Linebackers Zach McCloud, Michael Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman not playing like freshmen for Miami Hurricanes

Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman (55) with Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz during opening day of Miami Hurricanes football practice in Coral Gables on Thursday, August 4, 2016.
Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman (55) with Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz during opening day of Miami Hurricanes football practice in Coral Gables on Thursday, August 4, 2016.

CORAL GABLES — Linebackers Zach McCloud, Michael Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman are listed as true freshmen, but don’t tell them that.

“I mean we aren’t freshmen, really. We’re just players,” Pinckney said Tuesday when asked what it’s like to play next to two other freshman linebackers. “The way we look at it, man, we’re just players out there trying to dominate and trying beat everybody else.”

That attitude has taken the trio a long way in a short time with the Hurricanes as they prepare for only their third-ever collegiate game, a matchup against Appalachian State (noon Saturday, ESPN).

“There’s a term that I heard said, ‘They don’t know that they don’t know,” coach Mark Richt said when discussing the trio.

McCloud (strong side), Pinckney (weak side) and Quarterman (middle) don’t seem to know that this isn’t usually how it goes at UM. They became the first trio of true freshmen ever to start at linebacker in school history when they each logged starts against Florida A&M in the opener, according to incomplete school records.

The trio is making history at a program that they grew up rooting for, too. McCloud — whose father grew up in Carol City — and Pinckney looked up to former Hurricane great Ray Lewis growing up, and Quarterman loved watching former Hurricane linebacker Jon Beason play.

“It was always the plan,” Quarterman said of earning early playing time together. “Before we got here, me, Mike and Zach would always just talk about it to each other and how great it would be for us to be on the field together at the same time. Let’s not just be regular freshmen, let’s go in here and make a splash and make a big bang.”

[Video of Mark Richt’s press conference before Miami Hurricanes face Appalachian State]

[Mark Richt’s plan to cut down Miami Hurricanes penalty problem]

Pinckney and Quarterman also went on to start in the Hurricanes’ second game of the season against Florida Atlantic on Saturday. McCloud did not start, but the Santaluces grad did get on the field for 26 snaps in Miami’s 38-10 win over FAU.

The Hurricanes have used Pinckney and Quarterman more than McCloud, as the team has lined up in a dime (3-2-6) or nickel (4-2-5) defense with just two linebackers on the field 63 percent of the time through two games. The two linebackers Miami usually turns to is Pinckney and Quarterman.

“Coach (Manny) Diaz told us that if he’s going to start us this year, we can’t be no freshmen mentally,” Pinckney said. “We can’t make freshman mistakes because that’s going to show up in the Florida State game and the Notre Dame game. We just got to come out and dominate. We can’t be no freshmen mentally.”

So far, so good.

Pinckney leads the team with 10 tackles, Quarterman is not far behind with 8.5 tackles, and McCloud has totaled four tackles through two games. The trio has combined to make 5.5 tackles for loss.

“They’re fantastic,” Hurricanes left guard Kc McDermott said. “They’re great linebackers. I played against Zach in high school and he’s just a maniac, but so is Shaq and so is Pinckney. What’s great about those guys is that not only are they tough, not only are they strong, not only are they fast, they’re smart too. It’s hard to pick up a college system defense as fast as they have.”

The freshmen have earned most of their playing time, but part of their fast rise to the top of the depth chart was a product of circumstances.

UM dismissed senior Jermaine Grace, who was projected to be the starting strong-side linebacker, just days before the start of the season after it determined he and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad committed NCAA violations when they dealt with a luxury rental car agency in Miami Beach. UM also dismissed junior linebacker Juwon Young, a key reserve, in July as part of the same reason.

If that wasn’t enough, redshirt freshman linebacker Jamie Gordinier suffered a season-ending knee injury against Florida A&M in the opener to force the freshmen to play even more snaps.

McCloud, Pinckney and Quarterman each enrolled in January, which helped put them on an even playing field with the rest of Miami’s defense. With a new coaching staff and a new scheme installed this past spring, the early enrollees learned the defense at the same time the veterans did.

“Not that many times have three freshmen started. That’s just unusual as it is,” Richt said. “I’ve been saying it all along, they have been here since spring and that helped them a lot. New defensive staff, new terminology for everybody, so they heard it as much as any veteran person we have on our defense.”

But the three haven’t just accomplished a lot on the field in their short time at UM, they’ve also built something else off the field since they arrived to Coral Gables. The trio of linebackers have built a close bond as roommates.

McCloud, Pinckney and Quarterman share a dorm suite at the Mahoney Residential College. They study the playbook together, they leave for practice together and they return from practice together.

“It helps because we have a bond together,” McCloud said of living with Pinckney and Quarterman. “We all can help each other out with certain things. I know when they’re getting on me, it’s just out of love. We all got that love for each other and we all want to see each other do well.”

Now, the trio will face a different challenge on Saturday. The freshmen will play in their first road game on national television against Appalachian State.

But that “they don’t know that they don’t know” attitude is already in effect.

“I think it’s on ESPN, right? It’s on ESPN,” Pinckney said after getting confirmation. “I mean it’s a televised game. It’s no different to us. We’re going to do our job and come out victorious.”

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