Barry Jackson

What UM is doing differently to try to get juniors to stay in school and where things stand

After watching several juniors turn pro and then go late in the draft or not at all in recent years, UM decided to meet with its draft-eligible players earlier than usual. And there’s optimism that the Canes will hold onto most, if not all, of their juniors.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz confirmed Tuesday he has met with junior linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Mike Pinckney and Zach McCloud and defensive end Joe Jackson.

None are projected as first-round picks, with Jackson (six sacks, 12 tackles for loss, interception return for a touchdown) considered by some analysts to be the best prospect in that group.

Diaz said UM had those meetings “earlier than usual” to “plant the seed.” Previously, UM met with draft-eligible juniors after the regular season.

A source in contact with the linebackers said he expects all three to return to school, but that it’s not certain. Some expect Jackson to turn pro, but that, too, is far from certain and it’s possible he could return.

Asked if he expects the junior linebackers to return next season, Diaz said: “I don’t think that would be fair for me to say, but I feel like they’re going to make a good decision.”

It’s frustrating enough that UM continues to lose juniors to the NFL while Clemson — the ACC’s gold standard — this season saw three potential top 15 draft picks (defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins and defensive end Clelin Ferrell) bypass the NFL to return to school.

But this is even more exasperating: The Canes — during the past two years — lost three juniors who aren’t even on 53-man NFL rosters (Kendrick Norton, Joe Yearby and Brad Kaaya), another who was a fifth-round pick (Richard McIntosh Jr., who’s back on the Giants’ roster after missing most of the season with a thyroid issue) and a fourth-rounder (Mark Walton) who has 24 yards rushing on 13 carries in his rookie year for the Cincinnati Bengals.

All of this irks some UM people, but the Hurricanes don’t quite know what to do about it.

“Just because you’re the best player on Greentree [practice field] doesn’t mean you’re the best player in the nation or the dudes in the NFL,” Richt said on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline. “Sometimes you need another year to develop and mature. Sometimes it is time to go. It’s person by person.

“The guys that are excited about leaving [to be a] fourth-, fifth-round draft pick kind of boggles my mind. But God bless them.”

Diaz points out that even though three top Clemson juniors returned to school, two others left early and were drafted very late.

“Same culture, same place,” Diaz said. “These are individual kids that make individual decisions. Our responsibility is to educate them to what they’re jumping into. We have done that with our guys this year so they can make the most educated decision possible.

“At the same time, they have to make the best decision for themselves. We would be selfish to say we want what’s best for UM. There is a scenario where what’s best for them is also best for UM. But everyone’s situation is unique and some people have to take the choice on for different reasons. I feel confident about the way we talked to our guys and I think they are going to make their decisions.”

Offensively, Travis Homer is one junior who faces a decision about turning pro; ESPN’s Todd McShay said before the season that he could rise to a second-day pick with a great year. But he isn’t rated among the top 10 running back prospects by the top analysts. The source said he wasn’t sure what Homer will do.

Richt cracked earlier this year that he would give Jackson some tight end snaps and use him as a receiver in the red zone if it would persuade him to come back for his senior season. Is he serious?

“I will throw a fade or two to him [if he returns],” Richt said Tuesday, smillng.

On the issue of juniors turning pro, athletic director Blake James sees it this way: “Selfishly as a fan, I would love to see them stay longer here. But they have to do what they feel is best for them and their family. There are so many pieces we don’t know” such as family financial situation.

I found it interesting that UM continues to pay for the education of players who turn pro early, no matter when they return to get their degrees. Should UM stop doing that for players who turn pro early, to remove an incentive to turn pro?

James said he has no interest in taking away that perk.

“I would never do that,” James said of an idea implemented under former UM president Donna Shalala, who advocated it. “We made a commitment to them academically. Mark has never brought up [stopping those payments] and president [Julio] Frenk never has. It has never been a conversation for us and philosophically, I would be opposed [to stopping those payments]. But the NCAA is going in the direction where that won’t be an option” anyway.

So why is UM losing juniors who aren’t even high draft picks? Kaaya (who was released injured by the Colts in August and placed on injured reserve) and Norton (a seventh-round now on Carolina’s practice squad) were simply ready to move on, even though UM advised Norton he likely wouldn’t be a high pick.

Yearby wanted to support his family and didn’t believe he would play much as a senior at UM, though he couldn’t find a job in football last season and is now with Orlando of the Alliance of American Football. The problem there was that Gus Edwards should have told Yearby he was transferring to Rutgers, which might have made Yearby rethink his decision.

McIntosh might have returned to UM if his close friend, Norton, had done so, according to a family member of McIntosh. Norton felt he would be happier in the NFL than as a college student/player. Privately, UM people gripe about players turning pro and wonder whether fancy cars and jewelry displayed by former Canes players might push them to leave early.

The Hurricanes believe they are especially vulnerable against older teams such as Wisconsin last year and Virginia and Boston College last year because they can never get old themselves, essentially, because of early departures.

“Guys that have been around the block are more mature physically, have had the cumulative reps in games to understand what it’s all about,” Richt said. “It helps to have a veteran team. Boston College has a veteran team.”

Related stories from Miami Herald