With the change over from the "read and react" defensive philosophy of the Golden era to the potentially more "simplified" and "aggressive" defense we could see employed under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz the shift in styles may be most apparently seen throughout the linebacker unit.
With Miami having a smorgasbord of different types of players from the small yet shifty Jermaine Grace to the big and lumbering Juwon Young, Miami has lots of talented players that have interesting skill sets that must be pieced together in the right combinations come game day. When looking towards the ‘16-‘17 season I see Diaz mixing and matching players for a given situation. Nonetheless, let's look at who could contribute next year and how..
Definition - The middle linebacker often times calls the plays, gets defenders lined up and makes sure their assignments are all called out presnap. Due to the preplay responsibilities many have dubbed the "Mike" linebacker as the quarterback of the defense. When the play is in action, the Mike often times is tasked with reading if the play is a run or pass. If the play is a run then the Mike needs to be the first "off defender" (not on the line of scrimmage) to make the play. If the play is going to go through the air then the Mike needs to either cover his zone or man responsibilities (usually either a running back or full back).
Juwon Young - Young was thrust into the starting spot a quarter of the way through the season last year due to Raphael Kirby's season ending knee injury. During his time as a starter he was hot and cold with his production. A few games he'd get 10-15 tackles and in another batch he'd only record less than five. To retain his spot next season he'll have to become more consistent and also be able to read the offensive schemes better. Heading into spring ball Young has the early lead when it comes to first team reps. However, he has a highly skilled freshman nipping at his heels which should breed a healthy competition throughout the summer and into the fall.
Shaq Quarterman - The "highly skilled freshman" noted above is former four star recruit Shaq Quarterman. Coming into camp he already meets the tangibles to take on the punishing position (currently listed at 6'1" 240) and as you can see, per his highlight reels, he clearly can read and react to the offense. Can he read an offense presnap? Can he get his fellow defenders lined up? We'll have to find out in the coming months. It wouldn't be surprising to see Quarterman eventually wrestle the starting job away from Young or possibly get kicked over to the strong side position to help out if necessary. In the end though, expect to see Quarterman on the field a lot as a freshman.
Strong Side Linebacker:
Definition - The reason for the distinction between the two outside linebacker sets is because of coverage duties and overall responsibilities. The strong side linebacker is usually tasked with covering the tight end on a given play. Thus, if it's a running down the "Sam" linebacker must fight through the tight end and then the offensive line to get to the runner. The Sam linebacker can blitz and expect in Manny Diaz's scheme to see lots of blitzing from this position but it will probably come from the tight end side of the field.
Trent Harris - Alright guys.. Here's the deal... The Sam linebacker position is a mess. Am I being a little dramatic? Maybe. The thing is, there's really no defined starter yet. Harris comes into the season as the starter by default due to the graduation of on-again-off-again starter and tweener player Tyriq McCord. Harris, per reports from the previous coaching staff, seemed to always be in the right place at the right time and thus got lots of playing time all over the field last season. Due to Miami's linebacker group getting decimated by injuries last season, Harris played outside linebacker and inside linebacker in the 34 style that Golden employed. Will he hold onto the starting position? Really it depends if the next guy on the list comes back fully healthy...
Darrion Owens - I maybe a little biased but I believe if Owens comes back healthy from his season ending knee injury he sustained last year, he'll be the starter no questions asked. If you watch his highlights from high school and you review the handful of games he was able to participate in last season you can see the talent is there to be an all-conference player. Heading into next season Head Trainer Vinny Scavo and the athletic staff may take things slowly with Owens in his return to seeing action but if he can come back and contribute at the level he was delivering before the injury, he also could wrestle the starting position away, just like Quarterman.
Weak Side Linebacker:
Definition - Nestled next to the Mike linebacker and on the opposite side of the Sam linebacker is the weak side linebacker commonly referred to as the "Will." Wills can play off the line of scrimmage more than the Sam linebacker and can often help deeper in coverage on longer passing downs. A few references have notes that many Will linebackers are many times converted strong safeties who can help "in the box" but also cover players in space if asked to.
Jermaine Grace - Even though the Mike linebacker position may eventually secede to a youth movement and the strong side maybe up for grabs, weak side is on lock down to Jermaine Grace. When looking to make a weak side linebacker you look no further than Grace, he's the epitome of what a defensive coordinator would want at the position. He weighs in at 215 to 220 pounds, arguably is the fastest player on the team and has been making tackles in the open field for the Canes the last three seasons. Heading into '16 he's one of the unquestioned leaders on the team and has a great shot at becoming an all-conference nominee by seasons end.
(graphic language in the highlights above)
Charles Perry - I don't know what's really worse.. The situation of "who's starting at strong side?" or who is going to be the backups amongst all the weak side linebacker possibilities. Perry was a highly rated recruit out of the local area two years ago but during his high school days he split time at both linebacker and running back. When he arrived on campus last year he dabbled a little in special teams but really did not make much of (at all?) an impact during the actual defensive snaps. Heading into his sophomore year you hope to see progress. He has the talent but will he put it on display other than on kick coverage?
In the above sections we went over the two deep. The below players listed will have to be able to fill in anywhere that they are needed, thus they have no set position and possibly could play any of the three positions. All these players will be counted on in special teams heavily as this unit will be their primary responsibility and they will slowly take on more reps in the actual defensive scheme. Due to injuries or overall player progression these linebackers could possibly crack the two deep throughout the fall. We saw this last year mainly due to injuries to Owens, Kirby and to a certain extent, Marques Gayot.
Terry McCray - Played in one game last season as a redshirt freshman and made four tackles, did not appear in any other contests. Next year he will be asked to fill in at any of the three positions due to his size at 6'3" 228 pounds.
James King - Played specifically on special teams last season and did not record a tackle. King will be a backup player on the outside, specifically at weak side due to his size at 6' and 205 pounds. The change over from a 34 defense to a 43 will help his chances of contributing down the road but I wouldn't hold your breath on next season.
Jamie Gordinier - Redshirted last year as a freshman. Gordinier could potentially slot in as a strong side linebacker or a middle linebacker. Right now he's probably third in line behind Harris and then Owens for playing time.
Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney - These are two of the three highly skilled linebackers who early enrolled in January, both could make an impact at either outside linebacker position. Due to their size it may be best for them to redshirt as they may not be ready for both the speed of the game and the punishing toll it could take over the course of the season. However, their skill in the open field is undeniable so both may be pressed into duty if the other backups don't deliver.
Mike Smith - Similar to Terry McCray, Smith will be asked to provide depth at any of the three positions where he's needed. Last year he played in the second half of the season due to the injuries sustained by the unit but he didn't garner many stats (six tackles in five games).
Predictions Heading Into Next Season
In a dream scenario, Grace plays all conference, Juwon Young and Shaq Quarterman have a great rotation at the Mike position and the Sam position also has great production split between a steady Trent Harris and a recovering Darrion Owens. That's the dream scenario. How it really plays out is anyone's guess but the coaching staff really needs to pray that there aren't nearly as many injuries as there were last season because the guys behind the two deep really haven't shown yet (key word is "yet") that they can produce impactful plays if they were to be called upon.