With you running the 4-2-5 scheme, how important is it for you to develop chemistry with the weak side linebacker, and how has that process developed so far?
It’s important, and it bodes well for us that the entire defense is very close on and off the field. As the middle linebacker I’ve got to have communication with the entire defense from the tackles to the defensive ends to the Bandit and Rover positions as well as the other linebacker.
There’s a lot of players who could compete to get into the rotation, but only two linebacker positions. How important is it that the depth chart have the ability to adapt to both the opponent and each other?
That’s the great thing about this defense is that we can give you so many looks. Coach Knowles is the smartest guy in college football in my opinion. He puts us in great positions to succeed based on our strengths. You saw us really adapt last year against run heavy teams like Boston College and Northwestern.
Sticking with the depth theme, who are some of the players who may not have played a lot to this point who could surprise this season?
Joe Giles-Harris has been my roommate since I got here and he’s really stepped up this offseason and improved. He’s playing at a very high level right now. With the young guys, they are all very big, fast, and strong. They are also still learning the language.
You were in that position last year, a true freshman who had to “learn the language”. What advice can you offer this year’s new players?
There are tricks on picking up any new discipline. I had Kelby as a mentor and he could have called the defense last year himself. He knew where to look and how to react to what the offense was showing. I’m trying to help the guys the way he helped me as sort of a veteran in the room which is weird because I’m just a sophomore.
Switching gears, Coach Cutcliffe told the media this offseason was dubbed “The Year of the Beast”. Can you provide a first hand account of what it was like? And what was different?
Just a tougher workout routine that was longer and harder. Everyone on the team got a lot stronger. For me, I’m 20 pounds heavier than I was last year, but just as fast as I was. The entire program was more than just working in the weight room. It was about eating right and living a healthier lifestyle. Everyone bought in which was great and you can see the results.
One of the things that seemed to improve last year was the teams’ ability to get to the opposing quarterbacks to put them under pressure. With replacing so many first team guys this year, how do you build on that progress?
Well, we were and are an attacking defense first. I think you’ll see that more this year because of what Coach Albert has brought. He’s been a real difference maker for us.
From Day One he just brings a different mindset to the defensive line and the front seven as a whole. Day in and day out he’s bringing a constant passion and intensity level. The guys all feed off of that.
What about the offense? I know it’s early and you haven’t had a full scrimmage yet, but you must have an idea of how that side of the ball is looking.
We have so many weapons there. We have playmakers. I really think Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan are one of the best backfields in the country. We’re also going to have a vertical threat with the receivers and our offensive line is really tough.
And Thomas Sirk’s recovery has been pretty incredible, right?
Yes, and like I said those guys are all so close over there that whomever drives the car will be good. Whether it’s Sirk, or Parker Boheme, or Daniel Jones, all of those guys are really good and could step in and drive.
One thing that’s noticeable is the tougher schedule. It’s not unreasonable to think that this team could be better, but it could be a lot harder to post as good of a record. Is that the reason for the tougher off season?
We know there are some tough games on the schedule this year - especially the road games. We go to Notre Dame, Louisville, and Northwestern. But Duke has always played really well on the road because of how consistent things are in the program and how the coaches prepare us. We know there are some tough games on the schedule, but right now our focus isn’t on that. We’re focused on NC Central and on improving every day. That’s the game that’s in our sights.
Photo credit: Grant Shorin, Duke Sports Information