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Joe Giles-Harris, The Best LB in the Country

By Jim Johnson
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There isn’t a better returning linebacker in college football than Joe-Giles Harris, not many better defenders, full stop, and it’s time for the larger college football community to take notice.

In 2017, Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris earned second team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Foundation, and was a third teamer according to both CBS and Phil Steele. He was a first team All-ACC selection. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ best linebacker in all of the FBS, their seventh highest defensive player, and their 13th highest player overall.

Somehow he’s still underrated.

Maybe it’s because Duke isn’t traditionally a premier program with overwhelming national relevance. It could be that people dismiss him as a volume tackler on a less talented defense. Perhaps it’s his style of play.

Whatever the reason, there isn’t a better returning linebacker in college football, not many better defenders, full stop, and it’s time for the larger college football community to take notice.

Giles-Harris is not a highlight reel. His film resembles his personality -- understated, more nuanced than first meets the eye, cerebral. Effective not flashy, productive not ostentatious, it’s understandable why the naked eye is less than trustworthy.

Not an especially big hitter, nor an overt trash talker, the rising junior is nonetheless a bonafide playmaker. Sure, YouTube compilations are nice, but never ever missing tackles is better. According to PFF, during the 2017 regular season, Joe Giles-Harris missed a grand total of four tackles on nearly 750 snaps, making him one of the 15 most efficient tacklers in the country, among draft-eligible linebackers that played at least 250 snaps (which is a pretty low bar, relatively).

Only one of the other top 20 most sure tackling linebackers played 700+ snaps, and, of the 20, Roquan Smith was the lone player to match his sheer tackle production. As far as returning players at his position, he ranks sixth in tackling efficiency.

Of course, linebackers and box safeties from sea to shining sea rack up essentially meaningess downfield tackles every year. Tackles don’t really matter, at least not all of them. What counts is where the tackles come from.

He finished third last year in run stops -- tackles that constitute a win for the defense. He was also in the top 25 among linebackers in that respect on a per tackle basis, and seventh of those returning to college. Even using the traditional metrics, only six linebackers had more tackles for loss. All encompassing, even with those 125 tackles, less than 25% finished what would be considered a successful play for the opposing offense.

Since the turn of the century, only 13 other players have had as many tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and passes defensed in a single season as Joe Giles-Harris had in 2017. The short list includes the likes Sean Weatherspoon and Ryan Shazier, both of whom went on to be first round NFL Draft picks -- a path that Giles is poised to follow. Then again, they both did it their junior year, as did two of the other 13. The rest were seniors, save one. In other words, the New York native’s most recent campaign was borderline unprecedented by an underclassman.

Joe Giles-Harris is the perfect encapsulation of a quickly evolving linebacker position. Possessing both the meticulous dedication to his craft and the near perfect learned aspects of the position, as well as those unteachable, innate instincts, and sideline-to-sideline athleticism that has always been and will always be necessary to compete. The timeless intangibles and measurables coupled with upper echelon modern cover skills make him the quintessential bridge between the greats of yesteryear, those of today, and the ones yet to come.

There was one play, against Pitt last season, that captured the breadth of Joe Giles-Harris’ ability arguably as well as any.

The Panthers were lined up in 12 personnel with Ben DiNucci under center. Prior to the snap, receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes comes in motion -- bear in mind that this is a player who, purportedly, ran a 4.42 40-yard dash coming out of high school. DiNucci takes the snap with Araujo-Lopes between the right tackle and the tight end, turns around, and gives it to the dynamic speedster. By the time Araujo-Lopes reaches the left tackle, he’s got a near full head of steam. Two seconds later, the ball carrier is, inexplicably, caught from behind and dropped for a loss by Giles-Harris.

The play will live on forever in the box score as a simple three yard loss for Pittsburgh, but it was so much more than that. It was a week’s worth of film study and game prep by a player that former defensive tackle Mike Ramsay has described as someone who won’t even let you enjoy your lunch because he wants to talk about individual plays from last week’s game. It was an unhuman display of elite athleticism, catching one of the opponent’s faster players, who had a running start, from a standstill, before Araujo-Lopes reached the line of scrimmage. It was a clinic in eye discipline, a seminar on play recognition, and a TED Talk on instincts that can’t be taught, all in one.

That’s Joe Giles-Harris. He may not stand out in the most traditional terms, although one would be hard pressed to leave a Duke game without his name having been burned into their mind by the sheer repetition of the public address announcer. There’s no one aspect of his game that stands out above the rest because every piece of it neighbors perfection. He may not be overly demonstrative when celebrating because he makes so many plays that it would be impossible to keep things fresh. Either that or he’s too busy staying three steps ahead of everyone else on the field, as he seemingly always is. Both, probably.

Look no further than Durham for the “next” Roquan Smith. David Cutcliffe coached Patrick Willis years ago, and now he’s got version 2.0.

Joe Giles-Harris is the best returning linebacker in college football and it’s time everyone took notice.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP