University of Miami middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman’s ultimate goal has always been the same: “Natty championship,’’ as the All-American freshman called it several times last year during an outstanding debut season.
On Thursday, Day Two of spring football, Quarterman again brought up the notion of the Hurricanes winning it all.
“We have to work toward the national championship,’’ Quarterman said after practice when asked the team’s goals for spring. “Now for myself, I just want to be able to encourage my teammates, keep them on the right track and be the leader that a middle linebacker at the University of Miami should be.
“I’m not the new guy on the block anymore.’’
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who addressed the media for the first time this spring, wants to see his players in pads Saturday before he makes any predictions on how good the Hurricanes can be. One thing he knows already is they’re more poised and prepared than they were in 2016 (9-4), when three true freshmen started at linebacker and the abundance of youth was almost shocking.
“The biggest thing that stands out is just how much further ahead we are than this time last year,’’ Diaz said. “Even going back and looking at some of those clips, it’s almost comical where we were starting from. The guys have picked up from where we left off in December and have a good spirit about them.
“The thing about freshmen is they become sophomores,’’ Diaz continued. “They now understand what it takes to be a big time college football player and what the season requires of you. You have to experience it to really understand it.’’
Despite last year’s inexperience and excessive injuries, UM’s defense came up huge, finishing 12th of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, 20th nationally in total defense, fifth in tackles for loss, 22 in sacks and 19th in defensive touchdowns.
Quarterman started all 13 games and finished second on the team with 84 tackles, ranked third on the team with 10 tackles for loss and had a team-best eight quarterback hurries.
“If I had to choose one of my favorite takeaways from last season,’’ Quarterman said, “it would be, when all else fails, you finish the drill and you bring your teammates with you. We had a whole bunch of drama at the beginning of the season. We had some people go down with injuries. People came back from injuries.
“Through the whole thing, we stuck together as a team. Through the whole month of losses, through the [five]-game winning streak after that. We just stuck together.”
Fellow sophomore Zach McCloud, the strong-side starter, also spoke Thursday and is noticeably larger and more muscular than last season, when he was dealing with a shoulder injury.
“We have great competition around us,’’ McCloud said of himself, Quarterman and weak-side starter Michael Pinckney. “But for all three of us, I’m pretty sure our biggest motivators are ourselves and the guys who played [at UM] in the past. We have a standard to play towards, and we are trying to get to that standard. We are not there yet, but we will get there.’’
More from Diaz:
▪ On former cornerback Sheldrick Redwine working at safety: “We felt like he had the skill-set to do some of the same things that Rayshawn Jenkins did at the field safety position… We told him, ‘If it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to corner.’’’
▪ On 6-4, 235-pound redshirt sophomore linebacker Jamie Gordinier, who tore his ACL in the opening game of the 2016 season: “He’s still with the training staff. He’s not able to do a whole lot with us other than just be in meetings, which is hard on him.’’
Diaz added that if doctors say Gordinier makes enough progress in spring, “then he can get back to the mix in the summertime and in the fall.’’
▪ On 6-4, 285-pound redshirt junior defensive tackle Gerald Willis, who had knee surgery at season’s end: “Same thing. He’s just working through with the training staff.’’
▪ On the first-team cornerbacks in spring as of Thursday: “Michael Jackson and Josh Johnson have gone with the 1s. Our depth chart was set by performance in matt drills combined with academics. It had nothing to do with on-the-field performance and nothing to do with football ability.’’
Coach Mark Richt will not be made available to the media on Thursdays this spring. He’ll address reporters again Saturday.
Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown praised top running back Mark Walton, who appears to be excelling in all areas despite the recent death of his mother. His father died years ago.
“He is a phenomenal kid,’’ Brown said. “Knowing him as a person, knowing what he has gone through his entire life, and even knowing what he has been going through most recently. I tell him all the time, and I told him before, I don’t know how he does it. He does a really good job locking in, being focused. Obviously, he has a great family network around him here to keep him in good spirits.’’