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Miami Football: What Happened to the Hurricanes' Linebacker Corps?

The Miami Hurricanes haven't been loaded at linebacker since Jon Vilma (51) departed after the 2003 season.
The Miami Hurricanes haven't been loaded at linebacker since Jon Vilma (51) departed after the 2003 season.TONY GUTIERREZ/Associated Press
Chris BelloContributor IJanuary 31, 2014

For the better part of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Miami Hurricanes wrestled the title of "Linebacker U" away from Penn State and other powerhouse programs.

UM's success was undeniable, pumping out top-flight talent, game changers and future NFL superstars.

Bernard "Tiger" Clark stepping up and taking MVP honors in the 1988 Orange Bowl as second-stringer. Micheal Barrow, Jessie Armstead and Darrin Smith earning the moniker "The Bermuda Triangle" a few years later, as offensive players would disappear in their respective part of the field.

There was also Ray Lewis blowing up on the scene as a true freshman and a man-child in 1993.

Almost a decade later, it was greats like Dan Morgan, Jon Vilma and DJ Williams carrying the torch, while Jon Beason, Rocky McIntosh and Leon Williams marked the last handful of greats around the time Randy Shannon went from coordinator to head coach.

Upon Shannon, a former UM linebacker himself, taking over those leadership duties in 2007, the backsliding began. Over a six-year span—2006 to 2011—Miami went on to employ five different defensive coordinators.

Tim Walton was in control Shannon's first season as head coach.

The experiment lasted a year before Bill Young took over for a season and headed back to Oklahoma State. John Lovett called the shots for two seasons, but was let go when Shannon's tenure came to a close. Since then, Mark D'Onofrio has been the defensive coordinator on Al Golden's staff, dating back to 2011 and to their Temple years before that. 

With that kind of coaching turnover, player development suffers as philosophies change.

Golden and staff have put a stronger emphasis on conditioning, but prior to that Miami was out of shape and not getting the most out of its players.

The post-Vilma era was also marked with a handful of swings and misses for the Hurricanes.

Willie Williams was supposed to be the next great in 2004, but never reached his potential and left the program soon thereafter. James Bryant pulled into town around the same time and had a similar career trajectory—high hopes with little delivery and a short-lived stint in Coral Gables. 

Arthur Brown was another can't-miss prospect that Miami did nothing with.

The Wichita product was soon back at Kansas State, playing for the Wildcats and making a difference in wins over the Hurricanes in 2011 and 2012.

Besides all the top-flight, sure-fire talent that never went next-level, Miami's most recent struggles have come off the field, resulting in severed ties.

Gionni Paul and the Hurricanes "mutually" parted ways last January after twice being suspended during the 2012 season.

Two months later it was announced that Eddie Johnson was no longer enrolled in classes at "The U" and wasn't on the spring roster. Also suspended a handful of times the previous season, it appeared the coaching staff was moving on and not looking back.

From there, Gabe Terry got the boot in April after being charged with felony marijuana possession.

The trio of young linebackers were making a mark at Miami with promising efforts in 2012.

Paul finished third on the team in tackles as a sophomore, racking up 61 overall and starting in seven of the 10 games he played, while Terry had five tackles in seven games as a freshman and was expected to see more action last season.

The loss of Eddie Johnson (44) and Gionni Paul (36) after 2012 crippled Miami's depth last season.
The loss of Eddie Johnson (44) and Gionni Paul (36) after 2012 crippled Miami's depth last season.Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Johnson proved the biggest blow to a linebacking corps that needed a dose of swagger.

A ball hawk and hard-hitter, the redshirt freshman led Miami with 7.5 tackles for loss in 2012 and finished fourth on the team with 59 stops in 10 games—eight of which he started.

The short-lived Paul-Terry-Johnson era came on the heels of a 2011 season where linebacker Travis Williams and Kevin Nelson were shown the door in spring and veteran Sean Spence graduated months later—all of which added to overall depth woes.

Miami was hoping that there would be a youth movement this past fall, but freshmen like Alex Figueroa and Jermaine Grace weren't ready to step in and take over out of the gate.

Junior Denzel Perryman carried his weight at outside linebacker—while Tyriq McCord saw some quality third-down action—but the rest of the corps was a toss-up week-to-week.

Thurston Armbrister oft held down the other outside spot, while Jimmy Gaines locked down the middle with the highly-touted Raphael Kirby unable to overtake the senior. Tyrone Cornelius also staved off young talent with his experience outweighing their potential upside.

Where a defensive coaching carousel wrecked Miami in years past, depth has been the biggest issue as of late.

The Hurricanes enter the 2014 season with nine capable linebackers, including early enrollees Juwon Young and Darrion Owens—a pair of 3-star products ready to roll up their sleeves and assist in the Hurricanes' rebuild.  

Miami needs junior Raphael Kirby to step up and become a next-level linebacker in 2014.
Miami needs junior Raphael Kirby to step up and become a next-level linebacker in 2014.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The lack of bodies can partly be blamed on a long-running NCAA investigation that pushed top talent away from Coral Gables the past few seasons.

The Hurricanes worked to recruit top talent, but with rivals whispering "death penalty" for two-plus seasons, local superstars like Matthew Thomas chose to take their skills elsewhere.

Outside of Young and Owens, Miami only looks to land 3-star prospect Terry McCray in next week's class, meaning that depth will continue to be an issue for another season. In short, those current Hurricanes on the roster will have to work double-time to make up for the lack of bodies.

Miami did get a boost when Perryman decided weeks back to return for his senior season, but it's going to take tremendous effort from Kirby, Grace, Figueroa and a handful of other underclassmen for the Hurricanes to take a giant step forward this fall.

This coming season at linebacker is all about survival mode on the field for Miami. Off the field, a safe bet this coaching staff goes heavy at the position when recruiting for 2015.

Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.com.

**All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com.

 

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