Raised in Montgomery, Ala., one might imagine Ladarius Gunter grew up a huge fan of the Auburn Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide.
But the 6-2, 196-pound cornerback, who spent two years at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas before signing with the University of Miami last December, really didn’t like either team.
“My favorite player was Sean Taylor,” said Gunter, who was wearing a coveted black jersey — worn by the starters — on Thursday morning at Greentree Practice Field.
“The first game I really paid attention to on TV was Miami versus Florida State. I saw Sean Taylor crushing people, and I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I fell in love with his style of play.”
If Gunter can provide just a little of what the late Taylor did for the Hurricanes over the next three weeks of camp, odds are the junior will keep the starting job at boundary corner for the season opener Sept. 1 at Boston College.
But if Gunter gets injured or lags just a little in practice, defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio and coach Al Golden have made it clear throughout the first week of camp that anyone can go from the head of the pack to the back in a flash. Gunter is an example.
“I’ll tell you what: Ladarius started off really poorly; I mean, really poorly. So much so that by day three, he was third-team,” Golden said before Thursday’s practice. “But he didn’t give up; he just kept studying, kept preparing, had a great attitude. I think anybody around the program would say the last three practices he’s been really, really good. So hopefully he’ll continue; he’ll develop some consistency.”
Aside from his own play, what helped Gunter earn the black jersey Monday — the same day freshman Tracy Howard took the black jersey away from senior Brandon McGee at field corner — was an ankle injury to Thomas Finnie. The sophomore returned to practice Thursday, but Gunter was still ahead of him on the depth chart and still wearing black. D’Onofrio spelled out the reason for that pretty clearly Thursday, saying Finnie and McGee (who missed one day because of a stomach virus) need to “be careful about how many days” they miss.
“You don’t want to go out of the huddle because you don’t know who is coming in,” D’Onofrio said. “[The new arrivals] really love football and work hard [at] it. I know it’s a cliché, but we have to kick them out of the building. They’re not just punching the clock.”
D’Onofrio said that’s part of the reason why McGee isn’t wearing black anymore.
“I just need Brandon to be consistent,” D’Onofrio said. “I need Brandon’s effort every day to match his talent. He’s a senior and needs to perform at that level. I can’t come out here and have a pep rally every day and strike up the band. You’ve got to be responsible for you. I can’t try to light a fire under you every day. You’ve got to be responsible for that fire. He’s done some good things, he’s gotten better, but the challenge is to be the same guy every day.”
McGee, the only cornerback on the roster with a collegiate start under his belt, hardly seemed worried when asked about the battle for the black jerseys.
“It’s just a grind. It’s camp. Things change weekly. I’m not new to this,” McGee said. “I missed a day of practice because I was having some issues with my health, and now I’m bouncing back, feeling better. I just keep making strides from here. It’s going to take care of itself.”
• D’Onofrio said that Curtis Porter, Darius Smith, Olsen Pierre and Luther Robinson “have separated themselves” at defensive tackle, but he is still looking for someone to emerge from a group that includes Jalen Grimble, DeQuan Ivery, Jacoby Briscoe and Earl Moore. “I need some more depth to come from that group,” D’Onofrio said. “We got to be able to have six to count on.”
D’Onofrio said the position battle at defensive end is less clear, noting that only Anthony Chickillo and Shayon Green appear to be clear-cut contributors.
• Golden is confident that junior strongside linebacker Jimmy Gaines, who has missed all of camp with a foot injury, will return Friday. But Golden said Gaines wouldn’t play in Sunday’s scrimmage and will be transitioned into his spot next week.
• Golden said Stephen Morris and Ryan Williams will get first-team snaps in Sunday’s scrimmage, but he was noncommittal about when he and his staff would announce who has won the starting quarterback job. Golden said in the past it would be the day after the first scrimmage or after the second one on Aug. 19.