The Canes are slowly creeping towards the birth of a new season and many fans are wondering if the defensive scheme that's been seen the last three seasons will show strides towards a top ranking. Besides the much maligned defensive line the linebacking core has also received the brunt of fan criticism. They've been too slow, not physical enough against the run and in pass coverage they've been a raging dumpster fire.
How do they stack up heading into next season? Check out the Unit below and see if this is the next crop out of "Linebacker U" or just afterthoughts..
Denzel Perryman, Sr., 6' 242lbs, Coral Gables Florida
Simply put, this guy was the team last season. He racked up over 100 tackles and was named to many post season awards lists including a few different outlets naming him an ALL ACC linebacker (ACSMA and Sporting News). Perryman was a 3/4 star recruit coming out of Coral Gables and many saw him as too undersized to play the physically demanding middle linebacker position. Since stepping foot on campus he's been nothing but a tackling machine when he's on the field (he was injured for a good chunk of his sophomore season) and he hasn't relinquished his starting role. Under Coach D'Onofrio, Perryman originally played as an outside linebacker but has been moved to the middle this season out of necessity as well as his knack for finding the ball in open space.
Assuming Perryman stays healthy, look for him to take aim at many All Conference and potentially All American Award lists. He is a sure tackler. He won't rack up many sacks but if the Miami defense can rebound from 3 subpar seasons he'll have to have a big hand in it and should be recognized with many awards in the offseason.
Tyriq McCord, Jr., 6'3" 245lbs, Tampa Florida
I'll be upfront with this.. I don't count McCord as a linebacker but the UM roster does and I guess technically he is due to the fact that our defensive lineman are now lumbering big men.. Anyways, McCord had a solid, encouraging sophomore year last season. After a pretty forgetful freshman season McCord came into camp in '13 noticeably stronger and ready to take on college tackles. He didn't have a huge year statistically when it came to tackles (13 total) but he did have four sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovered. I don't see it in the stats but I believe he picked a pass of against USF too (says in the highlight below he had a few pics last season). Simply put, he did a little of everything. He rushed the passer primarily but on occasion he was used in coverage (this was a disaster when he was thrown at the select few times).
The coaches have hinted that McCord will see the field more often this year as his role is expanding from pass rushing specialist to more of an all-around attacking linebacker. I've been watching tape of this guy and most of the time he is in the right place at the right time.. he just misses the tackle or gets blocked at the last moment when it comes to tackling the ball carrier. His main role though should be getting to the quarterback. He has the frame to do so and that's been his biggest asset to the team in his first two seasons on the field.
Alex Figueroa, Soph., 6'3", 242lbs, Stafford Virginia
The drop off after Perryman is pretty sizeable when it comes to known, tested talent in the linebacking corp. "Figatron" as some have started to call Figueroa will be looked to.. no... relied upon heavily next season. When he came to UM his story was dually noted. He was raised by his parents who are both Marine's located in Virginia and his football acumen was built on toughness and discipline. Last season unfortunately just wasn't his year. He injured his shoulder during the first few games of the season and he had a tough time seeing the field afterwards. His freshman season ended with him totaling just 17 tackles and one sack.
Just like his freshman season and the hype that came from his spring performance, Figueroa will need to come through for the Canes this season. He has all the physical tools to be a linebacker in a 34 defense. Just like Perryman, if he can stay healthy he could have a banner year. I wouldn't say an All American season yet due to a lack knowledge of his ability outside of the program but doubling, if not tripling his tackles from last year would be a good bench mark goal.
Raphael Kirby, Jr., 6'1", 235lbs, Stone Mountain Georgia
Have you ever seen a football player on the field and you're just like... "he looks like a football player." The two players that come to mind for me was when ">LaVar Arrington was in his prime and of course the late, great Sean Taylor. Guys that just fit a uniform, have the measurables and the speed and look to be nasty, dominant football players.. Well, that's Kirby for you. Except the whole production thing.. As a junior he's primarily played his first few seasons as a special team contributor. Last season he recorded 10 tackles all season. That's seven less than Figueroa who played sparingly if at all the last half of the season. Let that sink in.
This is another guy the Canes are counting on to develop mentally going into '14-'15. He has the physical tools to play any of the positions along the linebacking front but he'll be playing primarily on the outside next to Perryman. If they can get him to contribute in the special teams game again and finish the season with 40-50 tackles, anything more would be a cherry on top. The guy has potential don't get me wrong. But we have seen zippo when it comes to actual on field results. Baby steps guys.
Thurston Armbrister, Sr., 6'3" 235lbs, Hollywood Florida
And now.. we have reached the backups.. Guys that hopefully will only have to come in when the starters need a breather or play primarily on special teams when it comes to covering punts and kickoffs. This group of the next two to three players are developmental and will hopefully not be asked to do too much in extended play throughout the course of the season. The reasons for that limited responsibility will be for two main reasons.. One, the player will simply not have as much god given talent as the starter ahead of him. Or two, the player is young and will only be put in situations where he can succeed so that his confidence isn't battered too early in his college career.
