Miami has seen a steady decline in linebacker play over the last few years. Whether it’s player development or the lack of recruiting premium talent, the linebacker play has been consistently weak. Who can forget the group’s Game of Thrones-like shame bell performance in the regular season finale against the North Carolina Tar Heels? The Tar Heels tallied 554 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground. Dynamic runners Michael Carter (308 yards and 2 TDs) and Javonte Williams (236 yards and 3 TDs) faced no resistance through four quarters.
This year, the group will have a pair of new coaches with Jonathan Patke switching from striker coach to the inside and former Texas A&M Aggies analyst Ishmael Aristide running the strikers. Let’s take a look at what this new linebacker staff is inheriting as this underwhelming list of names, head into spring ball.
The Middle and Weakside
The departure of Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinkney during the last two years has left a gaping hole in leadership and skill in the linebacker room. Last season, the Canes didn’t even produce an interior or weakside backer that totaled over 40 tackles.
- Bradley Jennings Jr.: 39 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 pass defense
- Zach McCloud: 27 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 1 pass defense
- Sam Brooks: 37 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass defense
- Corey Flagg Jr.: 15 total tackles and 1 fumble recovery
The top four linebackers combined for a total 118 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks. To put this in perspective, in Shaquille Quarterman’s last season as a Cane, he had a total of 107 tackles. He never totaled below 80 tackles in any of his seasons at Miami. Michael Pinkney’s lowest tackle total was 61, in his freshman season.
The decline in play led to an uptake in statistics in both yards per game in yards per carry. The Canes allowed an average of 176 yards on the ground and 4.55 yards per carry. These numbers are simply not good enough.
Heading into the spring, Sam Brooks Jr., Avery Huff, Tirek Austin-Cave, Corey Flagg Jr., Bradley Jennings Jr., Waynmon Steed, and Ryan Ragone are the returnees after Patrick Joyner Jr. followed Ephraim Banda to Utah State and McLoud is now at DE. Newcomers Deshawn Troutman and recruit Tyler Johnson are also in the wings.
Although he’s not the biggest or most athletic linebacker, Corey Flagg will have a huge chance to take the helm in the middle this season. Jennings Jr. just seemed to play out of position too many times in 2020 and was questionable in coverage. In limited reps, Flagg finished last season with 15 tackles and showed flashes of being a good run stuffer. Ultimately, he has the biggest upside of the pair. Outside of Flagg, it’s open season on the other two spots. Austin-Cave, Brooks, and Avery Huff will go to war while trying to lock down and upgrade the outside.
- Middle linebacker: Corey Flagg Jr., Bradley Jennings Jr., DeShawn Troutman
- Weak-side linebacker: Sam Brooks, Tirek Austin-Cave, Waymon Steed, Avery Huff
Thankfully, we have the returning talents of Gilbert Frierson and Keontra Smith. The development of these two individuals may be the only bright spot from the position group in all of 2020 (outside of their play in the UNC game). Gilbert Frierson finished last season with 53 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, and 9 TFL in 569 snaps. Frierson’s 53 tackles were good for second-best on the Canes last year. Smith had 22 tackles and 2 TFL. They’re both sound, can be sticky in coverage, and solid tacklers.
The area improvement for them will come with consistency and technique.
- Striker: Gilbert Frierson, Keontra Smith, Chase Smith or Jalen Harell
Hopefully, head coach Manny Diaz’s reemergence as the defensive signal caller will also help this group make the jump this season. Last season, I’m not sure how many of the players would crack the lineup at any top-tier program in the country. Canes fans can only hope that the experience the linebackers gained last year can propel them from mediocrity to serviceability.
What are your thoughts on the linebackers heading into 2021? How do you think the group will shake out?