Every year has its position.
Fortunately, we have been in positions to address and then add depth to each group of major concern. D’eriq King, Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia at QB. Jarrid Williams, Issaiah Walker, Zion Nelson and more at Tackle. Tyrique Stevenson at CB. All groups getting new and improved coaches to boot.
2021 is no different. This year, linebacker has become that group. A group that has deep historical greatest with the likes of Ray Lewis, Mike Barrow and Dan Morgan, to more recently productive stalwarts in Shaq Quaterman, Denzel Perryman and Sean Spence, has become the latest spotlight position. Not to say the groups is without talent or depth, (Corey Flagg is an up-and-coming player, Sam Brooks is a talented player while Deshaun Troutman and Chase Smith give hope for the future) there isn’t a player we can point to and say, “This is a sure-fire NFL player, or a sure fire All ACC player”.
For those that think this to be overly critical, here is a telling fact:
From 1990 until 2019, the Miami Hurricanes have had at least one player on roster that held at least one season with 70 plus tackles.
Not 140. Not 100. Not even 80 tackles. Seventy.
The highest tackle total on the roster by a linebacker is 53 by Gilbert Frierson last year out of the striker position. Fifty. Three.
How does a school with a linebacker history richer than Jeff Bezos become so drained of accomplished linebackers so quickly? It’s no simple answer. Quite a few variables have brought Miami to a place it hasn’t been since Chuck D and Public Enemy were Fighting the Power. Let's take a look.
The Failed Experiment
Too much confidence in one area can create a lack of attention in another. When Manny Diaz deployed three freshmen linebackers at the position in 2016, the buzz was fervent that a new and present Bermuda Triangle had been established. Shaq, Quarterman and Zack McCloud were a heralded and much desire influx of thump and pedigree into the position. With all three starting nearly every game in 2016, the Hurricanes coaching staff saw a unique opportunity to experiment with the linebacker position. Knowing that they had (or they thought) at the time three, four-year starters, the staff backed off heavily recruiting the position, allowing their efforts recruiting the spot to leak late into each season, only to center on athletes at defensive end, safety and edge rusher to fill out their classes. What they were left with severely hindered the future of the position.
2017 saw them take the only inside linebacker they would get until 2020, when the undersized Waynmon Steed was there top backer recruit. An athletic leader from Miami Central, Steed was the best all-around linebacker they have gotten on campus since the 2016 trio. His blend of speed, IQ and experience in the middle of the field was a great mix, but could never stay on the field long enough to see it blend together.
Every other player aside from Steed until 2020 was either an edge rusher with no true linebacker experience or a safety bulked up to play the striker position.
Patrick Joyner, De’Andre Wilder, Bradley Jennings Sam Brooks were all hand in the dirt playmakers who featured “get to the quarterback” styles that put nearly zero premium on the intricacies of linebacker like diagnosis, open field tackling and gap management. Joyner recently transferred, Jennings has been below replacement level as a starter, Brooks has struggle with health and Wilder medically retired.
Avery Huff, Keontra Smith, Romeo Finley, Derrick Smith and Gilbert Frierson make up the groups half that played nearly exclusively in a back pedal from the line. While the journey is out on Huff and Smith, the latter showing ability to play in the box, the other three lacked the desire to get dirty, shed tackles and wrap up in the open field, ultimately playing a bulked up strong safety roll that plays poorly against teams that can feature the run or play multiple receivers. While Finley was adequate to serviceable, Frierson has flashed and Smith transferred, despite promising camps.
What’s missing from these players?
Extensive linebacking experience. Or even consistent linebacking experience.
Not Asking for a Ray, But Would Like At Least a Spence
While defenders (are there any?) of the linebacker position may take offense to the general posture of disdain towards the current group, the most recent history at the position tells us that simply having actual linebackers would change this defense tremendously. From 2003 to 2019, the Hurricanes experience a steady stream of consistent performers at the position that weren’t athletic freaks or all first round talents or sack masters (well except Jon Beason). Names like Tavares Gooden, Sean Spence, Colin McCarthy, Darryl Sharpton and Denzel Perryman were the standard. None would be confused for a hall of famer like Ray or a physical specimen like an Isaiah Simmons, but the all had one thing in common, they knew how to play linebacker. Sean Spence was very similar to Waynmon Steed in stature and physicality, but was able to man the position due to his comfort with physicality and ability to stay on the field. Colin McCarthy was an above average athlete like a Sam Brooks, but it was his experience diagnosing plays and playing sideline to sideline, that allowed him to rack up over 305 tackles in 42 starts. Even a Jermaine Grace, who may have been the most athletically gifted linebacker of the current centuries Hurricane linebackers, was able to utilize that athleticism at the position because he wasn’t learning on the job like former safety Avery Huff.