Armbrister fits into the first scenario as a backup. He was a lightly recruited safety out of highschool (schools out in the Midwest were the only ones offering him scholarships) who was eventually converted to a linebacker under Coach Golden. He's been thrust into starting a few times the last couple years but that's been out of injury issues and just a lack of talent at the position. Ambrister is a solid linebacker but his overall potential and impact on games is usually limited to speial teams. Make no mistake, players of his caliber are absolutely needed to provide depth on a team but if he's starting next season for a prolonged period of time we're introuble..
I see him retaining his role as a special teams ace and tallying close to 30-40 tackles again. He'll be used in coverage primarily when he does see the field. You'll probably see him sprinkled in on a few blitz packages too but usually that will be to get a rusher free (i.e McCord or Muhammad).
Jermaine Grace, Soph., 6'1", 210lbs, Miami Gardens
The only reason I think Grace came to UM is because of his dream to play for the home team. To this day I really don't understand his logic. Miami plays a 34 style defense, it's been widely known to all around the program. Grace signed on with UM two offseason's ago and he tips the scale at a shade over 200 pounds.. He epitomizes a square peg in a round hole when it comes to the "measurables" for playing the linebacker position for a 34. What has slowed his growth too is his freelancing in coverage at times. Grace during his first year in college had to learn on the fly the art of covering tightends and running backs coming out of the backfield. Due to both his physical shortcomings and his mental lapses in coverage he mostly saw duty on special teams and saw brief moments on the field in late game situations.
Hopefully Grace can make an impact in coverage this next season in obvious passing downs. It's widely known that even for his size he can guard tightends in coverage due to his "quick twitch" ability. If he can build on his freshman season of eight tackles to about 25-35 next season that would be seen as a great growing period for the young man. Would we want more from the former 4 star recruit? Sure, it just takes some players time to adjust to the college game and their University's scheme which in this case just doesn't fit his natural abilities.
JaWand Blue, Soph., 6' 230lbs, Boca Raton Florida
I'll be honest on this guy. I don't really know what he brings to the table. He had two tackles last season in mop up duty (Savannah State) and played on special teams where he didn't make a tackle. With that knowledge I'm really starting to shutter on the depth of this group..
The only real interesting thing I can say about Blue is that he had a great recruiting story. The 2012 cycle was really entertaining (looking at you Alex Collins) and Blue had a giant hand in it. On signing day UM was looking for another linebacker in the class when several signing day hopefuls decided to take their talents to other Universities. Golden was in communication with Blue and his family on signing day and told him there could be a chance he could sign with the hometown team, he just needed to hold out a bit. As the other recruits started picking other teams rather than our beloved Canes, Golden offered Blue a scholarship and he took the opportunity immediately. What I haven't let you all know yet is that he had been a long time commit to our friends up north, Virginia Tech and when they had heard he decommitted on signing day.. They flipped out.. To put it mildly.
Darrion Owens, Fr., 6'3" 217lbs, Orange Park Florida
Just like Grace, Owens and to a lesser extent Young (player profile below) will be asked to execute certain packages in the defense where he won't be asked to do too much but hopefully just contribute to the overall defensive effort. Not be the defensive effort that the team relies on. Owens is a hometown kid who was recruited by many of the big programs of the SEC (Auburn and Georgia) and has a tremendous upside. The reasons are pretty apparent. He used to play safety in high school but he kept growing in his junior and senior and his frame now can support weight to play at the linebacker level. In laymens terms: he has the speed of a safety but can hit/play linebacker. Yes, please and thank you I will take him as a linebacker commit.
Juwon Young, Fr. 6'2" 240lbs, Albany Georgia
I've described the ideal linebacker for a 34 defense as a guy that can dish out punishment and be a havoc to the inside offensive linemen. To do that they need to have the physique of a bowling ball but yet be nimble enough to get to their spots in coverage on the field. Juwon Young is an ideal and I mean ideal inside linebacker prospect. He fits the measurables needed for the rigors of the position and ontop of that he used to play goaline runningback in highschool. Give this guy a redshirt year or spot duty in '14-'15 and he should be ready made by his second season on campus.
Overall Breakdown on the Linebacker Unit
I don't even know where to start with this unit.. I think the overall feeling I get is that I'm simply scared to death. The only known commodity is Perryman and if you take out last season you have an injury riddled resume with brief bright spots his freshman season in spot duy. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, just looking at the facts.. Kirby hasn't stepped up since coming to UM. Figueroa was injured most of last season and came off at least once this spring with a shoulder issue. McCord is really off on his own at this point rushing the passer and just causing fits for offensive linemen. The guys backing up these question marks? Incoming freshmen, a sophomore who hasn't contributed in two seasons and a senior who is serviceable. So, by my count, that's one guy in the backup unit and two question marks starting.. Derp..
I'll leave the Canes fandom with this.. Juwon Young and Darrion Owens are very good prospects. They may make sizeable contributions this year due to their positive fits in this scheme. Don't expect them to light the world on fire but positive signs should be seen by the two young freshmen for the years to come.