Miami has been “Quarterback U”, “Running Back U”, “Receiver U”, “D-Line U”, “Defensive Back U” – suffice it to say that the Hurricanes have produced more than their fair share of great football players.READ MORE: Florida Lawmakers Face Challenges As 60-Day Session Begins
That’s why “The U” moniker fits so well.
But the linebacker lineage in Coral Gables – traceable through players like Ray Lewis, Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason, D.J. Williams, Dan Morgan, and Ted Hendricks – is strong too.
That’s why spirits were high when UM added three young thumpers in its 2016 signing class – Zach McCloud, Michael Pinckney and Shaq Quarterman, all of which being spring early enrollees.
Now, with 10 practices under their belts, the young trio has gotten the attention of coaches and has even worked their way into the mix of competing with the starting defense.
“They’re all mature beyond their years,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said of the three freshman linebackers.
“They’ve come in and have not been daunted by being on the field with guys three or four years older than them. You imagine it; they should be in English 12 right now reading The Great Gatsby or something.”
“They were very well-coached in high school. You can see that because there are some fundamentals that they came in with that has helped them with the transition. And they’re all physically what you want at linebacker…they all can run, hit and they all show good toughness.”
“It is a major blessing for our program, not only that they are here but that they enrolled early,” Diaz said.
Of Miami’s 19 signees, five graduated high school early and enrolled in college during the spring semester. An option that’s becoming more popular among football players, enrolling early allows the athletes to participate in spring practice and get a semester of classes under their belts.
Quarterback Jack Allison and defensive end Patrick Bethel were the other two true freshmen that are already in Coral Gables mixing it up.
McCloud, who came in from Santaluces High School, said coming in early has gotten his collegiate career off to a good start.
“When you come in late, you have to worry about getting in the playbook on top of getting ready for an opponent – on top of going to class,” McCloud said. “But by [enrolling early], I’m learning the playbook, but I’m facing my own teammates. It’s a long period of practices for me to get to know my teammates and it’s better for me to make progress that way.”
Miami held a closed scrimmage this past Saturday and will have one more practice on Thursday before hosting another scrimmage – open to the public – on this coming Saturday (April 9th) at Palm Beach Oxbridge Academy. Also, the Canes will have its official spring game on April 16th at Fort Lauderdale Lockhart Stadium – which is also open to the public.
The leg up that McCloud, Quarterman and Pinckney – along with Bethel and Allison – will have on their freshman comrades that won’t get on campus until the summer or fall is that they will have already gone through the early installation of Mark Richt’s playbook and have gone through it in fast-motion.
Richt said that the young players have found success in the spring because they’re on the same level as the rest of the team.
“The thing that has given them an advantage is that everybody’s learning,” Richt said.
“Usually, let’s say I’ve been here for three years and I’ve got five [early enrollees]. Then, I’m installing at a veteran pace – I’m going – and I’m not waiting for the [early enrollees] to figure it out. But because we’re installing at ‘first-day’ pace for everybody – then they got it at a pace that’s better for them.”READ MORE: Small Plane Makes Emergency Landing In West Kendall; US Coast Guard Searches For Missing Plane Off Boca Raton
Learning The Ropes
The slower pace of the install and just natural ability has Quarterman and Pinckney moving up through the ranks already.
Pinckney, who said he’s gained 15 pounds since he arrived on campus from Jacksonville Raines High School and is currently playing at 220 pounds, confirmed that he’s working mostly with the first-team defense at “will” – weakside – outside linebacker while competing with other outside linebackers Juwon Young and Mike Smith.
Pinckney said that he’s picked up coach Diaz’s scheme fairly quickly.
“I was comfortable from the start,” Pinckney said. “The scheme is not that hard. We don’t have too many assignments. It’s really a ‘you see and go get it’ type of defense and that’s what I like. I know my job, I know my assignment – I just try to execute it to the best of my ability.”
McCloud added: “I’ve never played in a system where it was so complicated and everything was ‘read, read’ read’. Playing fast is all I know. And that’s what coach Diaz’s scheme is: after you get that one or two reads, just go after it – that’s my preferred method of playing. Everything is up to you to make a play.”
Coming out of this past Saturday’s scrimmage, Richt said that it was Pinckney and Quarterman that made two of the days’ biggest defensive plays.
“They made the top plays in the scrimmage,” Richt recalled. “When Quarterman stuck his hat on the ball and forced a fumble that turned into a ‘scoop and score’ touchdown. It was textbook in what he did on that play,” Richt said.
“On the other, we had an all-out blitz on and Pinckney was blitzing and the offense threw a screen pass – and that thing was going to go a long, long way. Then [Pinckney] turns and runs like a mad man and he clips the heels of the back and stops him short of a first down and forces a punt.”
“Plays like that can end up winning a game,” Richt said.
Still, nothing is written in stone. The depth chart is ways away from being set.
The young guys still have to continue to prove themselves – something that Diaz has preached to the entire linebacker group.
“He’s told us ‘you have to be good enough to play here’,” McCloud said. “There’s a reputation…there’s a family…there’s a whole wall full of legendary linebackers that came out of this school and if you want to be one of them you have to match up with them. And that comes with hard work and being relentless.”
Coaches and players confirmed that senior Jermaine Grace remains a constant, as he’s worked a majority of the time with the No. 1 defense at strong side linebacker.
Quarterman said that Grace, himself and Pinckney were the three starting linebackers during this past Saturday’s scrimmage – with Quarterman playing “mike” inside linebacker.
“It’s special to be working with the ones,” Quarterman said. “But I can’t get complacent at all. At any time the depth chart can change, nothing is written in stone right now.”
“I think I’m taking charge,” Quarterman said. “As the [middle linebacker] I have to be able to make calls…the [middle linebacker] is like the quarterback of the defense. So whenever the defensive front lines up wrong, that’s on me. So I make a strong effort to correct that so that I give us the best chance to be ready for the play.”
Earlier in the spring, redshirt freshman linebacker Jamie Gordinier confirmed that he spent time working with the first-team defense.MORE NEWS: COVID In Florida: 5,459 Additional Cases, 118 Deaths Reported Saturday
“It’s very competitive. We’re all learning a new defense, so everyone – older guys and younger guys – has a clean slate. Everyone’s competing with one another in a positive way.”