By Johnny Moore
It’s not hard to see why Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is excited about the coming season. At the weak linebacker spot he has a player who, in his first season on the field, accumulated an assortment of honors and accolades simply because of all the hits he dealt out on opponents.
Joe Giles-Harris was named first team Freshman All-America by Athlon Sports, Campus Insiders and USA Today. He was an honorable mention All-ACC pick by both the coaches and media and finished second in balloting for ACC defensive rookie of the year. The Nyack, N.Y., native tallied double-digit tackles in five ACC contests, including a 16-tackle performance against North Carolina to earn ACC linebacker of the week honors. He became the fourth Duke freshman to lead the team in total tackles with 107, joining Erwin Sampson (1988), Ryan Fowler (2000) and Michael Tauiliili (2005).
Giles-Harris enters the 2017 season scheduled to start again alongside his roommate Ben Humphreys and with his younger brother J.T. on campus as a member of the Duke lacrosse team.
We talked with him about last year and the upcoming season.
As you head into this year, what is the biggest difference from last year, when you were a rookie on the field?
JGH: “The biggest difference from this year to last year is just being comfortable — more comfortable with what I know and with what I have seen, with a year under my belt. I know what I have to do and what I have to continue doing to keep myself playing at a high level. Last year I was figuring things out on the fly, getting a feel for things as soon as possible so I could get more playing time. I knew coming in last year that I had to come in and work as hard as I could. I knew we had a great linebacking corps so I had to do all I could do to get on the field. After going through that first year, you have to raise your level of play and add something to it. A little more footwork, a little more film everyday just to get yourself ready. You don’t ever want to stay stagnant, you want to get better because if you aren’t getting better you are getting worse.”
What helped you improve as a linebacker last year?
JGH: “Just playing the game. Once you start recognizing things you have seen in the past or seen before it just makes it things easier. It can be little things like the way a tight end twitches or the way a quarterback looks away and you start picking up things and it becomes second nature for you. I learned a lot from Ben, who was in his second year playing. Just watching him on film and seeing how he read plays and reacted to plays. Watching how I reacted to certain plays on film and how I could make better moves or increase my reaction time helped me to improve as a player.”
You and Ben Humphreys are not only the starting linebackers for the Blue Devils, you are also roommates. How has that relationship worked both on and off the field?
JGH: “Being roommates has helped us a lot on the field. I know what he is thinking and he knows what I am thinking. If there is a mistake between one of us, we know why we are thinking that way and how to fix it quickly. We’ve butted heads a couple of times with ‘you should have done that’ or ‘you should have done this’ and everything gets solved so much quicker because we know each other as well as we do. Back at home, when we are just hanging out, we can talk about those things without so much pressure being around us. Most of the things are figured out before there is a problem on the field.”
You also have your younger brother J.T. at Duke as a member of the lacrosse team. What is it like to have your brother in college with you?
JGH: “We have basically been inseparable since birth. He’s played on every team that I have ever played on whether it be football, basketball or lacrosse growing up. We’ve really never been apart. When it came time to pick a college, he had already selected Duke for lacrosse so it just worked out great for me to get the opportunity to play football at Duke. It’s been a great experience for us. Now that we play on different teams we have become a support system for each other. When I watch him play I will tell him he could have done this, this and this and he can say the same to me. We never had it that way in the past because we were both playing but now we find ways to watch each other and help each other improve.”
While the record last year was not what you or your teammates wanted it to be, what did you take from last year that is helping you as you head into this season as an individual player and a defensive unit?
JGH: “The lessons we learned last year and even the lessons we learned in the spring, we have grown together as a unit. We had a lot of injuries last year, which also gave a lot of people some experience on the field. I felt sorry for some of our seniors who weren’t able to complete the season, which really hurt us, but it brought everyone together. Everybody had to focus and be that much better if we wanted to continue to move forward. After the spring we have become a close unit, a more well-rounded unit. We aren’t depending on one position to carry us, it isn’t a heavy emphasis on the linebackers or the defensive backs, it’s all spread out evenly which should help make us a better unit.
“We looked at every week last year and saw where we were only one or two plays from a win, from something going our way. We saw that everyone has to give 100 percent on every play. The win over Carolina was big because it was Senior Night, and it showed us we could be a really good team, but we have to sell out and give it our all on every play. It showed us what we could do if we really played the way we can play. A win like that will stay with us in a very positive manner.”
How would you describe yourself as a linebacker and who have you tried to emulate as a player?
JGH: “I’m not a typical linebacker. Both Ben and I are more of a hybrid linebacker. We’re faster and more athletic than most linebackers. I watch a lot of linebackers in college and professional play the game and I try to take a little piece of each of those players and place into my game. I don’t try to emulate just one linebacker, but I just try to be myself and learn how to improve my game from other linebackers. Our entire linebacking corps is a little different from your typical college linebacker. We can do a lot of different things, coverage, stop the run, blitz, all things that make us better as a defensive unit.”
After not going to a bowl game last year, what is it like heading into this year — trying to get back on a solid bowl game roll and once again competing for a conference title?
JGH: “It’s a challenge. Everyone wants to step up to the challenge. You don’t want to be, after last year not going to a bowl game, you don’t want to be the team that doesn’t go to back-to-back bowl games. As a team and a program you want to continue to improve, you never want to stay stagnant and not get better. Coach Cutcliffe always preaches that going backwards is not a choice for us, we must continue to improve as player on and off the field. We want to keep rising, keep elevating our level of play and our record so we can be the best team possible.”