When it comes to starting experience at linebacker for the University of Miami, there isn’t much.
Senior Jermaine Grace, who led the team with 79 tackles last season, has 10 starts under his belt.
The other veteran linebacker with starting experience: 6-3, 245-pound junior Darrion Owens, who made his first career start against Bethune-Cookman in last year’s opener and then went down with a season-ending knee injury a week later at FAU, where he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee in the first quarter.
On Thursday, Owens was back on the field for the Hurricanes, practicing for the first time under new coach Mark Richt and running with the second unit at weakside linebacker behind freshman Michael Pinckney.
“Everything feels good — now I’ve just got to trust it,” Owens said of his right knee, which had a black sleeve over it to provide some assurance. “I’m running around like ‘Oh, I actually can do this.’ It’s a mind thing right now. I’m just battling with that. When I get over that, I’ll be fine.”
Owens, who started working out with his teammates again this summer, said he isn’t planning on sitting out any practices to rest his surgically repaired knee. Richt, however, said that could happen if Owens is fatigued. Richt said the plan is to work Owens “at one of the inside linebacker spots and just see how he does, how he holds up.”
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Owens, who has 27 tackles in 14 games, said he likes the team’s new defensive scheme, which allows him to think less and play more aggressively.
“I like hitting people,” Owens said. “This defense is a great way to do that.”
Originally from the Jacksonville area, Owens said he’s known Pinckney since middle school.
Owens said Pinckney’s grandmother lived next door to him and that he and Pinckney hung out often as kids. Now, they’re teammates, competing for the same starting job.
“I feel like they’re ready [to play],” Owens said of Pinckney and fellow freshman linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who is also from the Jacksonville area and is running with the first team at middle linebacker.
“They came in with a mind-set that they were going to get stuff done. They just came focused. They don’t act like usual freshmen. You can’t tell they’re freshmen unless you look at their ages or something.”
Redshirt junior running back Gus Edwards, who missed all of last season with a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot, said he feels a lot better than he did when he returned last spring.
“During the spring I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent as far as my foot, but now I’m great,” said Edwards, who was contending for the starting tailback job last season before he was injured in the team’s final scrimmage of fall camp. “I told everybody my foot didn’t bother me at all. I barely noticed it. I’m very excited about that.”
Edwards (6-3, 230) ran with the second team Thursday behind sophomore Mark Walton and junior Joseph Yearby, who split carries with the first team. Richt said Edwards has to prove that he’s in good enough condition “to play more than a play or two here and there.”
“But he’s learning what to do,” Richt added. “He’s in much better condition now than he was in the spring. We’ll just watch him.”
Edwards said he’s lost about eight pounds since the spring, and his body fat percentage is down to 9 percent. Edward’s size can provide a nice change for UM’s rushing offense, which struggled in short-yardage and red-zone situations with the smaller Walton (5-9, 205) and Yearby (5-9, 200).
When faced with third down and 3 yards or less, UM picked up a first down only 13 times on 29 rushing attempts last season — an underwhelming 44.8 percent. In 2014, with a healthy Edwards and Duke Johnson, the Hurricanes converted at 50 percent (17 of 34). Miami also averaged just 1.68 yards per carry in the red zone in 2015, which ranked 123rd out of 128 teams.
The inability to run contributed to Miami scoring touchdowns in the red zone only 50 percent of the time last season, which ranked 111th.
“Just getting him in there along with [new 6-1, 280-pound fullback] Marquez [Williams] and our other fullbacks will be huge,” quarterback Brad Kaaya said. “Just getting some good 21 packages, 22 personnel will help us on short yardage. Downs like that will help us win ballgames. It will be big.”
▪ Fifth-year senior Adrian Colbert, a graduate transfer from Texas, was the first player to pick off Kaaya in camp. Kaaya said Richt made him do extra sprints for throwing the interception.
“It was just Cover 2,” Kaaya said. “We had kind of a go and an out route. Chris [Herndon] ran an out route, and it looked like the corner Colbert kind of sank on it was going to pick it off and then he kind of dropped back as I threw it. He just tricked me. It won’t happen again, though.”