Michael Pinckney equated Georgia Tech’s rushing attack, notorious for bamboozling inexperienced linebackers like a Las Vegas magic trick, to a scheme he faced in high school.
“It’s really the same type of offense,” he said. “They just run it a little more efficiently. If you stop close to four or five plays, you’ve really taken half their playbook.”
Simple enough, right?
That’s a taste of the easy confidence Pinckney and his fellow freshmen Shaq Quarterman and Zach McCloud have shown so far — all in their own unique ways. It’s helping the Hurricanes dominate, despite the fact they have never fielded a starting linebacker unit so inexperienced.
Miami (3-0), ranked 14th nationally heading into Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech (noon, ESPN2), is ranked in the top 20 of a slew of defensive stat categories, including points allowed, yards per play and tackles for loss (all first in the country). Are they as really good as the numbers show? Are those stats inflated because they haven’t played a Power Five team yet?
“What you think?” Pinckney said, his brow furrowed and voice sharpened.
I’d prefer to know what you think, a reporter replied.
“You know what I think,” Pinckney said. “We still have a ways to prove it, but I feel like we have the right caliber of the people in the right places.”
Said Quarterman: “Numbers don’t lie. Film doesn’t lie for a second.”
And McCloud: “If we keep that effort up and play to that standard, we should be No. 1. The numbers should stay up there where they are.”
Georgia Tech is a step up from Appalachian State in quality, and in scheme presents a challenge like few others. The level of talent fielded by Miami’s next five opponents after that — Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh — is greater still. Keeping the focus immediate, Quarterman doesn’t see a challenge they can’t overcome.
“It’s a tad bit of an adjustment, but you can defeat this offense by playing fast,” he said. “They’re not really good at moving up front, so any time we have the opportunity to play fast and we do so, we’re going to create havoc.”
They’ll be on the offensive against Georgia Tech, which uses cut-blocking in its triple-option attack. “They’re trying to take you out, so we’ve got to do the same thing to them,” Pinckney said. The Yellow Jackets (3-1, 1-1 ACC) rank 48th in yards per carry, but have a history of fatiguing opponents with by controlling the ball — they did so for 40 minutes against Miami in a 2014 win — and confusing them with misdirection plays. Their quarterback, fifth-year senior Justin Thomas, is well-versed in coach Paul Johnson‘s method.
“This team, they’re good if you let them be good,” Pinckney said. “They do some things well, and some things bad. We’ve just got to capitalize on the bad and the good.”
It’s natural for freshmen to make mistakes — Pinckney admitted they do “all the time” — and in coming weeks they will contend with larger, more physical blockers, and faster, more powerful running backs.
So far? Their coaches see a lot more good than bad.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who also coaches linebackers, said Pinckney (6-1, 220) “understands where he fits in the scheme and doesn’t over-complicate things and trusts his reads and goes. And he can go.” Quarterman (6-1, 240), the first middle linebacker to start for Miami since Dan Morgan in 1998, is “physical at the point of attack, physical taking on blocks, physical tackling.” The hard-hitting McCloud (6-2, 230) is steadily earning trust, though his workload doesn’t yet match his every-down classmates.
“They don’t all play their best in every game,” Diaz said. “They’re learning the grind of college football and not feeling 100 percent, having to learn how to play when your shoulder is sore. They’re coming to terms with that. Will they play fast? The answer to this point has been yes.”
Since enrolling in January and settling in the same dorm room, the trio has done mostly everything together. Even interviews.
“These are my brothers,” Quarterman said.
Pinckey: “We live together.”
Quarterman: “Wake each other up in the morning.”
Pinckney: “About the only thing we don’t do is go to class together.”
Quarterman, the brainier one who scores well in science and English: “That’s probably a good thing.”
He and Pinckney, both Jacksonville natives, committed to Miami when they were sophomores in high school and watched each other’s games. The next year they met McCloud, from Santaluces High.
“Zach was really quiet at first,” Quarterman said.
“I didn’t know how I felt about Mike,” McCloud joked. “Sketchy character.”
They vetted one other during Miami’s conditioning program in February. “Dragging each other back to the room,” Quarterman said, “I think that’s when we really gelled.”
Pinckney is the most talkative and posts the most on social media. He also goes to bed latest and rises the earliest. Quarterman, he said, “is a schedule-type of dude. His schedule’s kind of on-the-dot. Him,” he said, gesturing to McCloud, “You never know with Zach.”
McCloud, Quarterman explained, has the benefit of riding his bike to class, “so he can beat us even if we’re walking 20 minutes early.”
“I like to spend my time where I’m at,” McCloud shrugged. “I don’t like to spent my time in between.”
After advancing so quickly, they believe they can become stars, not just starters.
“A family that goes through things together, grows together,” Quarterman said. “It’s as simple as that. We got here together. Work out together. We were punished together sometimes. We were praised together sometimes.”
Said McCloud: “It’s nice to see the progression. We’re all making leaps and bounds towards where we want to be. We started at the same spot pretty much and we’re all climbing the ladder together.”
Pinckney, as he often does, had a quick one-liner:
“The challenges are getting harder, and we’re getting smarter.”