Miami Football: Why Linebacker Is the Position to Watch During Spring Practice

Chris Bello@christianrbelloContributor IFebruary 21, 2014

Miami linebacker Raphael Kirby is primed for a breakout junior season for the Canes in 2014.
Miami linebacker Raphael Kirby is primed for a breakout junior season for the Canes in 2014.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

While a quarterback battle and eight new additions to the defensive line will make headlines for the Miami Hurricanes this spring, competition at linebacker could very well wind up the offseason's biggest story.

Ryan Williams has the inside track on Kevin Olsen and a new crop of freshmen, all batting it out for the job under center. Meanwhile, a handful of line departures all but ensure a lot of new blood up front on defense.

The Hurricanes' linebacking corps will be anchored by Denzel Perryman, who recently opted to return for his senior season. Outside of the talented upperclassmen, the rotation remains wide-open.

Big things are expected out of junior Raphael Kirby. The coveted inside linebacker was one of the best in the nation when signing with Miami in 2012. Relegated mostly to special teams the past two seasons, Kirby has seen action in 17 games and has 26 total tackles. A breakout seems due. 

Also in the mix, sophomores Jermaine Grace and Alex Figueroa—two solid pickups last year, yet broken in slowly—especially after Figueroa had his shoulder dinged up. Both served in backup roles but will move up the depth chart due to graduates moving on.

The losses of Jimmy Gaines and Tyrone Cornelius should most likely result in an addition-by-subtraction situation for the Hurricanes. Veterans with a two-year understanding of Al Golden's defense, experience seemingly outweighed athleticism, as both got the nod over over highly touted true freshmen.

Miami coaches won't have that luxury next season, meaning that the more physically talented Grace and Figueroa will have to learn on the fly. There is no Plan B.

The same is to be said for a handful of newbies. Early enrollees Juwon Young and Darrion Owens are already in the mix, while Mike Smith and Terry McCray are on their way. Based on numbers, all four will get their shot come fall.

Ray Lewis was starting early in his freshman year (1993) and went on to dominate the sport for two decades.
Ray Lewis was starting early in his freshman year (1993) and went on to dominate the sport for two decades.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Whatever the lineup, Miami needs a trio of speedy, athletic, hard-hitting linebackers—a staple of all great Hurricanes squads.

"The Bermuda Triangle" still sits atop that list. Micheal Barrow, Jessie Armstead and Darrin Smith—who all went on to NFL success—overlapping during a four-year span where Miami went 44-4, played for three national championships and came away with two.

As soon as the three departed, Ray Lewis showed up, starting as a freshman and never looking back. 

Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams were on board for a 46-4 run, four straight BCS berths, back-to-back title-game appearances and one crystal trophy. Dan Morgan helped pave the way, a senior when both were freshmen, setting a tone at the turn of the millennium.

Miami hasn't been able to reload at the position since. Very solid linebackers here or there—be it a Jon Beason, Rocky McIntosh or Sean Spence. Still, the result has been more misses than hits—never a proper trio coming together.  

A pair of top prospects in Willie Williams and Arthur Brown went bust for the Hurricanes. Williams, a big-time risk crashed and burned, while Brown transferred and found his groove back home at Kansas State.

Another setback for Miami's middle last spring was when Golden sent Eddie Johnson, Gionni Paul and Gabe Terry packing within a matter of weeks—mostly for off-the-field mishaps.

With Golden's third true class on board at Miami, the depth is returning—as is the type of athlete who fits in his 3-4/4-3 defense—something the former Temple head coach hopes will translate down south.

Alex Figueroa got after it early as a freshman last year but was nagged with late-season injuries.
Alex Figueroa got after it early as a freshman last year but was nagged with late-season injuries.Alan Diaz/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Hurricanes are recruiting taller linebackers, as well as hybrid-type ends who can play outside, putting a defense on the field a bit different than what Miami's been known for utilizing. 

Tyriq McCord was the first in that mold, signed two years back. Last February it was Al-Quadin Muhammad. Weeks back, homegrown Booker T. Washington teammates Chad Thomas and Demetrius Jackson signed on, as well as the already-on-campus Owens.

Four seasons in, expectations are on the rise in Coral Gables—especially in the wake of an NCAA investigation coming to an end and Golden's flirtation with Penn State following soon thereafter.

The combination of both has since boiled over into a put-up-or-shut-up situation for a head coach sticking to his guns. (Golden drew some offseason ire when no coaching staff changes were made—even with a 2-4 after 7-0 out the gate.)

Success at linebacker will go a long way in a maligned Hurricanes defense taking a giant step forward. It will also help solve the lack-of-talent-and-depth versus coaching-staff's-ineffective-scheme debate.

By mid-fall, that once-unanswerable question will be proven fact. There's no more in-between.


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