The Miami Hurricanes‘ linebackers have been one of the lagging units throughout all four games this year. Along with the wide receivers, they seem to be suffering from mental lapses and bad technique all around.
However, the talent is absolutely there.
There is a common misconception that Zach McCloud and Bradley Jennings are slow and not very athletic, but I would argue they are both very athletic, especially McCloud. Due to bad angles, poor reads and not playing well through blocks, they play a lot slower than they actually are. It’s easy to look fast when you play smart & always know where you are going.
Miami will play most snaps on defense with two true linebackers. The usual third linebacker is the striker position in Miami’s defense. The Hurricanes use one defensive tackle in a lot of sets, mainly Jordan Miller and Jonothan Ford too eat up space & allow their linebackers and strikers to attack the gaps when needed.
There has been a cry for youth at the position from Hurricane faithful as of late. Here’s a look at how Miami’s current starters are stacking up along with the guys who have played limited snaps at the position.
Zach McCloud and Bradley Jennings.
Miami’s most seasoned linebacker, fifth-year senior McCloud, came back with the highest expectations on defense. An expected leader, he was expected to take the reign of the defense and lead them to an ACC championship run.
Out of all of the Hurricanes linebackers with significant snaps, excluding Avery Huff, McCloud has graded out as the worst linebacker against the run and the third-worst against the pass, per Pro Football Focus. His worst outing came against Clemson, where he allowed 46 yards and two crucial touchdowns that killed the Hurricanes’ hopes of keeping the game close.
McCloud has tallied only nine tackles in 203 total defensive snaps while being third on the team in missed tackles with five. He flat out sticks out when he is on the field, and not for good things this season.
Bradley Jennings was the surprise starter over Sam Brooks this offseason. And while most expected Brooks to get the nod at the position and hit the ground running, Jennings has been underwhelming to put it nicely. He’s racked up 14 tackles in 167 defensive snaps and is fourth on the team in missed tackles all year with four. Jennings is a traditional downhill linebacker but has struggled with even what were supposed to be his strengths this year.
Both BJ and McCloud have shown no signs of progression in four games. McCloud has looked worse game by game when it comes to being in proper position and always seems to be a culprit when the Hurricanes’ defense allows a big play.
Jennings, while playing stout against the run on some plays, looks out of position consistently against the pass and run. Often times he will take himself completely out of the play while defending the run and has looked lost in coverage on multiple occasions. When targeted on defense, he allows an average of 15.4 yards per reception and has been targeted six times directly and allowed all passes to be completed against him.
McCloud and Jennings have been outplayed tackling wise by Bubba Bolden and Gilbert Frierson. Bolden and Frierson are consistently in position to at least make the tackle with good angles. Bolden is first overall on the team in total tackles with 24. Frierson has 17 total on the year and has excelled in both man and zone coverages. They are tackling better from a position where it is far tougher and requires more tackles in open space.
A case for the young guys.
Sam Brooks has played in a spell role for both BJ & McCloud. He’s played in 121 total snaps and it was announced after the Clemson game that he’s played with a lingering foot injury, which has limited his true game speed all year.
Despite some average play, Brooks, a sophomore, has shown flashes of high-level play. He did so against the number one team in the country in Death Valley. On consecutive plays, he made a nice run stop on Travis Etienne at the line of scrimmage. On the very next play, he made a nice pass breakup over the middle on a play-action play by Trevor Lawrence to force a third down.
When playing against the run all year, Brooks has outplayed both starting linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. He grades out with a 61.3 grade while McCloud and Jennings grade out with a 51.6 and 59.5 respectively. He’s allowed two touchdowns throughout four games in coverage.
As Brooks’ injury heals, expect to see him on the field more. He’s also still transitioning from having his hand down in high school to playing linebacker full time.
When asked about why Miami takes former DE and lines them up at linebacker, defensive coordinator Blake Baker stated that this was because you simply do not see many true linebackers playing the linebacker position in high school. Brooks has only gotten better with each snap. Look at him to be a full-time starter by the end of the year if the upperclassmen continue their less than stellar play.
Corey Flagg played 18 snaps in the first three games of the season before playing a total of 30 against Clemson in Death Valley. He saw most of his time against the Tigers likely because the defense was on the field for almost 40 full minutes.
As a true freshman against the number one team in the country, Flagg looked smarter and faster than the upperclassmen Miami currently has. On the same drive, Brooks made his consecutive stops and Flagg also forced a third down on consecutive plays. On first down, he made a nice downhill stop on Etienne followed by a second-down play where he rushes Lawrence into an incompletion. Flagg also recovered one of Bubba Bolden’s two blocked kicks.
Hardly out of position, Flagg’s biggest struggle was getting caught up in blocks and overrunning some plays. Despite this, he was constantly in position because he was able to dissect Clemson’s plays so quickly. Forcing runs inside and out, he flows to the ball well and looks like a natural at the linebacker position.
I did a breakdown after the Clemson game, and would frankly be very surprised if Flagg doesn’t take on a larger role for the remainder of the season.
Avery Huff has been an absolute mystery on the season. Probably Miami’s most physically imposing and naturally gifted linebacker, there is a lot of talks about him not being able to grasp the playbook although we do not know for sure as we have not seen him play.
When asked, coach Manny Diaz simply stated that he will play the guys that give the team the best chance to win. There is very limited tape on Huff as he’s only played five total snaps on defense this year.
Tirek Austin Cave has played just eight snaps this year in late-game situations. He made a nice tackle for loss late against FSU. Cave got his hands on a lot of footballs in high school and sticks out when he’s on the field with elite closing speed. I’m very excited about Cave’s future, and expect him to be a full-time starter as a sophomore or junior as he gains the necessary weight to play the position.
Clemson showed us what you can do with smart, instinctive guys at linebacker. Most of the guys the Hurricanes faced against them will go pro in something other than football. It didn’t look that way last Saturday, because they are hardly out of position and disciplined when making reads and taking angles.
The coaches have a tough decision this weekend against a hungry Pittsburgh team. I expect to see more of Flagg and Brooks rotating in if UM’s upperclassmen keep up the lackluster play.