Youthful Miami Hurricanes enter 2016 starting freshmen at linebacker

Manny Diaz (right), with Shaq Quarterman (AP)

Shaq Quarterman (left) with defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (AP)

Miami hasn’t started a true freshman at middle linebacker since Dan Morgan in 1998, and he earned that distinction in the eighth game of the season. In 1993, Ray Lewis ascended to that role in Week 3.

On Saturday, Shaq Quarterman will open the year as the man in the middle.

When the Hurricanes’ defense first takes the field against Florida A&M (6 p.m., ESPN3.com), Quarterman will be counted on to make calls — despite the fact he played for Orange Park-Oakleaf High last year.

Quarterman, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, is rare for a true freshman. The same applies to weak-side linebacker Michael Pinckney and strong-side linebacker Zach McCloud of Santaluces. Those three, who happen to be roommates, could open the year as the first trio of true freshmen linebackers to start for the Hurricanes.

Yes, ever.

A hour-long dig into Miami’s archives — which are incomplete with regard to depth charts — and other internet sites show no instances in which UM started three true freshmen at linebacker. The NCAA first permitted freshmen to play varsity football in 1972. (We promise to look further into this matter, but at least, it’s doubtful Miami has ever been this young at linebacker.)

On the depth chart Miami released Monday, Quarterman and McCloud are listed as starters. Pinckney, from Jacksonville-Raines High, is listed as a co-starter with another newcomer, redshirt freshman Jamie Gordinier. The latter three could join Sean Spence (2008) and Denzel Perryman (2011), who earned starts in the last decade as freshman outside linebackers.

In 2012, Miami’s preseason depth chart listed Perryman, a sophomore, at middle linebacker, redshirt senior Ramon Buchanan at weak-side linebacker and sophomore Thurston Armbrister and redshirt freshman Eddie Johnson as co-starters at strong-side linebacker. The results were not good: the Hurricanes finished 120th nationally in total defense, and allowed more points, passing yards, rushing yards and first downs than any team in program history. That team played as many as five true freshmen on defense.

Miami’s preseason depth chart lists five freshmen as starters or co-starters, though one plays offense. Wellington High grad Ahmmon Richards, who enrolled in May, is a co-starter at “X” receiver with sophomore Dayall Harris. On offense and defense, Miami lists seven seniors, nine juniors, four sophomores and five freshmen as starters or co-starters. Seven of Miami’s 36 letter-winners available to play Saturday have won three or more letters.

On his debut on Hurricane Hotline, his weekly coaches’ show, Mark Richt said Monday that the change in Miami’s staff set up freshmen for success. “It made everybody a rookie to a certain degree,” Richt said. “If there was ever a good time to be a freshman, it’s this year. They’re learning just like anybody else.”

Miami’s dismissal of defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and linebackers Jermaine Grace and Juwon Young makes it more critical the young linebackers come along. Those three players contributed 26 percent of UM’s tackles for loss last year and 22 percent of its total tackles. Muhammad (8.5 sacks, 5.0 tackles for loss) and Grace (79 tackles) were team-leaders in those categories.

Junior Trent Harris is listed as the starter at Muhammad’s defensive end spot. True freshman Joe Jackson is his backup. Jackson and fellow true freshman Pat Bethel are likely to earn playing time.

Given the inexperience at linebacker — the only third-year players in the two-deep is Darrion Owens, who is recovering from a knee injury — Miami could play more nickel than usual. UM has four seniors and two promising sophomores in its secondary. But defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz said the freshmen have handled the same workload as the older players.

“It’s not like you’re a freshman, so you’re in the shallow end of the pool,” Diaz said. “They have to feel the urgency of, ‘Gosh, these coaches are actually crazy enough to put me in the game and I have to know what to do.'”

 

 

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