University of Miami defensive coordinator Mark DOnofrio wasnt looking for seniors when he stopped by Hollywood Hills High 16 months ago.
Not in the month of May. Not a couple weeks before graduation. And certainly not four months after Al Golden had already wrapped up his first signing class.
But former Hurricanes kicker Scott Barnwell the head coach at Hills at the time convinced DOnofrio to take a look at a tape of a senior he thought every school in the country had managed to overlook.
The players name? Thurston Armbrister. His Rivals.com five-star ranking? Zero. His only scholarship offer: Northern Colorado.
I remember popping on the tape and seeing a guy who not only played safety, corner and wide receiver, but showed he was willing to be physical and showed he had athletic skills, DOnofrio said Wednesday of the 6-3, 222-pound sophomore linebacker who has gone from nowhere on the Canes depth chart at the start of camp to suddenly being listed with the first team at strong side in the two-deep most recently released on Sunday.
Hes got long legs, long limbs. I think hes going to be really big. He can play up on the tight end and do a good job in space, and hes tough and hes physical... its definitely one of those moves now where you feel like you hit on it pretty good.
UMs gamble to sign Armbrister last summer and then switch him from safety in the spring could end up paying huge dividends especially in light of all the recent injuries the team has had to deal with at linebacker in camp.
Wednesday, Golden said freshman Raphael Kirby, who had been listed as the backup middle linebacker, would likely miss at least half the season. Kirby was seen on crutches and with a hard cast on his right leg from the knee down. He isnt the only young Canes linebacker battling injury.
Sophomore Gionni Paul, who hurt his knee in practice last week, continues to limp around even though hes in a regular practice jersey. Redshirt freshman Eddie Johnson has spent several days at camp wearing a yellow noncontact jersey; and junior Jimmy Gaines missed the first week of camp returning from an ankle injury.
DOnofrio said his biggest concern is building continuity. Beyond returning starters Denzel Perryman, his sophomore middle linebacker, and senior Ramon Buchanan, who is coming from a season-ending knee injury, most of his linebackers have been banged up. And DOnfrio said he has not been able to mix and match players to see which combination works best.
Its like a big Rubiks Cube right now. But we do have enough guys right now [who] can play for us and help us win, DOnofrio said. Its just a matter of getting them all healthy at the same time and getting them in the right spots. Thats what were working on in the next six days.
While DOnofrio is happy with the growth Armbrister has displayed through the first 14 practices of camp, the more likely scenario is Gaines will end up finding a spot on the first team for the Canes on Sept. 1 at Boston College. Gaines, who is listed as the backup to Perryman in the middle, has starting experience at all three positions.
Either way, though, DOnofrio sounded confident Armbrister has worked himself into a role.
Hes a guy who I think is going to help us, provide depth for us, DOnofrio said. I think he can be a factor in different packages, in third down and obviously he has to do a great job on special teams.
Whatever role Armbrister ends up with, he said he will be happy just to get on the field. After playing on special teams in just two games last year, getting any playing time would put a smile on his face.
I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder, something to prove because people didnt think I could do it, said Armbrister, who has gained 10 pounds since being moved from safety to linebacker. A lot of schools didnt give me a chance.
Golden said Armbrister is way more physical than [coaches] thought he would be.
Sometimes when you move a safety down hes not as physical, Golden said. But he has long arms and hes going to be long. Hes going to be big. I think hes going to be a 235-pound guy when its all said and done. He runs a 4.6. Im excited about Thurston.
Armbrister said he got his first name from his grandmother, who happened to be a big fan of Gilligans Island and the character Thurston Howell III.
But at Hills, he was known by another name: Young Thirst.
Thats what his teammates called him, Barnwell said. Hes definitely thirsty to prove himself. In the end, it may be a surprise to everybody else what Thurston becomes, but not me and him. Hes going to be special.