The coordinates were constantly shifting, but the lateral boundaries always stretched from one sideline to the other. In Miami’s Orange Bowl nearly three decades years ago, Micheal Barrow, Darrin Smith and Jessie Armstead roamed an area they called the Bermuda Triangle.
“We came up with it, because once you went into the three of us, you disappeared,” Barrow says. “You got demolished.”
On Miami’s practice field today, three special young linebackers roam that area where running backs once vanished in a sea of orange and green.
Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud were a major reason the Hurricanes’ defense went from flimsy to fearsome in 2016, the first season under Mark Richt’s coaching staff. Making that all the more remarkable: None of them had previously played a down in college.
No other team in the nation started three newcomers at linebacker, and no other team in the Hurricanes’ 90-year history had such inexperience at that spot. But with those three true freshmen patrolling the second level, the Canes jumped from 106th nationally in tackles for a loss to fifth, 115th against the run to 17th, 86th in yards per play allowed to ninth and 77th in scoring defense to 12th.
They lose four seniors in the secondary, but the Hurricanes expect to have one of the best defenses in the ACC with a stout defensive line and a stalwart second level: Quarterman, the 6'1", 240-pound thumper in the middle; Pinckney (6'1", 228), whose mouth and feet move equally fast on the weak side; and strong-side man McCloud (6'2", 230), perhaps the best athlete of the three.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to do the numbers we did, for the defense to flip from one side of the spectrum to the other,” says Quarterman, who was named to multiple Freshman All-America teams. “Seeing that made us all realize, we can really do this. We realize we can be among the top [defenses], if we’re not already in some people’s eyes. With our whole front seven coming back, it’s going to be dangerous.”
Their coaches were playing with fire last year, putting pups in prominent positions. But the true freshmen earned their starting jobs in the spring, and when UM dismissed senior linebacker Jermaine Grace — arguably its best defensive player — in August for breaking NCAA rules, the training wheels came off.
Quarterman was third among ACC freshmen in tackles (84) and had more tackles for a loss (10.0) than any rookie ACC linebacker since Boston College’s Luke Kuechly (13.0) in 2009. He also led the Canes with eight quarterback hurries and three sacks. Pinckney (61 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks) and McCloud (37 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, blocked punt) made their share of highlight-reel plays.
Stats aside, these backers have skill, and plenty of that old-school swagger that made “The U” the most hated — and loved — team around.
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Quarterman says he wants to be the best No. 55 to ever play at Miami, and he sees his freshman year accolades as a slight: He wants to be an All-American in full. “The fact I have so many doubters, the fact I’m not regarded as the best linebacker right now, that’s what drives me,” he says. “This year I’m trying to be the best regardless of age.”
Like Quarterman, Pinckney hails from the Jacksonville area and grew up a Hurricanes fan. He was enamored with the history and tradition, and the style with which they played. But he didn’t kiss any rings when he got to campus.
After he settled in his dorm room last January with Quarterman and Lantana, Fla., native McCloud, Pinckney went to run at UM’s Greentree Practice Fields. The fences there are covered with large images of the 72 All-Americans who wore a Miami uniform. Pinckney focused on one of them: Ray Lewis, the greatest of all Hurricanes linebackers.
He laced up his cleats and sprinted. Up and down the field he went, each time passing a triumphant Lewis in his No. 52 jersey. He would repeat the same mantra:
“I’m better than you.”
It was both crazy and cocky, he admits. “But I feel like, man, you’ve got to say things like that, even if you know you’re not yet,” he says. “You’ve got to push yourself. … Somebody you grew up watching, you’ve got to be like, ‘I’m going to be better than you,’ and I’ve got the chance to do it. I’ve just got to fight to do it.”
Those old Miami stars know the feeling. From the first great Hurricanes player, 1960s legend Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, to 1980s standout Winston Moss, from the Bermuda Triangle trio to latter-day stalwarts Jonathan Vilma and Jon Beason, the best linebackers in Miami history say this trio is on track to be just as good as they were.
Barrow, 47, has a unique perspective. Before his current gig coaching the Seattle Seahawks’ linebackers, he held the same position at UM. The last two verbal commitments he secured before leaving Coral Gables: Quarterman and Pinckney. Quarterman, in particular, turned heads as soon as he got to Oakleaf High.
“Man, you wanted to check his ID,” Barrow says. “You’d think he was a senior. He just kept competing and fighting and trying to kill people out there.”
At nearby Raines High, Pinckney told Barrow from the beginning he wanted to be a Cane.
“It was so easy to talk to him because he did all the talking,” Barrow says of Pinckney, who chose No. 56 at UM to honor him. “What you see is what you get. He plays with emotion. He doesn’t fake it, he doesn’t hide it. He is who he is. And he backs up what he says.”
Pinckney believes Miami can “dominate. We know the scheme. We’ve been in it a year. We know the coaches. We’re used to the guys. We’re pushing for the ACC championship. That’s the first goal. Then the national.”
McCloud, a Santaluces High graduate who wears No. 53, simply says he’s “excited about the challenges to come.” Old-timers like Hendricks are excited about watching them.
“They’re a very talented bunch,” says Hendricks, 69, who won four Super Bowls as a pro and ranked 13th on Athlon Sports’ list of the greatest NFL linebackers. “They’re only going to get better with more experience. In their junior year, then we’ll really be good.”
Moss, who was part of the first Hurricanes title team (1983) as a freshman, knows that fearless linebackers are a prerequisite of a championship defense.
“I’m impressed,” says Moss, 51, the associate head coach and linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers. “They remind me of some of the guys we had back in the day, with the toughness, the smarts. When your linebackers are the lions of your team, you’re in good shape. The Hurricanes look like they’re in great shape, because it looks like they’ve got some young lions.”
Armstead, 46 and a consultant for the New York Giants, has high praise: “They can be one of the best linebacker groups ever to come through UM,” he says.
Vilma, who grew up watching Armstead and Lewis and learned his craft from Randy Shannon (his defensive coordinator), Nate Webster and Dan Morgan, ended a standout NFL career in 2015 and became an ESPN analyst. In that role, he has plenty to say.
“If they continue to grow, we’re only going to have them for three years instead of four,” says Vilma, 35. “I think that Pinckney is a little further ahead of Quarterman and McCloud because he understands angles right now. He’s very good in space. He’s a violent tackler. I like all three of them, but he’s the one that really stands out, being a true freshman and being able to play in space the way he did.
“Quarterman, he’s big. I hesitate to use the word ‘freakish,’ but for his size and being able to move the way laterally like he does … his hips are very fluid, and he can also play in space. He’s a big linebacker, but he’s not just relegated to first and second down. He can play in space as well. That ability right there, along with two more years of getting faster and stronger and more explosive, the sky’s the limit for him.”
McCloud, he says, is even more athletic, but “Quarterman and Pinckney are just a little more aggressive. … Just go get the ball. Don’t worry about the plays. You’ll figure out the plays as you get along in the season, and coach will coach you up.”
That’s a reminder that by the opening kickoff, all three will be 19 years old. They have much to learn, but their potential is tantalizing.
“They’re finding out greatness comes from being consistently good,” says Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “It’s not just the spectacular. It’s being where you’re supposed to be down after down. The good thing about all three, we know they’ll hit, we know they’ll strike.”
Just like a Miami linebacker should.
Written by Matt Porter (@mattyports) of PalmBeachPost.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.