Three of the youngest intimidators of the University of Miami defense stood for interviews Wednesday the way they do on the field: Shaq Quarterman in the middle, flanked by weak-side linebacker Michael Pinckney and strong-side backer Zach McCloud.
The youngsters delivered, as they have from Day One.
How would they grade their performances so far?
“A-plus,’’ Pinckney said, followed by laughter all around. “We dominated everybody. I mean, we dominated. I ain’t braggin’ or nothin’, man. But we handled this thing how we were supposed to handle it. You feel me?’’
Quarterman: “We got the job done. I don’t think you can put a letter grade on that. The scoreboard says what it says.’’
McCloud: “What they said.’’
After three games, with Georgia Tech (3-1) at noon Saturday in Atlanta, the No. 14 Hurricanes (3-0) have allowed only 23 points as the top scoring defense in the nation. True freshmen Quarterman, Pinckney and McCloud are as much a part of the reason as any other, combining for 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Pinckney, the most talkative and humorous of the trio, also is the team’s most prolific tackler, with 16 take downs, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
“When he plays, he plays fast,’’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said of Pinckney. “He’s got a mentality where he understands where he fits in the scheme and doesn’t overcomplicate things and trusts his reads, and he goes. And he can go. He has speed and he knows he has speed and he’s able to use it.’’
But now comes Georgia Tech’s triple-option headache, an offense in which, basically, the quarterback – in this case redshirt senior Justin Thomas – has three options: pitch it to a slot back, hand off to a fullback or keep it himself. It can be extremely deceptive, and if one defensive link doesn’t do its job, the entire chain can fall apart. The next thing you know the runner is 20 yards down the field and heading toward the end zone.
“It’s kind of like a math problem,’’ Quarterman said, noting that the open week was beneficial for the freshmen so they could “prepare a little slower to make sure we work through everything. You can actually slow down and go piece by piece.
“It all starts with eye discipline. If you don’t follow your keys or your eye progressions things can escalate really fast.’’
Diaz said the speed is what can be daunting to a defense not used to defending this type of offense. Coach Mark Richt said earlier in the week that 6-4, 245-pound scout-team tight end Jovani Haskins was simulating 5-11, 185-pound quarterback Thomas – not exactly real-time modeling.
“I mean,’’ Richt said, starting to laugh, “he’s not the same. He’s doing his best, but not the same…We do try to simulate it. When you try to do it in full speed, our scout team compared to theirs, it’s just not close. I love our guys and I don’t care if you have the best athletes in America, it’s hard to all of a sudden in one week’s time or even two weeks’ time with an open date be able to execute the way they do.’’
Quarterman said the linebacker corps hasn’t “had any success that really counts.’’
“This is our first week,’’ he said of UM’s first Atlantic Coast Conference matchup. “This is the first game that really counts for us. In some ways coach said we just finished the preseason. Those were all good wins and we learned things throughout each of those weeks, but now is when it really starts. Now is when we get into the big part of our schedule.’’
And the three starting linebackers, who also live together, will continue to learn together.
“The family that goes through things together grows together,’’ Quarterman said. “It’s as simple as that. We got here together, we work out together, we were punished together sometimes, we were praised together sometimes.’’
Said McCloud: “It’s nice to see the progression. We’re all making leaps and bounds toward where we want to be. We’re all climbing the ladder together.’’
Concluded Pinckney: “The challenges are getting harder, and we’re getting smarter.’’