The linebacker position at Miami is one of legacy, dominance, and high expectations. The Hurricanes have had great linebacker play dating back to as far as I can remember. The first national title team of 1983 had Ken Sisk and Jay Brophy. Winston Moss, George Mira Jr, Randy Shannon, Maurice Crum, and Clark held down the fort for the 1986, 1987, and 1989 teams.
Then came the Bermuda Triangle. Mike Barrow, Jessie Armstead, and Darrin Smith came in and put together three Pro Bowl careers in the NFL, but also won two national titles, played for another, and were absolutely dominant in Miami’s 4-3 defense of the late 80’s and early 90’s. NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis was next up on the list. Dan Morgan came to Miami as a die hard Hurricane and left as a College Football Hall of Famer and record holder. And of course there were other NFL players along the way in Nate Webster, Jon Vilma, Jon Beason, etc- the list goes on.
But after the departures of Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney following the 2019 season, Miami is void of linebackers in 2020 and it doesn’t look good for 2021. I’m not saying Quarterman and Pinckney were without flaws, either. They were stiff, lost in coverage, and slow.
It’s not as if the 2020 LB room was devoid of talent or experience: Zach McCloud was a 5th year senior, Waynmon Steed and Bradley Jennings Jr were redshirt juniors, Ryan Ragone was a redshirt sophomore, and Sam Brooks Jr a sophomore. The Strikers are redshirt sophomore Gilbert Frierson and sophomore Keontra Smith. However, much like coaches can coach for 20 years or they can coach one year 20 times- the same can be said for players.
The linebackers have been coached by now head coach Manny Diaz, when he was defensive coordinator under Mark Richt, and are now coached under “defensive coordinator” Blake Baker. The Strikers (a hybrid linebacker/safety), Frierson and Smith, have been coached by special teams coordinator Jonathan Patke.
We’re going to examine one game, the Miami Hurricanes heading up to Raleigh to face the NC State Wolfpack from the 2020 season.
The good with the bad
So who played the best? It was hit or miss in spurts and situations. Gil Frierson put together better performances when he was off the ball and in the box than out wide at “Striker” per se. As good as he is at moving and pursuit, he’s bad a tackling (read more here).
McCloud was typically bad. There hasn’t been a ton of development in the world of Mr. McCloud. Jennings Jr. had up and down moments. I question his vision and knowledge of the game, however, there are some beautiful plays he’s made.
Brooks flashed his athleticism, the same with Smith, but looking like they have a clue of what is going on is another story.
Miami linebackers have a tendency to over pursue and wind up lost in the wash. We’ll see more of that in a minute, but their tendency to over run plays and turn their shoulders to the sideline versus staying square with the line of scrimmage makes them an easy cutback team.
Above- You can see how both ILB’s wind up on the same side of the center before the ball reaches the line of scrimmage and in the era of outside zone and inside zone teams with cutbacks on the brain- that’s not a good sign.
Pursuit from LB position
Above- on this snap, Jennings (44) is able to overcome his over pursuit. He winds up getting in on the tackle here. But you can see McCloud has no vision of the play, he’s going the wrong way from the ball, and Jennings is about to join him before hitting the breaks. Because he’s running versus using a scallup technique, he’s off balance. He recovers and helps on the finish.
Above- The player with the football isn’t even remotely near the line of scrimmage and Jennings has already turned and is in a complete sprint. Do you see 24 there on the bottom left shot? He has the ball but the inside linebacker is chasing 8 who does not. On the right photo that’s the safety back in the box while the linebacker is late to figuring out who has the football.
Miami has tackling woes both in the box and in the open field. I can’t think of a sure tackler on the defense. Te’Cory Couch shows flashes but his lack of ‘bump’ (ass) makes it difficult on him at times. Other than Couch... Smith has willingness but his ‘head across’ style leads to missed tackles.
Above- As McCloud over runs the play, he then tries to get back in control and misses the finish. That’s a 5th year senior who has worked extensively with Diaz and Baker not being able to scrape, fit and finish.
Above- Frierson does such a great job with his movement mechanics but fails to finish too often. On the left, that’s him in position to make a play and then on the floor. On the right, he’s the bottom right shot and Smith is the top right. Head across works for Smith on the quarterback but against UNC running backs not so much.
Pass drop and play-action
Miami linebackers have been suspect in pass drops since Diaz took over the defense in 2016. For every sack this defense comes up with, they’re porous in the middle of the field and the flats. Plays like shallow cross, mesh, and anything requiring linebackers in coverage leaves a lot to be desired both with Quarterman-Pinckney and now with McCloud-Jennings-et al.
