DURHAM, N.C. – In trying to build a deeper defense as part of the infrastructure for future excellence, Duke defensive coordinators Mike MacIntyre and Marion Hobby have developed a solid playing rotation among the down linemen and have been able to ease several promising young players into action in the secondary this fall.
But there are two players who virtually never leave the field when the defense is out there, regardless of down, distance or game situation. Linebackers Michael Tauiliili and Vincent Rey line up for almost every snap of the ball, and chances are good that at least one of them will be around it when the play is blown dead.
Blue-collar to the core, Tauiliili leads the ACC in tackles with 11 per game this year, and Rey is second with nine per game. It’s not a new phenomenon for Tauiliili, who has started all but two games in the four years he has been on campus. He led all freshman linebackers in the nation in tackles in 2005, topped the Duke charts again in 2006 and would have three-peated in 2007 had he not been held out of the first game for disciplinary reasons. Instead, the 2007 tackle leadership went to then-sophomore Rey, who started all 12 games and posted 111 hits, to Tauiliili’s 108.
The two are racking up big numbers again this fall, as Tauiliili now ranks as the ACC’s active career leader in tackles while Rey matches him nearly hit-for-hit and is among the conference leaders in tackles for lost yardage. And when it comes to big plays, these two have had a hand in several of the game-changing moments that have carried the Blue Devils to three victories through the first half of the season.
“They are out there for almost every snap, and as much as we can keep them out there, they are going to be out there because they are playmakers,” says linebackers coach Jim Collins. “Obviously our players think that on this football team, because they elected both of them captains. So we need their leadership on the field as much as they can be out there.
“Obviously we would like to play more people and we will eventually. We’ve got to develop a little more depth. It will be critical as we go forward with the players we have here, and this incoming class that we have will be critical for our development at the position. We’ve got to do a great job in both those areas to continue the level of play we’re at. Fortunately we’ve got Vinny back for another year. I wish we had Mike for another year.”
Among Rey’s shining moments so far this season was a 37-yard scoop-and-score with a fumble against Navy, helping the Blue Devils taste victory and leading to his selection as an ACC player of the week.
Tauiliili sparkled in the biggest win, over Virginia, with an interception, a caused fumble and a fumble recovery to accompany his career-high 16 tackles. He was chosen the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.
“The reason we’re having some success at linebacker is because we’ve got two guys who play absolutely as hard as any two I’ve ever coached. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve had the opportunity to coach some pretty decent players,” notes Collins.
“I’m not comparing ability and all that, even though these two do have very good ability. Mike Tauiliili is a very instinctive player, a very smart player who understands what we are trying to do. He plays with tremendous effort all the time.
“Vinny Rey has good size for the position (6-0, 240) and can run. These guys have good skills. There’s no doubt they both have very good skills. But what separates them is that they have great work ethic and great attention to detail in everything they do.”
Both have played linebacker from the moment they first strapped on football pads as youngsters. That’s the only position Rey has ever known, through his high school days at Bayside in New York and a prep year at Mercersburg Academy.
Tauiliili also played on offense as a youth, usually at fullback. As a ninth grader in Houston, Texas, his coach indicated that he could be the starting quarterback for the freshman team or compete for time at linebacker for the varsity. “I wanted to play quarterback because I liked having the ball and stuff, but I took the challenge (of playing varsity). I loved playing linebacker so I went up and ended up starting, and that was that.”
Tauiliili and Rey may be playmakers, but they are not identical players or personalities. Both are studious in preparation for game day and as intense as anyone on the field. But Tauiliili is clearly the more extroverted and vocal of the two while Rey is recognized by his coaches as someone who never takes a play off and empties his tank in every game.
“At the end of the game, Vinny doesn’t have much left,” says Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “I worry about overtime with Vinny because he gives you everything that he’s got.”
“I’m not perfect at it by any means, but our coach always talks about 11 guys trying to win the game on every play, so I think about that,” says Rey, when asked about his supreme focus on each and every down. “It’s hard to do. Coach also says all we are is what our habits are, so the more I practice at that and the more our team practices it, the better we will become.
“I’m not going to say I’m the hardest working guy on the team. I look at other guys on the team. They motivate me and help me to push myself. But the more guys we have on our team who are swarming to the ball on defense, the better we play.
“I love playing with Mike,” Rey adds. “He talks a lot, he’s real outspoken, he motivates us to play harder. Playing alongside a guy like that, who knows the game as well as he does and is as mentally tough as he is, that helps me and it helps the rest of the defense.”
Tauiliili says the feeling is mutual.
“I love playing with Vinny on the field, working with him in the weight room, in the film room, on campus,” Tauiliili notes. “He’s one of those guys you want to have on your side. I’m very confident in his ability and his knowledge of the game.
“He’s just a hard worker. He’s always looking to see what he’s not doing right and he always wants to correct everything and do everything right. When you have another guy like that on the field, it works out in your favor. We trust each other. If he hits the fullback a certain way, he knows I’m coming over the top. When you are unsure, you try to do things that are outside of your own job. So we are very confident in each other.”
They also watch out for each other, encouraging each other during daily weigh-ins to be sure the pounds they lost last spring to help them become stronger and faster athletes don’t find a way back onto their rock-solid frames.
According to Tauiliili, Rey’s interest in the game rarely takes a day off. “He’s a homebody,” Tauiliili says with a laugh. “I have to beg him to come out with me after the game. I’ll ask him what he’s doing, and he’ll be at home looking up different players (on the Internet). He looks at everybody’s high school highlights, so he is very knowledgeable about our opponents and their ability, but he’s a homebody.
“It’s kinda funny. We are opposites when it comes to things like that, because I’ll go out with the team and everybody, but he usually keeps it low key.”
Tauiliili probably wishes he had been a little more low-key himself one night out two summers ago, when he got into a scrape in a Durham parking lot on the eve of preseason practice and was suspended for the season-opener. But he turned it into a learning experience and a source of personal growth. Cutcliffe says Tauiliili has grown as much as anyone on the team since his arrival last winter. Tauiliili’s maturity is now very evident as he stares down the final six games of his Duke life, hoping to act as a catalyst for a memorable finish.
“It’s going to mean my whole college career,” he says. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of trouble as far as trying to get wins and things like that, but I’ve always been a believer of things happening for a reason. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.
“Coming out of high school, we were pretty successful so coming here was a big difference. But you learn a lot of lessons about people, about yourself and how you deal with adversity. Now that we’re starting to taste some success, it will mean everything to finish out my four years with some victories.”
The ACC has its share of exemplary linebackers this season, but Cutcliffe considers his pair as perhaps the best duo in the league.
“I don’t see anyone being more productive,” Cutcliffe says. “Whether it’s the run game, the pass game, rushing the passer and zone blitz modes, they are truly consistent players. They make tackles that sometimes I worry no one else would make. They seemingly find a way to get to the ball. Fortunately it’s hard to run away from them. If you run away from one of them, you run into the other. They’re really a strong tandem and equally as effective.”