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Miami Hurricanes 2020 Position Preview: Linebackers

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Miami Enters A New Era At Linebacker

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh
Nov 24, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Miami Hurricanes linebacker Zach McCloud (53) waits to take the field against the Pittsburgh Panthers before the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

133 Games.

718 Tackles.

97.5 Tackles For Loss.

26.5 Sacks.

7 Interceptions.

29 Pass Deflections.

13 Turnover Chains.

All of those numbers left when Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Romeo Finley graduated from the University of Miami. That’s three starters, two from their freshmen seasons, that must now be replaced by a mixture of late bloomers, redshirt freshmen and the “Injured Until Proven Healthy”.

As the stalwarts of the defense, Shaq and Pinck have a massive amount of big plays and big games going with them. On top of that they were the unquestioned heart and soul of our defense. Shaq was the iron that sharpened iron and Pinck brought more flash than a Turnover Chain. The Canes must now replace their leadership and playmaking ability with a group largely unproven, much due to the success of their predecessors.

Surprisingly, the only emotion that can match the concern of what is now gone would be the excitement of what is now here. Though the former Canes were excellent football players, one feature of their games that was critiqued more times than not, was their athleticism, or lack of it. The “Next ‘Group’ Up” is headlined by MAJOR athletes, that, conversely, are critiqued for their lack of experience. While the country Celebrates Juneteenth, let us celebrate the returning talent at Linebacker.

Middle Linebacker

Zach McCloud

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The resident OG from the Linebacker Trio that joined Mark Richt and Miami in 2016, Zach McCloud’s time is now. The Lantana product originally was touted as the best athlete of the the three. McCloud features great explosiveness and is known as a powerful finisher. The dig on him, however was not so much his athleticism but his ability to diagnose and trust his eyes. More times than not McCloud would get flushed out of a play either focusing on the wrong cue or hesitating for the half second it takes for a play to get on top of you.

Notably, aNotably, part of McCloud’s personality that is never really mentioned is his leadership, on and off the field. A multiple recipient of the SAACthlete of the Week for Miami and member of UM’s United Black Students Cultural Organization, McCloud is a player to be proud of and one that a coach would want to lead men. Double that with his 4 years at Miami, Zach should be able to jump in as leader of the Linebacker Room.

After three years of supplemental work behind Shaq and Pinck, Zach made the decision to redshirt his senior season and return for a fifth year in hopes that time would heal what ailed his game. It does, in fact, give him first shot at the middle linebacker spot with the new availability. If Zach can trust his angles and his eyes in camp, he will be running downhill and into a great final act in Miami.

Patrick Joyner

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 FIU at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Redshirt Freshman Patrick Joyner is another athletic, big body in the Linbacking Corp. At 6’3 and 240 Joyner carries his weight well and uses a strong base and long arms to wrap up and drive his target into the end of the tackle. Oriiginally a stand up rusher out of high school, Joyner has shuffled from Linebacker, to Defensive End and back to Linbacker in the spring of 2019. The Last move was brought on by injuries to Waynmon Steed and B.J. Jennings that necessitated the move. Joyner’s down hill ability has shown at the position during practice, with a good display their during the 2019 spring games. Unfortunately Joyner suffered a leg injury that kept him out of the 2019 summer camp and stole his sophomore season. As one of the first players to return in campus this June, Joyner received a clean bill of health and looks to provide good depth up the middle for Miami.

B.J. Jennings

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Savannah State at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

B.J. Jennings makes it 3/3 at the MLB spot that features big athletes with injuries, limited experience but good to great upside. Jennings is more of an underrated athlete, as he has seen a few practices at the striker position, which provides hope that his ability to protect in front of the line of scrimmage can be an asset. At 6’1, 230lbs, Jennings, though not known as a heavy hitter, should be able to display good ability to hit and finish tackles. Its difficult that so many linebackers invoke words like should, could and would as the group is severely lacking in reps.

Jennings could be a dark horse at the Middle Linebacker spot. Of all the returning linebackers, Jennings is THE ONLY ONE to play almost exclusively at the position in high school. If experience is a concern across the board, Jennings natural instincts and pedigree here can serve him well as a strong reserve if not at starter.

Corey Flagg

What Corey Flagg may lack in size and testing numbers when compared to the previous entrants, he makes up for with Zach Thomas like production. The 5’10 backer out of Texas powerhouse North Shore Senior High School is short for the spot, but BOY is he to the point. His penultimate season in high school saw him put up 144 tackles, including 33 TFLs, and four sacks, while forcing five fumbles and broke up four passes. I like to think when a man lacks overt measurements but outperforms the comp with numbers like whats mentioned above, he is EXCELLENT at the position he plays. Flagg is just that. This year is a presumptive redshirt, but he should be on watch as a player not to forget.

Weak-Side Linebacker

Sam Brooks

BREAKOUT PLAYER ALERT!!!

