Miami Hurricanes sophomore Walter Tucker has never defined himself by one sport or one position. “Basically I’m an athlete,” Tucker said. “I can see myself everywhere on the field.”
And that’s exactly what Hurricanes fans will see Tucker doing beginning Monday night in Louisville.
Whether he’s opening holes for Duke Johnson at fullback, backing up Denzel Perryman at middle linebacker or being aggressive on special teams, Tucker will use his 6-foot, 226-pound frame and 4.4-speed to fly from assignment to assignment for the Hurricanes.
“I’m excited,” Tucker said of becoming the first full-time two-way player at UM since Devin Hester in 2005. “When I was younger I always played both sides of the ball anyway.”
Tucker was a full-time fullback last season, but assistant coach Hurlie Brown asked him to move back to linebacker – where he was originally recruited to play as a freshman – after JaWand Blue and Alex Figueroa were arrested and booted off the team in July.
Although Tucker has taken the majority of his snaps at linebacker in camp, he has remained involved at fullback, the position the Hurricanes switched him to at the end of last year’s training camp when Danny Dillard left the program.
Whenever the offense needed him to come in for special packages at fullback – mostly goal line – Tucker, who was a two-time state champion in hurdles at Plantation American Heritage, said he would get tapped on the shoulder, race across the field, and jump right in with the offense. Tucker said “the crazy part” was switching between offensive and defensive colored jerseys during team scrimmages.
UM’s No. 44 is happy he won’t have to do that at Louisville.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I told you I didn’t lose sleep a couple days there thinking ‘Can he do both? Are we putting too much on him?’ ” coach Al Golden said. “He’s responded. Really proud of Walter Tucker right now. I see a sense of maturity in him.”
How much action will Tucker get at fullback and how much at linebacker?
“The order for him will be fullback, special teams and then defense,” Golden said. “He’ll definitely see action on offense and special teams and he’s close on defense. That selection is going to be made here, to be honest with you, based on how he and [freshman LB Juwon Young] performed and then who won the special-teams jobs. That’s how we’ll work that.”
Two-way players at UM were common before the 1960s, but the only player who truly did it full time in the modern era was “Hurricane” Hester.
In 12 games in 2004, Hester made one start at fullback, one at tailback, two at nickelback and one at cornerback. He also led the defense with four interceptions while being one of the nation’s premier return men. Hester did the same in 2005 before leaving school early to enter the NFL Draft.
Tucker, who played in eight games last season but didn’t record any stats, won’t be the only player in college football this season to play on offense and defense.
Some other notable two-way players include:
• Pittsburgh’s James Conner, a 6-2, 250-pound sophomore who led the Panthers with 799 rushing yards last year and could see snaps on third-down pass-rushing situations at defensive end.
• SMU’s Kevin Pope, a 5-11, 222-pound fifth-year senior linebacker, who finished second on his team in tackles in 2013 and lined up at running back for the final two games of last season.
• UCLA’s Myles Jack, a 6-1, 232-pound sophomore who started 12 games at linebacker and scored seven touchdowns at running back, including a 120-yard breakout performance last season at Arizona.
With Johnson and a talented group of ballcarriers it is unlikely Tucker will put up eye-opening rushing statistics. But he did catch a touchdown pass in one of Miami’s scrimmages this month while also racking up a handful of tackles.
“I feel like I’m coming along good,” Tucker said of learning the defensive playbook. “DP’s been helping me out a lot. Having one-on-one time with Coach Hurlie [Brown] and a little bit of time with [defensive coordinator Mark] D’Onofrio, seeing everything from his perspective helps. I always go and ask questions.”
Said Perryman of Tucker: “He can really get to the ball. He’s got the speed. He just needs to work on pass coverage, run fits. Brush it up.”
D’Onofrio said the Hurricanes really don’t know how good Tucker can be at linebacker until he has more time to develop.
“We’re playing catch-up with him right now,” D’Onofrio said. “But we feel he’s a good enough prospect to invest in at that position.”
The Hurricanes could definitely use the help at linebacker.
Of the eight linebackers Golden and his staff signed between 2011 and 2012, only Perryman and weakside linebacker Raphael Kirby remain. Strongside linebacker Thurston Amrbister, the only other player with starting experience aside from Perryman, was a converted safety.
“We’ve just got to be careful not to put too many bricks on that pile,” Golden said of Tucker. “But I’m proud of him right now. He’s working hard.”
FOUR QBS TO TRAVEL
The Hurricanes will be taking four quarterbacks to the season opener Monday night at Louisville: true freshman starter Brad Kaaya, fifth-year senior backup Jake Heaps, true freshman Malik Rosier and fifth-year senior Ryan Williams.
Williams, who is still recovering from a torn ACL sustained in early April, is making the trip “as a captain and leader, that kind of role,’’ said coach Al Golden, who added that Williams “knows the offense better than anybody so he’s good to have on gameday.’’
Not making the trip: redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Olsen, suspended for at least the first game for failing a drug test, according to a sources, though UM has not divulged that information.
Golden, who spoke to reporters after practice Friday for the final time before the Canes leave for Louisville Sunday, was asked if there are any players facing disciplinary action who won’t be making the trip. “Not that I’m aware of right now, no,’’ he said.
The travel roster won’t be distributed until game day.
STILL NO WORD
Golden did not reveal who will be starting at right offensive tackle, cornerback and safety.
“[Jon] Feliciano can play out there,’’ he said of the starting left guard, “[Taylor] Gadbois can play out there, [Trevor] Darling can play out there and McDermott can play out there. We’re going to keep rotating all those guys. There will be probably two in the game at that position…All the guys contributing at right tackle are doing well, it’s just hard to figure out who’s the starter and who’s going to come in next.
“And safety, that will be determined out here. It would be silly of me to sit here and select it right now without making sure I go back and evaluate the tape and give everybody a fair opportunity.”
SUSAN MILLER DEGNAN