In late March, Miami Hurricanes linebacker Jermaine Grace was asked how his studies were going.
“Studies on what, football?” Grace asked in earnest.
“Oh, academics,” Grace said, explaining why he was suspended during a spring day that likely raised his visibly peeved coach Al Golden’s blood pressure.
“That was about a paper I had to finish,” Grace said.
Fast forward four-and-a-half months. Did he learn anything from that episode?
“Yes, Ma’am,” Grace answered this week. “I learned I have to be on top of my game with schoolwork, too. I’m good with that. I’m good with everything.”
Great might be more like it.
Grace, a fleet-footed junior who graduated from Miramar High and is majoring in sports management and business, will return this season as the starting weak-side linebacker — last season’s second-leading tackler behind NFL-bound Butkus Award finalist Denzel Perryman.
And he still hasn’t started a game.
Raphael Kirby moved into the starting weak-side linebacker spot in 2014 when Perryman, then a senior, moved to the middle. And now as team captain, Kirby, Grace’s mentor, moves into the middle, Grace is primed to have what could be a breakout season.
Darrion Owens, a 6-3, 238-pound sophomore, is the projected starter on the strong side.
“Jermaine Grace’s disruption per snap is as high as anybody’s on our team,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “And that will increase. He’s a tremendously talented playmaker.
“Every player’s value is not measure by statistics, but his are ones that show up.”
In 2014, Grace played in all 13 games, amassing 60 tackles behind Perryman’s 110. He had 6 1/2 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and three sacks — including one of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston’s during UM’s loss to Florida State.
Grace said his well-documented 40-yard speed — he said he was timed in 4.36 seconds in May but 4.45 most recently — helps him “do things other linebackers can’t — cover slot receivers, chase down running backs, chase down the quarterback, blitz and get around offensive linemen that can’t touch me.”
His quarterback, Brad Kaaya, expects Grace’s talent to ultimately help him get back the ball.
“He’s just really fast, no doubt,” Kaaya said. “Jermaine goes sideline to sideline, hash to hash. If a ball gets thrown on the opposite side of the field, he’s chasing it down like a lion after a gazelle. He doesn’t take plays off.”
After the spring game, Grace, who said he played between 202-205 pounds last season on his 6-1 frame, cited 220 as his goal weight.
“I see them big guys coming at me, and I’m kind of like, ‘Damn! Do I want to? Once I get to 220 it will be automatic, no hesitation.”
Grace is up to 215 and said that playing against first-team running back Gus Edwards, 6-2 and 238, has helped him get used to the pounding.
“I’m hydrating and keep drinking muscle milk,” Grace said Saturday after the Canes’ third day of fall camp.
Golden gushed about Grace’s commitment to the cerebral part of the game, indicating that his film study and practice prep have been impressive.
“He’s really made a commitment to that side of the game,” Golden said, “the smarter and more disciplined side. He was better conditioned already. He was tough. I’m really proud of him. He’s a great young man.’’
Grace seemed moved by his coach’s comments.
“I’m happy he sees that in me,” Grace said. “I’ve been in my playbook, helping the younger guys, telling them the right way to do things. Last year I did a great job, and this year I’m going to do an even better job to lead the young guys to take my spot when I leave.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ The Hurricanes added shoulder pads to their uniforms Saturday, enabling them to broaden their practice scope.
“You add more of the run game because you’re safer and equipped for it,’’ Golden said, “and with that goes the play-action game, play-action pocket pass and the naked game — the move-the-pocket stuff. Not a lot of [mental errors]. We just have to keep refining what we’re teaching, and then, obviously, our execution.”
▪ Safeties Ryan Mayes (hamstring) and Jaquan Johnson (bone bruise/tendinitis) are close to returning to practice.