University of Miami

In-state four-star inside linebacker excited by chance for early playing time at Miami

Manny Diaz introduces Miami Hurricanes football coaches

Miami Hurricanes head football coach Manny Diaz introduces some of his hyped-up coaches at The New Miami Spring Tour event at The Wharf on April 10, 2019.
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Miami Hurricanes head football coach Manny Diaz introduces some of his hyped-up coaches at The New Miami Spring Tour event at The Wharf on April 10, 2019.

The first time Jayion McCluster visited the Miami Hurricanes, he had just wrapped up his sophomore season at Largo and sat down in the safeties room in Coral Gables with Ephraim Banda. The athlete already had a long list of offers this time last year with most schools pitching him as either a defensive back or running back.

The plan all started to change in the fall. The Packers desperately needed a middle linebacker who knew their defense, so they slid McCluster into the box full time from his previous spot at safety. Now everyone, including Miami, wants to give McCluster a shot as a linebacker.

“They were surprised at how big I got,” McCluster said Wednesday in Largo. “When coaches came down, they would say, Oh, you’ve gotten so much bigger.”

The skill set he knows from blending his previous experience in the secondary with his new role as an inside linebacker makes him an ideal fit for the linebacker-needy Hurricanes. Miami will have to replace all three of its starting linebackers for the 2020 season, so finding ready-to-play prospects in the Class of 2020 is critical and McCluster, a four-star inside linebacker in the composite rankings, could be such a player.

On April 2, the linebacker put out a top three of the Hurricanes, Florida State Seminoles and Auburn Tigers, just a little more than a week after he visited Miami for junior day. On April 18, McCluster — along with Largo Pinellas Park outside linebacker Alvin Mathis — visited the Miami metropolitan area again. These past two trips have now included visits to the linebackers room, where linebackers coach Jonathan Patke and the whole staff are trying to make it clear how much of a priority McCluster is.

“Not even just the position coaches, it was every coach,” said McCluster, who is a cousin of former NFL running back Dexter McCluster. “They had the first team on this side, they had the second team on this side. They showed us the first and said, You guys don’t have to worry about that.”

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While his nontraditional path to middle linebacker could be a turn off for some team, it makes him a perfect fit for coach Manny Diaz’s defense with the Hurricanes. The coach emphasizes smaller, faster linebackers, who can make plays in coverage and in space. Linebacker Michael Pinckney, for example, was a 6-foot-11, 215-pound inside linebacker out of Jacksonville Raines in the Class of 2016.

McCluster, who is 6-1 and now up to about 210 pounds from 190 a year ago, fits the same sort of mold. With its defense slightly altered by the presence of a striker, the Miami uses its “Mike” and “Will” linebackers similarly, and McCluster has the skills it prioritizes there.

“I came from safety, so I know how to move,” said McCluster, who also plays running back and outside linebacker. “I can get in space and I can still cover, but I can also get back in the box and still tackle.”

As a middle linebacker rather than an outside linebacker, McCluster has also developed the mental aspect necessary to play the middle of the field. When Quarterman leaves, linebacker Waynmon Steed will likely be the only natural middle linebacker with any experience. McCluster, in the last year, has started to become a natural at the position.

In 2018, McCluster led the Packers with 129 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also added a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and seven passes defended, and played an H-back position on offense. Originally a running back, McCluster ran for 364 yards and four touchdowns on 60 carries, and caught four passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored two two-point conversions.

Most importantly, though, he learned to read offenses.

“When the offense comes up, I have to make the call, control the defense,” McCluster said. “I was in the back, so I just made my calls, but now I have to control what everyone is doing, so that was pretty much it. Learn the whole defense.”

Miami hasn’t specified yet which linebacker spot it likes McCluster at, which is a contrast from Florida State, the in-state prospect’s other biggest suitor. The Seminoles want McCluster to play their “star” position, which is their hybrid linebacker-safety position. McCluster said it’s almost identical to the role he’ll play as a senior in the Tampa Bay area.

Miami, however, has the edge if McCluster and Mathis do decide for sure they want to play together at the next level. The two linebackers have been friends since first grade and have openly discussed the possibility of being a package deal when they commit this summer.

“We haven’t said 100 percent we’re going to play together, but if it came down to it that we both decided we’re going to go, that’s great,” said McCluster, who plans to early enroll. “They gave us the light to commit, so it’s just, ‘When you guys are ready, we’re ready, too.’”

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