Call it football math: One quarterback moves on from a team, and both seem to be better for it, and one transfer gives two leaders the chance to shine.