Now, the reshuffling begins.
As Miami prepared for its Saturday season opener against FAMU, coaches had to be aware of the possible dismissal of the Hurricanes’ most dominant defensive players and top two returning tacklers — strong-side linebacker Jermaine Grace and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad.
But that doesn’t mean their dismissals, which came to fruition Saturday when the school said the players violated NCAA rules, won’t hurt a great deal, considering one is the team’s best pass-rusher and the other is a speedster who has great instincts and plenty of experience.
Grace played three seasons but dominated the past two with 139 tackles, five sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and six pass breakups. He was the only linebacker with extensive playing time.
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Muhammad had a team-leading five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season, and added 54 tackles.
So, what now for coordinator Manny Diaz’s speed-oriented, attacking defense?
“The neat thing about two-a-days and the way that Coach [Mark] Richt has run his camp… is that we’ve repped everybody,” Diaz said Friday. “We’ve been getting every one of them game ready.”
The scary part is the uncertainty.
“Will the moment be too big for them?” Diaz asked of the youngsters who will need to compensate. “That’s the hard part with freshmen and we’ve obviously got a whole truckload of them.”
On the four-man defensive line, the Hurricanes will use an eight-man rotation in an attempt to keep everyone’s motors humming. The loss of Muhammad means either 6-2, 250-pound junior Trent Harris or 6-3, 265-pound redshirt sophomore Demetrius Jackson will step up to fill Muhammad’s spot opposite 6-6, 245-pound starter Chad Thomas.
Harris, heavily praised by the former and current coaching staff as being smart, versatile and one of the team’s hardest workers, had 49 tackles, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a fumble recovery last year as a linebacker/rush end in UM’s former 3-4, read-and-react scheme. He played at least three positions in some games.
Jackson, lauded during the spring and this preseason, got his first game action in 2015, finishing with 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
While Harris is a veteran and Jackson is getting there, freshmen defensive ends Joe Jackson and Pat Bethel will be thrown into the mix as newcomers. Redshirt freshman Scott Patchan, who tore an ACL in the spring, is not yet ready for game action.
Jackson, 6-5 and 250 pounds, is out of Miami Gulliver Prep, where he was a four-star prospect ranked the 113th best recruit, regardless of position, by Rivals. He chose Miami over Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio State, among others.
Bethel, 6-3 and 260 pounds, was an Under-Armour All-American and four-star prospect out of Vero Beach. His father, Randy, played tight end for UM from 1987-90. Bethel had nine sacks as a high school senior and is one of four heralded freshmen on defense who graduated high school early to participate in spring ball, which should prove huge for the Hurricanes in light of the dismissals.
The other three freshmen on defense who arrived early from high school could all end up starting at linebacker. A lock to start in the middle is 6-1, 240-pound Shaquille Quarterman, who has blown away coaches with his maturity, intelligence and flat-out talent. Quarterman was a consensus four-star prospect and rated among the top-10 middle linebackers by every recruiting service. He had 412 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and fumble recoveries in four years at Orange Park Oakleaf.
Michael Pinckney, a 6-1, 220-pound graduate of Jacksonville Raines, seemed to have the weak-side edge until he pulled his hamstring in camp, and redshirt freshman Jamie Gordinier came on strong. Pinckney, a three-star prospect about whom Richt has raved, was rated the No. 20 inside backer by ESPN and Rivals.
Gordinier, 6-4 and 235 pounds, is from Red Bank Catholic and has the advantage of a redshirt season, though the defense is new to everyone. Gordinier was also a consensus three-star recruit. He was rated the No. 1 defensive end in New Jersey as a senior.
Replacing Grace could be either 6-2, 230-pound true freshman Zach McCloud out of Lantana Santaluces, a four-star/three-star prospect, or 6-1, 230-pound sophomore Charles Perry of Royal Palm Beach. McCloud seemed to have the edge, but Diaz seemed concerned that he needed to be more disciplined.
“He knows he’s one of the big bangers on our defense,’’ Diaz said of McCloud. “We just have to make sure he’s hitting the right guy.’’
With all the inexperience at linebacker, don’t be surprised if UM uses five defensive backs and only two backers, to compensate. But even that is iffy, as Diaz said the nickel package was just introduced last week.
Regardless of personnel shifts, Diaz said the youngsters have “been getting the same amount of coaching as…the older guys. They have to feel the urgency of ‘Gosh, these coaches are actually crazy enough to put me in the game. And I’ve got to know what to do.’”