Above- That’s Brooks and Frierson covering the same player while leaving a giant hole in the coverage.
Above- On play-action, you can see Brooks does a great job of slow playing counter-boot-reverse; but Jennings and Frierson are smoked. Especially Jennings. I would assume he turns and runs so much because he lacks lateral speed and that’s how he gets anywhere near making a sideline play.
Good... and good and bad
Not every play is bad, and on some there’s one guy screwing up with a different guy does a great job.
Above- I’m not sure how the staff hasn’t figured this out yet, but Frierson is their best inside linebacker. Every time he’s off the ball and in the box, he’s making a play. Now he’s also their best Striker so they probably can’t figure out what to do with him. He also tackles much better in the box than in space.
Above- While Jennings over runs the play, Frierson does a great job of closing on it and allowing the troops to rally. He knows what he’s doing in the scheme more than McCloud and Jennings.
Above- More Frierson is right, Jennings is wrong here. Jennings eyes look like they’re on the back who has the ball, but osme how he winds up chasing the play going away and Frierson makes the play. I hate Frierson’s tackling technique. He hugs this guy and just falls on him, obviously that’s not going to work against UNC, Clemson, Notre Dame, Alabama or any well coached football program.
Not always the LB’s fault
The LB’s take a ton of heat from fans and bloggers alike. But it’s clearly not always their fault. The Miami defensive line finds itself far too far up field looking for sacks and TFL’s and ignoring gaps and controlling the line of scrimmage.
The defensive tackles often shoot gaps and get washed and cutback on, allowing the offensive line to effortlessly work up to linebackers.
Above- Jonathan Ford hasn’t moved yet in the top picture and the ball is in the QB’s hands. He becomes easy to control and loses pad level. With Jennings on the blitz this opens a massive hole. Jennings also uses the wrong arm. He should jam that with his inside shoulder leaving his outside arm free. He has help to his right, not to his left.
Bolden has no desire to fit the run, ever, and it shows here again. MarshDonald’s All-American team has a ton of hype, don’t it? (just busting chops Marsh).
Is it the scheme?
The Diaz-Baker scheme puts a ton of onus on tackles for loss or ‘big plays’ but not a lot of onus on gap control, run fits, coverage responsibilities, and tackling. Is it a major upgrade over the bend and break defense of Mark D’Onofrio and Al Golden? Of course. If I can have the sniffles I’ll take it over COVID-19.
But this scheme is built upon bad gambling. They bet $5,000 a hand. If they ‘got conservative’ and bet $2,500 they would see it as a loss even if it was really a 1-2 yard gain. It’s all or none and against the OC’s with a pulse (Tony Elliott, Mike Gundy, Phil Longo, even Justin Fuente when he’s not being stubborn) they give up record setting numbers.
Above- as you can see, Miami puts 4 over 3 leaving an inside linebacker to the defense’s right of the center, and the safety there, too. The safety’s job will have to be to fit the run, but the LB needs to bump over to a 10 technique versus a 30. Now he can play both A-gaps, where as in the image he cannot.
Of course in Miami ILB fashion, by the time the RB hits the line of scrimmage the LB is washed and the safety is left to fit the run. Bolden is late and slow to do so and misses the tackle.
Above- on a goal line stand, the ‘Canes aren’t lined up. The defense doesn’t call a timeout, they’re walking on the field and give up an easy touchdown.
1- Why are they walking on a goal line stand?
2- Why don’t you call timeout? A stop here that ends in a field goal is vital.
3- How don’t experienced players like Blades and Jennings notice there is no LB to the right?
4- How does it get this bad, schematically speaking?
2020 and beyond
Heading into 2021, Manny Diaz will be calling the defense on game days. Blake Baker will still be coaching the linebackers and making the game plan. Patke returns to run special teams and coach the strikers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hopefully Jess Simpson will be more focused on gap control than Coach Stroud and that will allow the LB’s to run free a little more. From there, the vision, movement, pursuit and tackling has to improve. Will Jennings and McCloud be back for another run at inside linebacker?
Frierson is the clear starter at striker and Smith the back up. It’s good to have close depth at a position for some competition. But I would like to see Frierson play inside more, where he seems to be a natural fit. Will Steed, Austin-Cave and Brooks grow into the position? Miami is at a linebacker crossroads.
With three of the top four coaches in the program coaching linebackers and strikers you would expect more. Much more.