Growing up on a military base with Marines for parents, University of Miami freshman linebacker Alex Figueroa learned early there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.
His father, Luis, taught him one of those life lessons by the way he showed Alex to tie his shoes.
“He would tie my shoe for me, show me show step by step. He wouldn’t use any of the around the rabbit ear moves. He would be straight up,” Figueroa said. “When it was my time to do it, if I had my hands wrong, didn’t do exactly what he said but still got it around, he would say that’s not how you do it, and I would have do it all over again.
“That’s just another example how precise my dad is, and how being brought up by him really instilled that in me.”
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Precision and perfection are what the Hurricanes would eventually like to see from the 6-3, 235-pounder from Stafford, Va. But what they are getting out of him since his arrival in January might already be good enough to warrant a starting job a week from Friday night when UM opens the 2013 season against Florida Atlantic at Sun Life Stadium.
Listed as a co-starter at strong-side linebacker with junior Thurston Armbrister (6-3, 233), Figueroa has displayed the type of intensity and physicality in camp that has impressed defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio and position coach Micheal Barrow.
As young as the Hurricanes have been the last two years on defense, only four true freshmen have started for D’Onofrio since his arrival: defensive end Anthony Chickillo (nine starts) and Denzel Perryman (five) in 2011, and safety Deon Bush (six) and cornerback Tracy Howard (one) last season. No true freshman has started for D’Onofrio in either season opener, though. Figueroa might be the first.
“We talk about turning it up. He’s a guy who can turn it up,” said D’Onofrio, who lost two of his top four leading tacklers from a year ago for disciplinary reasons and is aiming to improve a Hurricanes defense that was among the school’s worst statistically in recent memory.
“Alex plays with intensity, plays with an edge,” D’Onofrio continued. “Now it’s a matter of refining his game and taking that aggressiveness and having it be aggressiveness with poise so he’s not making mental errors and not overaggressive. You never want to over-harness that. He’s a freshman. Even though he was here in the spring, he’s no different than the other guys who just got here. He’s still a freshman.”
Figueroa doesn’t look the part of a true freshman. Chiseled and clean cut, Figueroa had only 6.3 percent body fat when tested by strength coach Andrew Swasey this spring. Figueroa also squats 415 pounds, lifts 318 pounds in the power clean and benches 320 pounds to go with a 32 1/2-inch vertical leap. He was timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds — fourth fastest among UM linebackers.
There’s also something you can’t measure that sets Figueroa apart — his hunger to play the game. Despite speaking to a number of high-profile programs as a senior in 2011, Figueroa never got any college scholarship offers because he sustained a shoulder injury and also didn’t meet the academic requirements to earn a scholarship. So Fig — as he’s known to teammates — spent a semester in prep school and watched others play, wondering if he would ever get the chance to play college football.
“It was hard for me because I had never missed a year of football until then,” Figueroa said. “I went to the high school games, cheered all the guys I was with the year before. It was tough. I just tried to stay positive. My family told me everything was going to be OK, ‘You’ll go somewhere,’ and then Miami [defensive backs coach Paul Williams] contacted me. It was a blessing.”
One trip to Coral Gables later, Figueroa committed to Hurricanes coaches on the spot. After working out with the team in the winter, he came into spring practice listed first on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker — quite a feat for a true freshman. Now, he wants to make sure he stays atop the depth chart once the season starts.
“When I came in I had the mind-set that I didn’t want to be redshirted or miss another year,” Figueroa said. “I came in here with the mind-set that I just have to get that spot, come in play my part and just play my ball. I know how I play — aggressive and fast. They like that. I still need to learn the defense a little better, but they just like the way I play.”