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Duke held its first football scrimmage. Here’s what we learned.

Three weeks before facing Alabama in a bear of a season-opening game, Duke held its first scrimmage Saturday night, showing a promising defense but an offense that wasn’t ready for prime time.

Both the first and second team offensive units, led by quarterbacks Quentin Harris and Chris Katrenick, were plagued by penalties and turnovers that left coach David Cutcliffe unhappy.

“The thing that has to be addressed most, and we did address it better in the second half offensively, were the errors,” Cutcliffe said. “A post-snap penalty. Three pre-snap penalties. A critical hold in a very critical area of the field. And then turnovers.”

Such sloppiness makes it tougher to win any game. When the next game Duke plays is against a national title contender like Alabama, mistakes such as were on display in the scrimmage at Wallace Wade Stadium could make for an ugly outcome.

“It’s a week into practice and we are still ironing out the kinks,” said Harris, the redshirt senior entering his first season as the team’s starting quarterback. “A lot of new guys. A lot of guys in different places. We are just getting the feel for each other and this is the first time under the lights where it’s full tackle to the ground.”

Cutcliffe called Duke’s offensive focus “really poor” in the first half of the 75-play scrimmage. He was happy with how the group improved as the night progressed. One of the highlights late in the scrimmage was Harris’ 34-yard touchdown pass to redshirt senior wide receiver Aaron Young against the second-team defense.

“Right now, the bigger test to me is will this team be able to play 60 minutes with focus and effort,” Cutcliffe said. “We will get there. We have enough players here to make plays.”

Here are other observations from Duke’s scrimmage as the Blue Devils prepare to face the Crimson Tide in the Aug. 31 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta:

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Big-play defense

With eight starters returning, Duke’s defense is clearly the strongest unit the Blue Devils will field against Alabama.

Playing against the second-string offense, starting safety Michael Carter II intercepted two passes during the scrimmage and nearly had a third. Freshman cornerback Tony Davis picked off a Harris pass in the end zone.

Duke had just four interceptions while going 8-5 last season. So Saturday night’s performance showed how much emphasis the group is placing on creating more turnovers.

“Everybody is trying to get that ball,” Carter said. “Be aggressive when the ball is in play. Turnovers have been a huge point of emphasis every day of camp. We have a turnover minimum and we try to reach that minimum every day. When we don’t, there’s no excuse. We are just trying to get those turnovers.”

Duke held starting defensive end Victor Dimukeje out of the scrimmage to eliminate any chance of injury for one of its top players. (All-ACC running back Deon Jackson did the same on offense).

Still, senior defensive end Tre Hornbuckle had two tackles for losses. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, back on the field after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon last October, had two sacks.

Senior defensive tackle Trevon McSwain also had two tackles for losses.

In addition to praising Carter for his play, Cutcliffe also said safety Dylan Singleton impressed. Singleton is back on the field after his season ended last November when he broke his ankle against North Carolina.

“He’s playing at the best level since he’s been here,” Cutcliffe said of Singleton, who had 73 tackles last season.

Gunnar Holmberg injures knee

Redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg’s quest for the No. 2 slot on the quarterback depth chart went awry on Friday when he suffered a knee injury during practice.

Though Cutcliffe said Holmberg did not suffer any ligament damage, the former Wake Forest Heritage High School standout will have surgery to repair the injury.

“At this day and time, you try to go in and repair for long-term health,” Cutcliffe said. “I am disappointed for him and I’m disappointed for us. I know he will do everything he can to be back for us as quickly as possible.”

Holmberg’s injury leaves Katrenick as Duke’s only scholarship quarterback other than Harris.

Uncertainty in kicking game

Junior AJ Reed is Duke’s No. 1 place kicker while freshman Charlie Ham is also battling for the job.

Neither did enough to make a case for the starting job during Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Both of them missed balls they should have made tonight,” Cutcliffe said. “In pre-practice (work), I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. In eight kicks, our snap, hold we were eight for eight in hitting spots. And each one of them missed a kick. When your operation is that good, you should never miss if you are a good enough player for a Power Five team.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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