University of Miami

These three ‘old men’ cause mayhem on field for the Canes. They can’t wait for the Gators

UM unveils first turnover chain of 2019

UM LB Michael Pinckney picks off coach Manny Diaz’s first pitch for Canes-FSU baseball game to earn first turnover chain of 2019.
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UM LB Michael Pinckney picks off coach Manny Diaz’s first pitch for Canes-FSU baseball game to earn first turnover chain of 2019.

Every now and then during practice, University of Miami football coach Manny Diaz wanders over to his first love, the Hurricanes defense, and hangs out for a minute or three.

“He still be trying to come over with us and be in our stretch line,’’ said weak-side linebacker Michael Pinckney. “Like the linebackers — he be trying to be all with us. I tell him, ‘Listen, go be a head coach, man. Go do your thing.’’’

Better believe that a freshman or sophomore — even most juniors — would not talk like that to the top man in their football program. But Pinckney and his considerably talented partners in on-field defensive mayhem— senior middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and outside backer Zach McCloud— are not just any college football players. Together they form what is considered one of the most dominating, if not the most dominating, linebacker units in the nation.

That Pinckney, Quarterman and McCloud returned for their senior seasons not only showed how much they respect Diaz, but how much they love their teammates and each other.

“I needed my boy, man,’’ Pinckney said of Quarterman, who was named a preseason second-team All-American on Tuesday by the Associated Press . “Me and him sat down a lot of times toward the end of the season. ‘What you gonna do?’ I really didn’t want to come back without him. We built that camaraderie with each other.

“I was like, ‘I need you. Let me know what you’re going to do. If you leave I’m going to think about leaving. If you stay I’m with you. Then, Coach Diaz coming back, that solidified it.’’

As the Hurricanes prepare to start the season Saturday against the No. 8 Florida Gators, and more than a dozen true freshmen dream about their first college snaps, the three veteran linebackers who were feted in 2016 as the first three true freshman linebackers to ever start a major college opener are pumped for their “final first game” with the Hurricanes.

“I’m glad the outside world doesn’t think we got a chance,’’ Pinckney said of UF’s seven-point favorite status. “We have an opportunity to shock everybody.”

The three Hurricanes have combined for 581 tackles, 73 tackles for loss and 24 sacks, and that’s with McCloud being limited last season with a wrist injury, now healed, that he sustained during spring 2018.

Pinckney and Quarterman combined for 156 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and fumble recovery last season. Both are candidates for the Butkus Award that goes to the nation’s top linebacker after the season. Quarterman also is up for the Chuck Bednarik Award that goes to the nation’s top defensive player.

“We made a really, really, really big deal last year defensively about understanding how the NFL Draft works and trying to educate our guys more,’’ Diaz said of his linebackers returning. “Shaq and Mike were really buying into what we philosophically wer saying: ‘Don’t settle. When great is available don’t take good.’ That’s kind of their MO [modus operandi].

“They wanted to come back because they didn’t want to walk off the field on a seven-win team. It’s very imortant to Shaq and Mike that they want their names on the wall here. They’re constantly being evaluated by our ex-great linebackers and they want to walk out of here and say, ‘We’re peers.’’’

Quarterman is adamant about wanting to be considered among the UM linebacker greats, which include Ray Lewis, Dan Morgan, Jon Beason, Jon Vilma and DJ Williams — but in the end, only because he worked hard enough to deserve it.

“I just want to belong,’’ Quarterman said. “I want to be put up there because I did what I was supposed to do. I held up to the standard and I held the chain. I didn’t let it break while I was here. If they put me on that list, I might cry. But that’s all I need. That’s my legacy right there.’’

Quarterman and his cohorts will defend a Gators offense led by 6-6, 240-pound redshirt junior quarterback Feleipe Franks, who helped carry UF to a 10-3 season in 2018, including a 41-15 victory over then-No. 7 Michigan in the Peach Bowl.

The Gators have a deep cast of receivers that include redshirt senior Van Jefferson (503 yards and six TDs in 2018); and a strong senior running back in Lamical Perine (826 yards and seven TDs rushing for a 6.2-yards-per-carry average).

“I’m very excited about this rivalry game,’’ Quarterman said. “All I know for sure is we don’t play them that often and there’s always bickering back and forth. I don’t too much like them. That’s how a rivalry works for me.

“For me to get on that poster I want to be on with Jon Vilma, Ray Lewis, all those guys, I have to beat Florida.’’

McCloud, who likely won’t get as many starts as Quarterman and Pinckney because the UM defense implements a striker — a linebacker-safety hybrid — in its game plan, said he never really considered leaving UM after his junior year.

“I look around this place and I start getting emotional,’’ McCloud said. “I’m not ready to part with it yet.’’

McCloud said he savors the old-time linebackers coming back and mentoring the trio, and said “it means a lot’’ for the three “old-timers’’ to carry that load the way they set it.

“Whatever situation you give me,’’ McCloud said, “whatever situation you give any of us, we’re going to find a way to twist it around in our heads to make it like we need to go harder.”

The Hurricanes on Tuesday announced the specific dates for the future home-and-home series against the Gators: Aug. 31, 2024 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville; and Sept. 20, 2025 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Miami announced the addition of a new white “Parley for the Oceans’’ uniform that the Canes will wear against Virgina on Oct. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium. The “environmentally conscious uniforms have been crafted from repurposed and upcycled materials,’’ UM said.

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Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.