The experiment of trying to feature strictly athletes at the position over those that can play the position best even in spite of athletic shortcomings was a resounding failure. Thankfully, the last two cycles of linebacker recruits seem to feature that approach. In 2020 the staff was able to attract the most decorated linebacker from arguably the best high school (North Shore) in one of the best high school football states. Corey Flagg showed to be a revelation at times, with flashes of diagnosis and navigating traffic, stealing time as a freshman. Despite his size and perceived limitations athletically, the simple fact of his experience at the position allowed him to jump multiple, more gifted players on the depth chart. Deshaun Troutman, another high motor linebacker on the shorter side, plays much larger than his measurements, often jumping off the film as a dynamic and nasty linebacker who loves violence and can see the field with great vision. Even the commitment of Tirek Austin Cave, an inside linebacker from New Jersey, signals that the staff began to realize the error of their ways in supplementing with too many projects.
Not Everyone Is Cut Out For Violence
The quote above means a few different things. Not only does your level aggression and passion supersede your stature, but not everyone will be made for difficult jobs, no matter how tough you LOOK. That includes being able to be physical and violent play after play after play. As players get weeded out from the linebacker position from optimist to high school, transitioning full time to defensive end, safety or an offensive position, the toughest and most physically apt to play the position are left, leaving a tough minded, high IQ and high motor that can stay on the field. It has been the latter that has been a silent bugaboo for the linebacker depth chart at Miami. The aforementioned Waynmon Steed saw his first true action at linebacker following 4 seasons of injuries, mostly attributed to ACL surgeries, at Miami. Bradley Jennings was thrust into a starting role after missing all of 2019 to injury and two injury laded seasons in 2017 and 2018. Patrick Joyner, prior to transferring this offseason, is another linebacker to miss almost an entire season in 2019 due to a groin injury. Sam Brooks, currently our most gifted linebacker, has battled turf toe and knee injuries over the last two seasons, limiting his production and eating away at the hype which followed him from Miami Northwestern. Most tragically, is De’Andre Wilder, who unfortunately had to retire due to a severe neck injury.
While injuries are a part of the game, one spot that begs the most of its participants is linebacker. Second only to running back, linebackers must be able to absorb blow after blow without missing substantial time at the position in order to contribute to a successful linebacking core. As fellow writer and Slam Radio host Mike McCoy remined me recently, your the most important ability, is Availability. While it may be unfair to say that a linebacker can’t get injured, there is something to be said about one's pain tolerance or proclivity for health. There truly are those that can withstand the position than others, and those others are best served at other positions.
So, Whats Next?
How have the Hurricanes begun addressing the linebacker situation? How can they continue to focus here in the future? As it stands recently, recruiting has clearly shifted to refocusing on inside linebacker types that put a premium on diagnosing play, toughness and tackling. Corey Flagg and Austin-Cave are two examples. Even more recently, the Hurricanes have added another true ILB in Troutman, alongside a development prospect who already has a great football mind in Chase Smith, and may look to utilize a player like James Williams everywhere on the field, especially in the front 7.
To supplement the here and now it has been a poorly hidden secret that Miami is looking to bridge the current group to the future with a transfer. While players like Henry To’oto’o, Juwan Mitchell, Palaie Gaoteote and Dmitri Moore have been in contact with the staff, a decision has yet to be finalized.
Looking ahead, the Hurricanes are setting themselves up well to land their highest ranked linebacker since Shaq in Wesley Bissainthe, who has been getting the full court press from Diaz himself for nearly two years, and who received the red carpet at this week BBQ event on campus. The Canes would love to add a player like Omar Graham as well as a DeMario Tolan, players with that trending experience at the linebacker position.
Overall, it seems as though the failures of recent recruiting has Diaz and staff adhering to the K.I.S.S. approach - Keep It Simple Stupid - and simply recruiting linebackers, to, play, linebacker.
What a novel approach.