When Miami fans first saw it, they quickly knew: Miami had a young and special group of linebackers who could serve as the backbone of a defense like old times. For me (or at least what sticks out to me know), that holy-smokes-look-what-we’ve-got moment is that 2016 game at Georgia Tech. That’s when it really hit me just how good this group could wind up being. Granted it was not a particularly good Jackets team, but the discipline and aggressiveness in slowing the Jackets’ triple option attack was truly impressive that day for a group of freshmen having never faced it before.
And, going forward, the times were good on the defensive side of the ball, make no mistake. The stats spoke for themselves, especially in the prior two years coming into the 2019 season as we all know. The sacks, turnovers, tackles for losses were plentiful. Miami was replacing a ton of talent in their front seven coming into this year, including Joe Jackson, Gerald Willis, and Kendrick Norton on the defensive line, but there was plenty of talent in the cupboard to potentially fill their shoes and continue to disrupt and provide space for Pinckney, Quarterman, and McCloud.
Now, here we sit, at the end of the era of that big three, with a Coastal division title and cameos in the ACC title game and Orange Bowl to show for it. Can’t help but feel like this should have been more, but that’s mostly attributable to the failures of other positions and areas. There is no doubt the trio gave their all and made an undeniable impact in the Hurricanes successes, as well as carved out their own place in Miami’s football history.
Statistically, 2019 was a solid, albeit unspectacular year for the defense, with a dip in turnovers generated. While Miami’s offense has been heavily maligned for its dead-last 3rd down conversion percentage, the defense ranked 42nd at 37.1% in third down percentage. They allowed only 17 of 36 red zone trips to end in a touchdown. Opponents averaged only 3.17 yards per carry, 10th best. Miami generated 108 tackles for loss, 6th best.
While the defense remained solid overall (despite lapses at times more severe than in the past few seasons, *cough, Virginia Tech*), how well did the individual linebackers produce in 2019?
Realistically, 2019 was a good year for this group, and it all starts with their rock inside – Shaq Quarterman. Apart from setting the UM record for consecutive starts at 52, Quarterman earned first team All-ACC honors for the second straight year, playing a defense-high 797 snaps on the season. Pro Football Focus had Quarterman with an overall grade of 77.8, third best on the team behind DeeJay Dallas (78.1) and Jonathan Garvin (82.4).
Going back and watching some games from this year, there are certainly plenty of moments to turn to and feature. I thought I’d find what I was looking for in the Florida State game. However, I think maybe his most underappreciated performance was against Central Michigan, where the defense dragged the offense’s lifeless body to a 17-12 win. Late in the first half with Miami leading 7-2, Central Michigan was driving and on the edge of field goal range. The Chippewas ran a play action roll out pass to the right, with the running back holding firm and slipping out to the left. The back caught the throw back pass and had a clear path for a touchdown. However, Shaq sniffed the play out and brought the back down for a loss, which ultimately killed the drive. If not for his football instincts, that could’ve been a touchdown, and could’ve ultimately contributed to another ugly loss this season.
When I think about his NFL prospects, I can see Shaq thriving as a two-down linebacker, which could put him in the middle rounds of the draft. I think he’s got a chance to be an excellent run-stopping inside linebacker. I know we’re going to miss his steady presence and ability to stick with his assignments against the run and put opposing offenses in long 2nd and 3rd down distances.
There might not be a more game-changing and playmaking linebacker in recent Hurricane memory than Pinckney. He was made to wear the turnover chain and did so on more than his fair share of occasions. For me, his pick against Florida State in 2018 will be the moment that I remember him most for. How he read that TE screen from Francois was incredible, and Miami might not have broken the 14-year home streak to FSU without it.
2019 was – at least statistically – a solid year for Pinckney was well. He finished with 5 sacks, 11 TFLs, and 64 tackles, with a 78.1 grade in coverage from PFF (76.6 overall). What performance really stuck out to me was against Louisville. Going back and watching some of that game, he was all over the field. In the backfield getting a sack. Hitting the back on a swing pass for a loss.
And that speed is what gives him a chance at a solid NFL career. If there is any concern at all about his size/frame as an NFL linebacker, it should be offset by the speed, instincts, and steady playmaking ability he’s shown in four years.
With the wise decision to take a redshirt, senior Zach McCloud is set to man one of the Hurricanes’ starting linebacker positions next fall. McCloud filled in for an injured Pinckney in the Canes’ 16-12 win and was productive. He totaled 5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, and deflected a pass that was picked off by DJ Ivey in the first half. He will provide a welcome bit of experience in an incredibly young and inexperienced linebacker room this spring and fall. Even though he was designated as striker last year, his experience a linebacker is obviously too valuable to not have him there. Although he seems like the right fit at the Will spot, it’s so hard to say how things will shake out, who will rise up and shine. If one of the young MLBs stars this spring and in fall camp, it might make sense to have McCloud at the Will. I could also see finding a way to get Sam Brooks and McCloud on the field at the same time.
Speaking of Brooks, he got his first start in the Independence Bowl in place of Pinckney and performed solidly. His pure speed and athleticism at 6’2, 206 pounds could give defensive coordinator and ILB coach Blake Baker a capable blitzing option. Incoming three-star linebackers Corey Flagg, Jr. and Tirek Austin-Cave enrolled this month and will have a legitimate chance to complete for the starting Mike position this year. With Flagg’s acclaimed instincts and physicality from his coaches and recruiting experts, I’m excited to see what he can do in spring ball, as well as the long and lean redshirt freshman Avery Huff. Colvin Alford, Waynmon Steed, Bradley Jennings, Jr. and Patrick Joyner, Jr. all factor in as well after dealing with injuries for much of 2019.
Going into 2020
What will Baker do with his rotation of linebackers this fall? Do they have the personnel to run a 2-linebacker/striker scheme that’s been so successful since Diaz installed it in the spring of 2018, especially with the departure of prolific striker Romeo Finley? And speaking of the striker position, can Gilbert Frierson, who was second on the depth chart, step in and man the spot well enough to keep it as a viable option for Baker? Or can incoming safety Keshawn Washington perhaps get a look? With so many unknowns and fresh faces at each position, will Baker and Diaz stick with the striker, or change to get their best 3 defenders in the middle? With the success of it, I’d think they’d keep it, but it’s just so hard to project how this now-young linebacking group is going to fill out. At first glance, it seems like Miami has a room of players who appear to have the potential to do certain things well, as already noted. In any event, Miami’s opening cakewalk of a schedule couldn’t come at a better time, as the new faces will have plenty of time to get up to the speed of the college game against some very beatable opposition.
It’s been nice leaning on the strongest foundational defensive group Miami has had since perhaps the days of winning their last title. Their contributions are greatly appreciated and will be missed. I’m looking forward to watching the first chapter of the next era of great linebackers at th