In the previous section two things that were hit home were athleticism and production. Well Sam Brooks brings both in droves. First the testing numbers:

Player A - 6’1.5, 225lbs, 4.68 40, 4.38 Shuttle, 34” Vertical

Player B - 6’1.5 194lbs, 4.62 40, 4.20 Shuttle, 36” Vertical

Player A was the number one Linebacker from the 2020 Recruiting Class, the other was the 52nd of the 2019 class. If you chose player B than Sam Brooks is your guy. The better athlete, Brooks only fell in the rankings because of a nasty knee injury his junior year, which he has since shown to be a thing of the past. The young man may very well be playing somewhere else if not for the junior season injury. Those numbers plus a reported 30-35 extra pounds of good weight (up to 225-230 now, and 6’2), Brooks has morphed into near perfect frame of a modern day linebacker. In Brooks best chance last year to show his stuff, during the bowl game for an ailing Pinckney, Brooks went off for 12 tackles in a preview of his ability to get after the ball carrier. What Canes fan should truly be excited for is his ability to get into the back field. As a stand up rusher in high school, Brooks hit 40 sacks and led Miami Northwestern to an improbable State Champions. I have BIG expectations for the high motor playmaker, and advise you burn the name into memory.

Avery Huff

Andrew Ivins, 247Sports

If there were a smaller version of Gregory Rousseau, in terms of athleticism and versatility, Avery Huff is your guy. at 6’3, and currently 208 pounds, Huff is a missile on defense, and played safety, cornerback, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end at times for St. Thomas Aquinas. Often the best athletes in high school don’t have the chance to master a position because coaches want them everywhere at once on the field. Deejay Dallas and Gregory Rousseau fit that mold. With Huff now able to focus on the linebacker position, in a defense that makes it easy, fun and fast to play it, Huff is on pace to disrupt many an ACC foe in the near future. After an academic redshirt his freshman year, we would like to see that Huff put pounds on a thin frame and has locked down the playbook. If that is the case he is a dark horse to be Miami’s Linebacker of the Year.

Tirek Austin-Cave

Tirek is a fantastic athlete who, like his freshman counterpart Flagg, put up video game numbers in high school out of Camden, New Jersey. In his junior season Austin-Cave BESTED Flagg’s 144 tackles with 162 of his own. ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY TWO. SHEESH. To top off the production, Tirek has a very good linebacker body with great length and a frame that should easily add good weight. His playmaking ability is similar to that of Pinckney or even Sean Spence, as he is excellent navigating around the line of scrimmage and downhill. He leans on his speed in coverage but a redshirt year should allow him to add some need technique there. A deep sleeper for the 2021-22 seasons, Austin-Cave will become a fun one to watch.

Waynmon Steed

If the injury bug was contagious, then Waynmon Steed is the one who spread it. The oft injured linebacker, and former favorite of mine, has not been able to stay healthy or see the field, and unfortunately brought that pedigree from high school, missing his junior year with a torn labrum and playing his senior on a torn ACL. One might assume those ailments were precursors to his health issues in college. Yet, when healthy, the stout, 6 foot, 230lb linebacker is a swift and powerful tackler. His ability to play sideline to sideline with excellent instincts earned his spot with the Canes. I for one would love to see him finally make an impact for the team but we may never see Steed hit the field in Orange and Green.

STRIKER

Gilbert Frierson

Can the Miami Hurricanes make the step from very good to elite on defense, and what role does the Striker position play in that? Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The energy of the linebacker room, and formerly of the safeties and corners rooms, Gilbert Frierson drips Miami. A day one Cane who committed TWO YEARS prior to signing, Frierson is as true a Cane as they come. Confident with a flair on the field, there is no denying the striker position, if nothing else, will l produce much more excitement than it did just a year ago under Romeo Finley. A quick reminder, the striker is the next best coverage linebacker or safety. Miami has truly only had one player star there in Finley, so this is a great opportunity for Frierson to make his legacy at the position. Since he splashed onto the scene with a Spring Game INT in 2018, Frierson has grown out of corner and has found what looks to be a perfect spot at striker. With 4.5 speed and true explosiveness, Gil brings an electricity the position has not yet had. While Finley was a safe and sound player, Gil’s flair for the risk (see LA Tech run back) could either hurt or help here. I like the latter, when you consider his advanced ability to cover. If he can play smart and use his abilities, Frierson can make the Striker the premiere spot in the defensive back seven.

Keontra Smith

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 24 Camping World Kickoff - Florida v Miami Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Keontra Smith furthers the athletic turn at LB, and in this case striker. Though slightly shorter at 5’11 Smith may be one of the top hitters at the Linebacker spot, and possibly pound for pound the best hitter on the team. A lead dog type of player in the Trajan Bandy mold, Smith is McCloud’s cerebral opposite, a player who trusts his eyes and attacks with purpose. Smith brings cornerback athleticism (4.5 40, 4.3 shuttle, 36’ vert) to a linebacker room that has not seen anything like it in almost 10 years. Smith, more than any other player at linebacker epitomizes the term “sleeper”. Most fans will lump him in at safety where Gurvan Hall and Bubba Bolden play, so it’ll be assumed he is nearly an after thought. Put his abilities at striker, close to the line of scrimmage where he plays his best, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith leads the the team in tackles, IF he makes the cut to start at Striker.

Ryan Ragone

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Bethune-Cookman at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What Miami lost in Travis Homer years back, in my opinion Ryan Ragone has brought back. A worker who speaks through his actions, Ragone is a tireless worker who understands how to play the game and how to maximize his ability. Though possibly the low man on the athletic totem poll at ‘backer, Ragone’s experience and knowledge should at the very least put him in a leadership position and with possibility to earn a Captains role on Special Teams, vacated by Shaq Quaterman. The former walk-on should hear his named called as long as he continues his strong work habits and pushes his teammates with it.