Questions still remain for the Miami Hurricanes‘ linebackers. Like the rest of the defense, it is mediocre at best.
The Canes fourth leading tackler Eddie Johnson was suspended in the last game of last season against the Duke Blue Devils for a violation of team rules. He later dropped out of Miami and enrolled at a junior college this spring. That loss, while considerable, appears to be survivable. Miami appears to have the manpower to fill the void.
Freshman Alex Figueroa (6’3”, 235 pounds) stood head and shoulders above the veterans at the outside linebacker position previously occupied by Johnson. He is a star in the making and should contend for Freshmen All-American honors. He is an upgrade over Johnson despite his youth.
Backing up Figueroa will be sophomore Tyriq McCord (6’3”, 230 pounds). McCord played very well for Miami as a freshman last season, but lost the position battle to Figueroa. That’s a testament to how good Figueroa is because McCord is still good enough to start in his own right. He has the swagger that last year’s defense completely lacked. He will get plenty of playing time despite being a backup.
Opposite Figueroa will be junior Denzel Perryman (6’0”, 235 pounds). Perryman might be the best player on the entire defense. Perryman was impressive as a freshman, but was slowed by a high ankle sprain to start the year. Despite missing two games, he still finished second on the team in tackles.
He is completely healthy now, and should be a difference maker all season. Backing up Perryman is senior Tyrone Cornileus (6’2”, 215 pounds) . Cornileus started out a safety, but was converted to outside linebacker. He has great speed and field range. Holding him back is a tendency to be easily confused by what the offense is doing. As a result, he found himself out of position. Hopefully, the coaches have worked with him on eliminating mental errors.
Commanding the middle linebacker position once occupied by Ray Lewis, Dan Morgan and Jonathan Vilma will be senior Jimmy Gaines. Gaines (6’3”, 240 pounds) is not nearly on the level of those three names. He has great size and strength, but lacks speed and it shows in pass coverage.
Threatening to take Gaines’s starting spot will be sophomore Raphael Kirby. Kirby (6′o”, 230 pounds) lacks Gaines’ imposing physical presence, but has better speed and can range from sideline to sideline. I expect these two to play situationally. Gaines will see more time against run-oriented offenses like Florida, while Kirby will play against pass-happy teams like North Carolina. Either way, the middle linebacker position could be a big liability.
The linebackers need to find some consistency. Too often last season they appeared confused and timid. They need to assert themselves this year and play much more physically. Perryman should lead the way and be a playmaker. McCord’s confidence is greatly needed with a unit that was emasculated last year. Figueroa was a very pleasant surprise, but he is just a freshman, so expect some mistakes. Gaines and Kirby will have to share the middle linebacker spot, and that could be a problem.
Ultimately, the pressure is on defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio to mold this group into something to be reckoned with.