CORAL GABLES — After arriving on Miami’s campus last January, Michael Pinckney went to the practice field alone and sprinted. On the fence surrounding the field is a scroll of images, 72 in all, of the program’s first-team All-Americans. Pinckney focused on one of them.
He ran up and down the field. Each time he passed Ray Lewis, the greatest of all Hurricanes linebackers, scowling and prowling in his No. 52 jersey. He repeated the same phrase.
“I’m better than you.”
It sounds crazy, Pinckney acknowledged this week, and more than a little cocky. At that point, Pinckney hadn’t participated in a college practice, and there he was talking smack, in a sense, to one of the game’s best.
“I feel like, man, you’ve got to say things like that, even if you know you’re not yet,” Pinckney told The Post. “Somebody you grew up watching, you’ve got to be like, ‘I’m going to be better than you,’ and I’ve got the chance to do it. I’ve just got to fight to do it.”
His mantra pushed him to run harder, which helped him win a starting job as a true freshman, which helped Miami’s defense rise from the ashes. With Shaq Quarterman in the middle, and Pinckney on the weak side opposite Zach McCloud, the Hurricanes started three true freshmen linebackers for the first time in their 90-year history. Dozens of longtime college football observers surveyed by The Post couldn’t remember another instance of it happening – any program, any time.
Quarterman and Pinckney met as high-schoolers in Jacksonville, and bonded with Santaluces High alum McCloud on the recruiting trail. They enrolled together last January and earned first-string roles by Miami’s season-opener. They had opportunity because of injuries and attrition, but quickly proved themselves worthy. As a unit, they started 12 of 13 games.
Now, with four starting defensive backs graduating, Miami will rely on them more.
“It’s still hard to tell a guy who’s only been on your campus for a year, ‘It’s your time to lead,’” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz told The Post this week. “The reality is, that’s where we’re at. All that being said, our job is still to create a competition. We try to explain to them that they were the best we had in 2016, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best we have in 2017. Everything wipes clean.”
Diaz expects greater contributions from Darrion Owens, a senior who spent last year recovering from a devastating 2015 knee injury, and redshirt sophomore Jamie Gordinier (ACL tear in the 2016 opener). He also signed a talented class that includes speedy De’Andre Wilder, instinctive Waynmon Steed and big hitter Bradley Jennings Jr.
But Diaz, a Miami native who grew up a diehard Canes fan, knows he has three who come from the “Bermuda Triangle” lineage of Micheal Barrow, Jesse Armstead and Darrin Smith.
Stats aren’t always a measure of a linebacker’s effectiveness, but Quarterman was third among ACC freshmen in tackles (84) and had more tackles for loss (10.0) than any first-year ACC linebacker since Boston College’s Luke Kuechly (13.0) in 2009. He also had a team-high eight quarterback hurries and three sacks. Pinckney (61 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and McCloud (37 tackles, 3.5 for loss, blocked punt) made their share of highlight-reel plays.
With those newcomers logging heavy time, Miami rose from 106th in tackles for loss to fifth, 115th in yards per play allowed to 17th, 86th in yards per play allowed to ninth and 77th in points allowed to 12th.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to do the numbers we did, for the defense to flip from one side of the spectrum to the other,” Quarterman, who was named to multiple freshman All-America teams, told The Post. “Seeing that made us all realize, we can really do this. We realize we can be among the top [defenses], if we’re not already in some people’s eyes. With our whole front seven coming back, it’s going to be dangerous.”
Pinckney, who made ESPN’s freshman All-America list, said Miami can “dominate. We know the scheme. We’ve been in it a year. We know the coaches. We’re used to the guys. We’re pushing for the ACC championship. That’s the first goal. Then the national.”
“We’re excited about the challenges to come,” McCloud, who registered six tackles (two for loss) and a pass break-up in Miami’s 31-14 win over No. 16 West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, told The Post. “We’re as ready as we could ever be.”
They learned last year a college season is long and arduous. Quarterman played 82 percent of Miami’s defensive plays, resting mostly in blowout situations. Pinckney (72 percent) wasn’t far behind. McCloud (54 percent) subbed out in UM’s five- and six-defensive back sets.
“They’re finding out greatness comes from being consistently good,” Diaz said. “It’s not just the spectacular. It’s being where you’re supposed to be down after down. The good thing about all three, we know they’ll hit, we know they’ll strike. … They played fast and physical.”
And they’re tough. Pinckney fought hamstring, ankle and shoulder issues and a broken hand. McCloud had shoulder trouble dating to high school, and wore in a heavy brace after hyperextending his elbow Oct. 1. Quarterman tore the labrum in his shoulder Oct. 8 against Florida State. In the next game, he played 86 of 89 snaps – the third-highest count of any Hurricane last year.
“The thing I was most proud of, they never looked out of their element,” Diaz said. “The assignment aspect of the game they were able to handle very well, which speaks to who they are, their mental makeup. There are certainly parts with all three of them where you can see the physically wore down. They know that now. Now they understand what they’re lifting weights for now” — conditioning for a 12-game season — “instead of arbitrarily trying to get bigger.”
Eyes still on the fence
Quarterman (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) said he wants to increase his flexibility, to make a greater range of plays, and better his pass coverage. Pinckney (6-1, 220) noted his consistency needs work – and after he was barred from doing interviews last year, he plans to tone down his ebullience. “I’ll give them a mild version,” he said. McCloud (6-2, 230) said his tackling can improve.
As Miami heads toward spring practice in mid-March, they’ll be driven by thoughts of Lewis and Jonathan Vilma, of Dan Morgan and Jon Beason and the Bermuda Triangle. They’ll compete with each other, as did roommates Quarterman and Pinckney in their freshman-dorm push-up and sit-up competitions. McCloud was across the hall. Pinckney has since moved off campus.
They’ll have no problem finding ways to get the juices flowing.
“The fact I have so many doubters,” Quarterman said. “The fact I’m not regarded as the best linebacker right now. That’s what drives me. Seeing somebody else’s name above there, even with the freshman All-American status. This year I’m trying to be the best regardless of age.”
All three feel that way, which is one reason they didn’t change their jersey numbers. McCloud wants to be the best No. 53 to ever play at Miami. As much as he respects Barrow, Pinckney – who acquired a “SAVAGE 56” forearm tattoo last October – wants to “make it my own.” Quarterman wants his number to conjure one player, as do Nos. 52 (Lewis), 51 (Vilma), 44 (Morgan) and 2 (Beason).
“I’m trying to put No. 55 up there next to them,” he said.
The faces on the fence, the ghosts of greatness, will be watching.
“I want these guys to redefine how recruits look at a defender who plays for the University of Miami,” Diaz said. “I want recruits to come here and say, ‘Wow, that’s him. I want to be like that guy.’”