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A Look At Duke’s Linebackers

In Jim’s continuing series on this year’s Duke football

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Duke v Baylor
WACO, TX - SEPTEMBER 15: Jamycal Hasty #6 of the Baylor Bears is wrapped up by Koby Quansah #49 of the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of a football game at McLane Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Waco, Texas.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

On October 30, 1960 the CBS news anthology The Twentieth Century ran an episode entitled “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” in which narrator Walter Cronkite extolled the virtues of Huff, the middle linebacker for the New York Giants.

The fact that CBS was devoting a half hour to the NFL was validation for pro football’s increasing popularity. But it also solidified the idea that linebackers were the biggest, baddest folks on the field. Whether fans were watching Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis or Jack Lambert, linebackers best epitomized the idea of mobile, agile and hostile.

David Cutcliffe certainly has had his share of top-notch linebackers at Duke. The Blue Devils use a 4-2-5 defense, freeing up its linebackers to make plays anywhere on the field.

Michael Tauiliili (2008), Kelby Brown (2013), David Helton (2014) and Joe Giles-Harris (2017, 2018) all made first-team All-ACC. Vinnie Rey (2009) and Dwayne Norman (2015) made second team, while Ben Humphreys was third team in 2016 and honorable mention in 2018. A.B. Kromrah was honorable mention in 2010.

Rey is the only one to have an NFL career. He has played nine seasons for the Bengals.

Five first-team all-conference seasons is the most for any position group during Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure.

Can Duke keep that going?

A great big question mark, perhaps the biggest on the defensive side of the ball.

Humphreys graduated. So did Giles-Harris. But the latter red-shirted as a freshman, so he had one more year of eligibility, which he gave up to enter the NFL draft.

Surprisingly, Giles-Harris went undrafted. He signed as a free agent with Jacksonville.

It’s easy to posit the idea that Giles-Harris made a huge mistake. But if he couldn’t get drafted after being selected first-team All-ACC twice, what exactly could he have done in 2019 to improve his draft status?

Giles-Harris and Humphreys both missed a fair amount of time over the last few years with assorted injuries. That was bad for the short term but it did give Koby Quansah, Brandon Hill and Xander Gagnon lots of snaps replacing them.

Duke’s linebacker corps also got extra work against triple-option teams, where Duke went to a more traditional 4-3-4. With Army off the schedule and Georgia Tech under new management, Duke will not have to face option teams any time soon.

Quansah is a true senior, the most experienced linebacker and the position leader. He’s 6-1, 230 and has 102 career tackles.

“Pretty much just take everything that Joe and Ben have taught us over the years and form it into our own combinations,” he says. “I’ve never been much of a vocal leader. I’ve been more lead by example. But I’ve become more vocal for the younger guys who don’t know as much, speaking more, getting everybody more excited. We have a lot of young, hungry guys who haven’t played much. We’re getting them [the younger guys] in the weight room and trying to get them lifting what we [he and Hill] are lifting. I feel like I have been able to come in and not skip a beat and now I’m looking forward to doing it as a starter. But we need everybody to be able to come in and play when needed.”

Hill went into the spring as the presumed second starter but suffered a right-knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Duke treats injury reports like they’re nuclear codes but Hill hasn’t been ruled out for next season. Fingers crossed.

If Hill can’t go, Gagnon would appear to be the next man up. But redshirt freshman Shaka Heyward may well bypass Gagnon.

Heyward is 6-4, 230. If the surname sounds familiar, it should. His late uncle Craig, played 11 seasons in the NFL, cousin Corey played basketball at Georgia Tech, cousin Cameron plays for the Steelers, cousin Connor plays football at Michigan State, brother Victor plays football at Georgia State.

Heyward played in four games last season, thus preserving his redshirt.

He had a dominant spring, winning one of the two awards for most improved defensive player.

Heyward told “I feel like there are two sides to college football: the mental side and the physical side. I felt like I was pretty good on the physical side, but on the mental side, those four games definitely helped me get a grasp on the mental side of the game, You can’t just do the same thing every time. You have to switch it up. In high school you can probably get away with doing the same thing every time because you’re so much better than everyone. In college everyone’s good. You have to adjust to what they’re doing, adjust with them, and stay on top of everything.”

Rocky Shelton is another redshirt freshman. He’s only 6-0, 210, so he’s going to have to use speed to see the field. Jacob Morgenstern is a redshirt junior who has played sparingly.

Duke signed one linebacker, Sayyid Stevens. He’s from Georgia, a state that’s been good to Duke in recent years.

Lanier Goethe is in his second year as linebacker coach at Duke. Quansah praises Goethe’s energy and teaching skills.

“From the moment he came in, it was a different vibe and different energy. He brought a lot of juice to us. He played the position. He knew exactly how to get us going, which is great. The energy he brought was different than what we had before. It got us excited to get back and working here in the spring. Lot of technique, lot of skill. That’s how he got the confidence up for us. I think that’s one thing we needed, too.”

Duke is going to need all of Goethe’s teaching and all of Quansah’s veteran leadership if Duke is going to develop its young linebacker talent into the kind of ACC-level talent it will need to go bowling.

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