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Miami Hurricanes Recruiting Radar: Linebacker recruiting struggles are real

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One could argue this has been the case previously, but LB recruiting is the issue of the year so far.

State of the U Illustration by Mike Meredith

Recruiting priorities shift based upon team needs in a given year. The success, or failure, in recruiting a certain position affects the ability and priority in recruiting said position in subsequent years.

In 2017, Miami struggled mightily in recruiting Wide Receivers. The whiffs were notable — Jerry Jeudy, Trevon Grimes, DeVonta Smith, and Jeremiah Hollomon are just some of the names that Miami was after and missed out on. Miami was luckily able to get Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley (as a flip) late in that cycle, and that covered a bit of the issue, but didn’t completely solve it.

Based on the whiffs in 2017, Miami had a HEAVY focus on WRs in the 2018 class, and was able to get Brian Hightower, Mark Pope, Dee Wiggins, and the since-transferred Marquez Ezzard all to come down to Coral Gables. Great class in quantity and quality. Boom.

In 2018 (and 2019, too), the struggle was REAL for Miami recruiting QBs. After it became clear the commit Artur Sitkowski was not Miami-caliber, the Canes were able to pivot to flipping HS All-American Jarren Williams to join the team. In 2019, however, Miami only recruited 1 QB — Michael Johnson Jr — and lost out on him to Penn State.

The Canes had to wait until just before NSD to get their QB in 2019 in Peyton Matocha, and that only happened after Dan Enos came over from Alabama to be Miami’s OC/QB coach. In 2020, Miami already got their man at QB in 4-star Tyler Van Dyke.

In 2019, the main non-QB recruiting struggle was the inability to secure any HS RB in the class, despite having many options available. Miami held a commitment from Marcus Crowley for a long time, but he flipped to Ohio State. The Canes then whiffed on Trey Sanders, Noah Cain, Kenny McIntosh and others and ended up with no RB signee in this cycle.

The Canes got Asa Martin as a transfer from Auburn, but that came after the myriad misses listed here. In 2020, Miami already has elite 4-star RB Don Chaney Jr. committed and is working to pair him with another top player at this position.

In 2020, the clear position of recruiting struggle is Linebacker. And, if you really look, for all of the years listed above, Linebacker was a struggle as well. The thing that’s different now, however, is that all of Miami’s starting LBs — Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, Zach McCloud, and STRIKER Romeo Finley — are seniors and will be departing after this season.

In the past 3 cycles listed above, Miami has not landed quality, game ready LBs. That’s because the trio (now quartet) of starters have been the backbone of the defense, and other targets elected to go elsewhere, but even so, precious few were top-tier talents.

Miami does have Patrick Joyner, who played rush LB in HS, and 2019 signees Sam Brooks and Avery Huff at LB for the future, but none are proven at this level, and the rest of the LB unit is quite poor, if we’re being honest.

Already this cycle, Miami has missed out on Woodbridge (VA) 5-star LB Antoine Sampah, who chose LSU after most in the industry and who follow recruiting believed he was coming to Miami, and Largo (FL) 4-star Jayion McCluster, who chose FSU over Miami and Auburn.

Missing out on those guys is not the end of the world, but the point of fact is the misses have to end and Miami has to close on top quality recruits at this position this year. By and large, Miami has let LB recruiting go to the back burner for the last 4 years because the starters on the roster are so good that immediate upgrades were not needed. But that cushion is gone. Those guys are graduating. And it is essential that Miami find their replacements in this class.

Not next year.

Not the year after that.

NOW.

Even with Sampah and McCluster electing to go elsewhere, there are STILL plenty of top-tier, immediate impact guys available in this class. Miami has already gotten the #1 LB in this class — Upland (CA) 5-star Justin Flowe — on campus for an unofficial visit, and he plans to return during the season for an official visit. Houston (TX) North Shore 3-star Corey Flagg is a bit short at 5’10” but has had a STRONG camp season and will likely be bumped up to a 4-star, and has been very productive (144 tackles, 33 TFLs, 4 sacks as a junior).

Miami has also been in contact with Burien (WA) Kennedy Catholic 5-star Sav’ell Smalls and a visit could be in the works this summer. Charlotte (NC) Mallard Creek 4-star Trenton Simpson has Miami in his top 5 and is planning to visit, too. Tampa (FL) Berkeley Prep 4-star Jaylen Harrell, Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas 4-star Derek Wingo (a Penn State commit), and Largo (FL) Pinellas Park 3-star Alvin “AJ” Mathis are but some of the other LBs that have offers from Miami, with varying levels of interest at present.

While player development of the guys on campus is a major factor in this equation as well, it is absolutely essential that Miami get 3 HIGH CALIBER LBs in this year’s recruiting class. Even if a player or players currently on the roster — Joyner? Huff? Brooks? Other? — emerge, Miami needs to add other players to this group to be successful.

I know a lot of you are probably thinking “but Miami doesn’t run many 3 LB sets anymore with the STRIKER position in use and the proliferation of spread offenses” (and I know you are because several of you brought this up to me on Twitter recently), and that’s true to a point.

BUT

Miami currently has 0 starting level players for the 2020 season on the roster. There are guys with potential, but not we can etch in stone as starting LB even in a set that includes a STRIKER for next season. So, even IF the above statement is true (which it partially is), the Canes STILL need to add LBs — plural — in this cycle to have the depth needed to compete at a high level. And yes, depth of 3+ game-ready LBs is needed, even if you’re not starting 3 traditional LBs every game, because guys get injured, or need to take a breather, so your backups will play meaningful snaps. That’s just the way football works.

I know players develop at different times, but outside of Joyner, who was a revelation late in the spring when he was moved to LB from DE, if any of the other returning players were starter quality, we’d know it. I know guys have battled injuries (Waynmon Steed, De’Andre Wilder), but that’s part of the game, unfortunately. Injured or not, they haven’t shown that they’ll be ready to step up and take over the position when the time comes, which means it is incumbent upon Miami’s coaching staff to recruit players in this cycle who can.

Miami has been lucky to push off recruiting a great class of LBs for the last 4 years. But there won’t be another year of Quarterman, Pinckney, McCloud, and Finley after this one, so something has to be done. And that something is recruiting better at this position and getting the kind of players, like a Justin Flowe or an AJ Mathis or (insert other names here) that haven’t come to Miami in recent years, with the exception of Avery Huff.

Luckily for Miami, there’s still time this year to get the players needed at Linebacker. But, with every passing day, and every passing commitment by a player the Canes are recruiting to a school other than Miami, the time and available talent pool grows shorter.

If the recruiting picture at LB doesn’t change and change soon, then new Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker will have his work cut out for him in 2020 to cover the deficiencies of the roster at this key position.

Those are my thoughts on the topic. I openly invite you to continue the conversation in the comments section below.

Go Canes