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The Unavoidable Issue: Linebacker Depth

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Miami has a big problem on it's hands that no one is talking about. They have no depth at linebacker. None.

Raphael Kirby wraps up a Seminole
Raphael Kirby wraps up a Seminole
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

When Miami started the season the position unit that had the least amount of depth was the linebacker group. With one returning starter in Raphael Kirby and super sub Jermaine Grace the Canes were looking to others in the group to eventually step up during the offseason.

Throughout preseason workouts, Kirby took the senior leadership role vacated by recently departed for the NFL Denzel Perryman. Also, during the preseason, Jermaine Grace put up freakishly athletic records to pace the group. However, the Canes needed more, they needed more bodies.

During the preseason the unit started to form. Kirby solidified his status as the starting middle linebacker, Grace at the weakside and Darrion Owens eventually wrestled the strongside position from newly converted linebacker, senior Tyriq McCord. Depth was marginal with McCord being kicked back to a reserve role and Juwan Young backing up Kirby. Marques Gayot was the “silent” backup at weakside behind Grace. Gayot's role heading into the season was to contribute mostly on coverage units and play sparingly when needed for the first team defense.

Heading into this season the unit you could see was thin. Having six or so players rotate three positions is the definition of thin. It’s important to note that I’m not including heralded freshman Charles Perry or lightly recruited James King. From my knowledge, they’re both redshirt candidates. I also didn’t include Terry McCray or Mike Smith because both were looked to as special teams contributors (like Gayot) and were rarely discussed throughout the offseason as really serious contenders for playing time for the defense.

Once the season started, all the plans discussed above.. Redshirting people, having players only play the roles they were needed for the upcoming season, all of that went out the window. The Canes were able to make it through the first weekend against Bethune-Cookman a-okay. Many players got experience and valuable playing time. However, in the second contest against FAU is where the unit took their first hit. Darrion Owens went down with a knee injury that shelved him for the season.

There went one starter.

In his place, Tyriq McCord had to step up. Since being inserted into the starting lineup McCord has played okay but really hasn’t contributed worthwhile to the defense (per the Miami Sports Homepage he’s had 10 tackles and a half sack). Losing Owens was big in more ways than one. Besides McCord having to step into Owens’ vacated position the Canes defense is now employing more two rush end sets. So, essentially having one rush end like the defense usually did, Coach D’Onofrio is now rushing with both Trent Harris and Alquadin Muhammad while subbing out the outside linebacker (in this case, McCord) a lot more frequently then we’ve seen in previous seasons. This also is being done because Muhammad is flat out playing like a mad man so the burden has been lessened on the linebackers as a whole.

With the loss of Owens the Canes were down to five or so linebackers. A week or so later, during practice, Marques Gayot injured his neck and from what I understand is out for the season. He is supposed to make a full recovery.

There goes the weakside linebacker backup.

Although the loss of Gayot was not nearly as costly as the loss of Owens it was an extremely damaging blow to the team. Make no mistake; having experienced players who have played special teams is really important. Gayot played all last season on both the punt and kick coverage and was seeing some burn with the first team unit when Grace needed a break.

With Gayot being lost for the season the Canes started lots of juggling of his duties. Mike Smith has seen time this season including Terry McCray, neither has really made an impact besides a handful of tackles between the two. Overall, not much has changed along the defense schematically with the loss of Gayot. Special teams on the other hand lost one of their aces.

Check out the highlight below for an example of Gayot's worth on special teams:

We’ll move ahead to last week against Virginia Tech. Miami’s defense was playing well against the Hokies. They had forced a sack-fumble inside the Hokies 10 yard line, forced a few errant throws that resulted in interceptions and were making life miserable for both quarterbacks Bandon Motley and later Michael Brewer. However, late in the game Miami lost their quintessential leader of the defense, Raphael Kirby to a knee injury that they didn’t even replay for the television audience. We all knew it was bad and it was..

Kirby sustained a season ending knee injury. Miami lost their starting middle linebacker and team captain.

And now, here we stand… Juwon Young has been moved into the starting middle linebacker position with support behind him being…. Tyriq McCord. Yes, the converted defensive end to strongside linebacker is now also taking snaps as backup middle linebacker. Also sharing the snaps with McCord is rush defensive end Trent Harris. This is… not good. It’s not like they’re playing a team that likes to throw in the middle of the field or use their tight end a lot. Wait.. Clemson has an All American, Mackey Award nominee tight end?

Lovely.