It’s hardly a secret that the Miami Hurricanes had maturity issues at the linebacker position last season — thus the reason coach Al Golden dismissed two of his top-four leading tacklers in the offseason.
“If you don’t want to operate within our core values and within the system, then there’s no place for you here,” Golden said Tuesday before Day 4 of fall practice.
“That’s why these pictures [of former University of Miami All-Americans] are around this practice facility now. That’s why they’re inside the building, so [the players] understand what are values here and what they represent. I’ve been saying it: I feel like we’ve got the right guys on the train right now.”
If there is one linebacker Golden is happy to call a co-conductor on the Canes’ caravan, it’s senior Jimmy Gaines. Eight pounds heavier than he was a year ago, Gaines (6-3, 240) has received loads of praise for his leadership from Golden and position coach Micheal Barrow during practice.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
And he’s someone the Hurricanes are counting on heavily to help turn around a run defense that ranked 112th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs and often got burned by players blowing assignments and not filling gaps.
“Jimmy’s always been a leader since Day 1 here,” Barrow said. “He’s got one of those Ray Charles old souls, you know.
“A lot of these kids nowadays you have to deal with entitlement; they’re spoiled. He’s old school. He’s a guy who loves the game, appreciates what you tell him to do and puts in the extra time. He’s a guy who is always leading, and guys follow him.”
Slowed by a foot injury at the start of last season, Gaines came on strong toward the end, starting the final five games at middle linebacker and finishing fifth on the team with 57 tackles. He also had two interceptions.
Backed up by sophomore Raphael Kirby in camp, Gaines said a healthy Curtis Porter in the middle of UM’s defensive line made his job easier at the end of last season, and he expects Miami’s run defense to be much improved because of the increased size all around.
“Before they even told me [to become more of a leader] it started to happen on its own. So once they told me I started to step on the gas even more to fill that role,” Gaines said of stepping up his role as a leader. “I’m the quarterback of the defense. I work with everybody. If the communication isn’t there, it’s on me.”
Three practices into fall practice is hardly enough time for Golden to make a determination on which freshmen will make an impact this season. But so far, it’s safe to say cornerback Artie Burns, receiver Stacy Coley and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad have shown flashes that have caught Golden’s eye.
“The first battle as a freshman is to [arrive] in shape. The second battle is to know your stuff, and clearly those two [Burns and Coley] have made progress,” Golden said. “They aren’t where they need to be yet, but there’s a little poise about Artie Burns. You coach him every day, and he looks you right in the eye. He’s not too high, not too low, and he’s ready to move on.”
Golden said Burns, a 6-1, 190-pound former standout at Miami Northwestern, and Coley, a 6-1, 180-pound star from Oakland Park Northeast, have risen to the challenge each day in practice.
As for Muhammad, a 6-3, 230-pounder from New Jersey powerhouse Don Bosco Prep, Golden complimented him by calling him “twitchy.”
“When somebody is explosive or somebody is sudden, you can feel it,” Golden said. “Sometimes you can see it on the film. But when you get to this level, when you have a lot of guys that have twitch, sometimes you just see there is a little difference in one guy. I think Quan is a very explosive young man. He has to understand the system, get bigger and stronger and all that. But he has twitch.
“He can go from a standing position to 5, 7, 10 yards in a very short period of time. The guys that can do that irrespective of their body size have a chance to continue to improve and grow and be a difference maker.”