University of Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, whose defense will face sixth-ranked Clemson and heralded quarterback Deshaun Watson at noon Saturday, had a contingency plan should a linebacker go down with an injury.
Opening-night strong-side starter Darrion Owens, a sophomore, was the plan at middle linebacker if leading tackler and team captain Raphael Kirby was injured. But it was Owens who ended up with season-ending knee surgery last month.
Sophomore Marques Gayot was the contingency plan at weak-side should starter Jermaine Grace get injured. And Grace did get injured with various ailments — but so did Gayot, who was airlifted to the hospital Sept. 23 with a neck injury. Grace is still playing, but Gayot won’t be back this season.
Then there’s middle linebacker Kirby, a senior and “the heart and soul’’ of the Hurricanes’ defense, D’Onofrio said, and he was scheduled for season-ending reconstructive knee surgery on Wednesday after injuring his right knee last Saturday against Virginia Tech.
“It’s been crazy, to be honest with you,’’ D’Onofrio said.
Enter sophomore Juwon Young, a speedy, 6-2, 250-pounder who missed much of fall camp and the first two games with a sprained foot — and was jolted into the main role when Kirby went down with his right-knee injury at 6:54 of the third quarter.
So, there you have it, lots of season-ending injuries and a new starting middle linebacker for the Hurricanes (4-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) when they kick off against the Tigers (6-0, 3-0) at Sun Life Stadium.
If Young does as well against Clemson as he did in those 22 minutes against the Hokies, the Canes might even survive this storm. Young registered four solo tackles, a tackle-for-loss and his first career interception deep in Hokies’ territory late in the third quarter with UM up by a touchdown. Five plays later, UM led by 10 points.
“He did exactly what he was supposed to do,’’ D’Onofrio said, adding that Young, called “JY’’ by his teammates, “was exactly in the zone and mastered the route perfectly.
“He was perfect on those plays he made, and that’s really what we’re trying to teach our team. Be ready for your moment. You make plays by being prepared. You don’t make plays because you are a so-called playmaker.”
Young, from Albany, Georgia, said his Facebook and Instagram accounts “went crazy’’ after his “most productive’’ play “ever in a second half, period.
“It felt good for my confidence, boosted it a lot. It makes me feel I can trust myself more and do more.”
On Wednesday, outside linebacker Tyriq McCord said he still plays some strong-side and “a little bit’’ on third downs, but is now primarily at weak-side alternating with Grace.
McCord said Young “has done an unbelievable job’’ this week preparing for Clemson and his new role.
“Kirby really did a good job of mentoring him and showing him the right way,’’ McCord said.
“I told him there’s no pressure. Just go out there and play big. He’s a 250-pound [middle linebacker]. Play big, play physical, play ferocious. Just don’t think too much.”
Clemson is ranked 52nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 181.5 yards per game. Leading rusher Wayne Gallman, a 6-1, 215-pound sophomore, is third in the ACC with his 97.3 yards per game. He averages 5.51 yards per carry and has five touchdowns.
Watson, who can use his feet as well as his arm, has 234 yards and two rushing touchdowns — good for 4.1 yards per carry.
Young was asked what he wants to tell people about his upcoming first start.
“It’s time. It’s time, baby,’’ Young replied. “It’s time to make a difference. Kirby went down, so I’ve got to not come back as good as him, but come back better. Pick the defense up, everybody huddle around me and let’s win this Coastal [Division].”