Penn State has always laid claim to the moniker "Linebacker U," but the Miami Hurricanes spent the past three decades effectively wrestling away that title.
The linebacker list at UM is now long and distinguished. Micheal Barrow, Darrin Smith and Jessie Armstead made their mark in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In their wake, Ray Lewis carried the torch and began building his incredible football legacy.
Dan Morgan, Jon Vilma and D.J. Williams were the next generation, helping put Miami back on the map after probation crippled the program. From there, Jon Beason, Rocky McIntosh, Leon Williams and Sean Spence are more recent names that kept the proud tradition brewing.
Next on that storied list, junior linebacker Denzel Perryman.
Similar to Lewis, Perryman sports No. 52. Like Vilma, he played his high school football at nearby Coral Gables High and was thrust into the spotlight as a freshman at Miami in 2010. Comparable to all the above, Perryman has a nose for the football and is a fierce hitter.
The accolades piled up year one—Newcomer of the Year, freshman All-America first team—as Perryman played in all 12 games, started five and finished first among ACC freshmen with 64 tackles and 45 solo stops. Injuries plagued Perryman last season, though the sophomore still earned ACC honorable mention despite Miami's defense being one of the worst in the nation.
Like past Hurricane greats, Perryman chose to take out his frustration in the weight room during the offseason. The result: an 11-pound weight gain, pushing the 6-footer to the 240-pound range by kickoff late August.
After dropping a surefire pick-six against Florida Atlantic in the opener, Perryman made a statement in Miami's 21-16 upset of No. 12 Florida. Besides a game-high 13 tackles, the strong-side linebacker stole early momentum for the Hurricanes.
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Gators were moving the ball at will—32 yards over eight plays before Perryman decided enough was enough. Facing a 2nd-and-11 from the Miami 44-yard line, Florida running back Matt Jones broke right and was popped by Perryman, the ball sailing six yards back and recovered by Hurricanes defensive tackle Curtis Porter midfield.
Nine plays later, Miami found the end zone first, up 7-0 halfway through the opening quarter, and the Hurricanes rode defensive momentum to a hard-fought victory.
Defense has always been a Miami staple, and Perryman is following the lead of past Hurricanes greats, stepping up and providing game-changing moments throughout his career.
Barrow is currently UM's linebacker coach, but his signature playing took place in 1992 when No. 2 Miami welcomed No. 3 Florida State to the Orange Bowl. Barrow tattooed Seminoles wide receiver Tamarick Vanover, sending the hometown crowd into a frenzy and raising the bar in what was already a defensive battle.
Miami prevailed 19-16 when a Florida State field-goal attempt went "wide right" for the second straight season, but Barrow's hit on Vanover absolutely set a tone and upped the ante.
For Lewis, his signature moment came in his first start at Miami in September 1993. A road game at Colorado the third week of the season ended with a 17-tackle performance from the true freshman, including one sack and three pass breakups. Lewis was named ABC-TV Player of the Game in the 35-29 victory over the Buffaloes, and the legend grew from that moment on.
Vilma was a sophomore when Miami beat Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl, en route to the program's fifth national championship, yet found a way to leave his mark on a classic game. Up 37-14 in the final minutes, Vilma steamrolled wide receiver Ben Zajicek on a reverse, moments after No. 51 delivered a jaw-dropping special teams hit.
Perryman has been laying the lumber since his freshman season, but he exploded onto the scene in 2012 at Boston College. Miami was down 14-0 early but had pulled to within a touchdown when the then-sophomore showed his athleticism, jumped in front of a Chase Rettig pass and returned it for the touchdown, tying the game.
Two games into a new season, Perryman has 19 tackles, with 14 solo stops, and was named co-ACC Player of the Week and ACC Linebacker of the Week after the upset of Florida and for Miami, Perryman's dominance must continue.
Savannah State isn't expected to provide much of a challenge this weekend, nor should a road trip to South Florida on September 28, but things tighten up from there. Miami kicks off ACC season on October 5 when Georgia Tech treks south. Quarterback Vad Lee has thrown for 314 yards and six touchdowns in two games, adding another dimension to the once-one-dimensional Yellow Jackets offense.
From there, Miami gets a 12 day break before trekking to North Carolina for an oft-quirky ESPN Thursday night showdown. The Tar Heels have taken four of the past six from the Hurricanes, which should serve as reminder that there are few gimmies for UM in the ACC.
If Perryman and Miami can find a way to survive those challenges, the only remaining challenge in the way of an undefeated road trip—and possible Top 10 ranking—heading into Florida State (November 2) is a home showdown against Wake Forest (October 26).
Offense was the name of the game for Miami last season, but if the Hurricanes have aspirations of again being a contender, it all starts on the defensive side of the ball. UM still sports a lot of defensive youth, but if the up-and-comers can follow the example and leadership of a current-great like Perryman, the future will soon be bright for Al Golden's squad.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog