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'What leaders do': Duke football's new defensive generation redefining the command chain

<p>Koby Quansah is one of the players on Duke's defense who will need to step up as a leader this season.</p>

Koby Quansah is one of the players on Duke's defense who will need to step up as a leader this season.

The rain was still pouring down on Hard Rock Stadium when Miami kicker Bubba Maxa lined up for the field goal. His team led Duke 12-10, with a chance to stretch that advantage to five awaiting him. 

Blue Devil linebacker Joe Giles-Harris had other ideas.

The senior captain—who also posted a game-high 12 tackles—ripped through the offensive line to deflect the kick. Not long after, a Quentin Harris jump pass to Daniel Helm gave Duke the lead for good. It was the Blue Devils’ signature win of a rocky 2018 campaign, their first road victory against the Hurricanes since 1976 and the triumph that clinched the program’s sixth bowl appearance in seven years.

But entering 2019, Duke will be without the man who provided that season-defining swat.

Both Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys—two of the best linebackers in the ACC over the past few years and the only two captains of the Blue Devils’ defense last season—are gone. Now, the team must scramble to find new leaders on that end of the field.

Head coach David Cutcliffe, however, doesn’t seem so worried.

“I'm more excited about this defense than any defense we've had in the 12 seasons [I’ve coached at Duke],” Cutcliffe said. “What we have to do is generate those big plays.... You've got to do it with the front four, but you also have to be creative in pass rush. We have some athletes that are explosive, that are fast, that will play a role in that as well.”

‘Confidence on the front end’

How can Cutcliffe be so enthusiastic about a defense that is without its two best players from last season? The answer: a stacked defensive line, comprised of the perfect mix between young talent and experience, ready to wreak havoc on opposing backfields.

“We have a lot of guys that have played in the past, so just having that experience is big,” junior defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo said. “I feel like on our defensive line we’re really composed.... I just feel like that confidence on the front end—that we can adjust and stuff like that—really helps us and keeps us motivated and it’s a key to us playing fast.”

It all starts with the juniors ready to transition from underclassmen to team leaders—Tangelo, Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan. Tangelo and Dimukeje are listed as starters for Week 1 against Alabama, with Jordan still in contention for a starting job as well. The trio combined for 120 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season, and are sure to contribute even more this coming year.

That’s not all.

Two seniors round out the defensive line for this year’s Blue Devils, both voted as team captains by their peers: Edgar Cerenord and Tre Hornbuckle. Hornbuckle has been commended by teammates for his vocal leadership on the practice field, and is the one battling Jordan for that final starting spot. 

Cerenord, meanwhile, is a more interesting case. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound mammoth received a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA after missing all but four games of 2018 due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. That extra season makes the 23-year-old—who will turn 24 midseason—the oldest player on the team and a role model for Duke’s younger athletes.

“It’s a big deal,” Tangelo said of having Cerenord back and healthy. “Everybody looks up to him. We call him ‘The Commander’ because he’s the oldest guy on the team. But just having that person that’s been through multiple situations, being high and being low, it’s good for our team.... Our coach always says ‘the rate of the leader determines the speed of the pack’ so we’re just following him and following in his footsteps.”

‘They left the place better than they found it’

As strong a front four as Duke has this season, there is still a lot of lost talent to be replaced at the linebacker position. In terms of that, senior Koby Quansah—another team captain for 2019—is ready for his turn atop the depth chart.

“I think I've stepped up in being a leader,” Quansah said. “Pretty much everything I learned from [Humphreys] and [Giles-Harris] throughout the years has helped me try to get the young guys ready in terms of how to watch them better, how to practice better. Just little tendencies that we can do collectively as a group has helped me a lot.”

Quansah, who recently underwent thumb surgery but could be ready to play as early as Saturday, will take what he’s learned into his new role as starting middle linebacker this season. But the Manchester, Conn., native hasn’t been the only player to refer to the imprint Giles-Harris and Humphreys left on others in the program. 

“We always miss those guys,” Tangelo said of the former linebacker standouts. “But they left the place better than they found it. They taught us the habits, they taught us the things that winning defenses do, so we just try to take from those guys and try to emulate them and their habits in practice. They left a very good impression on the program.”

In the end, it’s that cycle that makes winning football programs—when old leaders can transition to new leaders seamlessly based on the legacies they left behind, with little to no hiccups in between. 

But the best leadership—the kind that turns good football teams into great ones—is when it isn’t a one or two-man job.

‘That’s what leaders do’

When asked who is most likely to take over as Duke’s leaders on defense, Cutcliffe’s list never seemed to end. Hornbuckle, Dimukeje, Jordan, Tangelo, Quansah—it went on and on, almost like he didn’t really know how to answer the question. But in reality, he knew exactly what his answer was. 

“That sounds like by committee,” Cutcliffe said. “But I’m telling you the guys that are taking everything they’re doing to a whole different level. It’s been fun to watch [and] I want more folks to join them. That’s what we’re looking for—that’s what leaders do. We pull people along with them, and hopefully we continue that trend.”

While there have been guys who stand out on and off the field, replacing the leadership left behind by players like Giles-Harris and Humphreys isn’t going to solely rely on a few guys, or even just the team captains. 

Every single football player will own some of that responsibility. Eventually, their habits will be left behind for some of the Blue Devils’ younger talent to follow—guys like Shaka Heyward, Chris Rumph II, Tahj Rice and more.

That way, talk of any messy leadership transitions will be all but forgotten in Durham, and Duke will remain a defensive force for years to come.

“Our guys are excited about the season,” Quansah said. “We know we're a great defense. [We] can stop people when we want to.” 

For more preseason coverage of the 2019 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.

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