Miami football 2020 preview: Linebackers

Redshirt senior linebacker Zach McCloud stands on the sidelines during Miami’s game versus the University of Virginia on Oct. 11, 2019. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

Change is coming to the linebacker core of the Miami Hurricanes.

For four years—dating back to head coach Manny Diaz’s time as defensive coordinator—UM had Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney on the back line of the front seven. Quarterman started every contest at linebacker from 2016 to 2019, setting a school record with his 52 consecutive appearances. His sidekick in Pinckney joined him in 49 of those contests, forming arguably the most prolific, consistent linebacking duo in the program’s recent history.

Both Quarterman and Pinckney are now graduated, leaving Diaz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker with a hole to fill at the position.

Zach McCloud, a redshirt senior, is returning and will be the de facto defensive quarterback. McCloud entered the program in the same class as Quarterman and Pinckney, and even started alongside the tandem in 2016 and 2017. The advent of the striker position by Diaz effectively eliminated one of the linebacker spots, cutting much of McCloud’s impact over the past two seasons. Making just four appearances last fall, he was able to take a redshirt and return this year for his fifth year.

The 6-foot-2 product from Lantana, Fla. has 137 total career tackles at Miami, including three and a half sacks. As one of the oldest players in the program, McCloud has been anointed into a leadership position, where he’ll command from the weakside linebacker spot. Having been playing with the same group of linebackers for four years, McCloud is now faced with a changing of the guard at the linebacker position.

One of the newcomers at the top of the depth chart is redshirt junior Bradley Jennings, whom McCloud spoke highly of.

“[He] is a tough guy,” McCloud said. “Being able to come back and not miss a beat…take the challenge and not flinch, that’s a great thing about him.”

Jennings missed the 2019 season while recovering from offseason hip surgery but is set to start Week 1 at the middle linebacker spot.

Sam Brooks is listed behind Jennings on the depth chart at the middle lineacker. While the sophomore is one of the younger players on the defensive side, he logged more playing time a season ago than both McCloud and Jennings. Brooks had 18 tackles in 2019 and registered his first career start in the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl against Louisiana Tech.

Rounding out the two-deep in the linebacking room is redshirt junior Waynmon Steed. Like Jennings, Steed missed out of 2019 due to offseason surgery. His most recent playing action came in 2018, when he made five appearances.

Baker says that even with prolonged absences, Steed and Jennings are ready to go for the season ahead.

“I didn’t know how’d they respond coming off serious injuries, being out for a year,” Baker said. “But those two guys are playing their tails off, they’re smart, they’ve been in this system for a long time, they’ve really matured just from a mentality standpoint. I think they’re going to surprise some people this year.”

In a season filled with many off-field uncertainties, linebacker is a spot where on-field uncertainty persists in preseason. Even with the new talent that Miami will showcase in 2020, a lack of two very familiar faces will be the top challenge the position group faces, at least at the start of the year.