- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2016

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) - Miami has tinkered with its longstanding tradition of having players run through plumes of white smoke onto the field at game time.

This year, there are also flames.

Fitting, since some Hurricanes are getting thrown into the fire.

Having three true freshmen start at linebacker wasn’t what Hurricanes coach Mark Richt envisioned even a few weeks ago, but the rental-car access scandal that cost Miami its three leading tacklers from 2015 helped force the team’s hand. As such, it’s Shaquille Quarterman, Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney - three guys who were playing high school ball 12 months ago - who are the first-string linebackers for the 25th-ranked Hurricanes.

“We have tremendous potential,” Quarterman said. “The thing I can honestly say, we can take it as far as we want to go. We have tremendous buy-in. Our coaches talk about it all the time, so as long as we continue to press the issue of getting better every day, not taking our gas off the pedal no matter if we’re up by 63 points or one point. We have to fight every down. As long as we do that, the sky’s the limit.”

So far, so good.

Miami rolled over an overmatched Florida A&M; 70-3 in the opener, returned to the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2013 and now the Hurricanes (1-0) figure to get a bigger test at home on Saturday night against Florida Atlantic (1-0).

The tape from such a one-sided game didn’t exactly show much, but Owls coach Charlie Partridge is already duly impressed with Miami’s teen trio of linebackers - all of whom arrived on the Hurricanes’ campus together in January.

“They’re fast and they can really run,” Partridge said. “They come with conviction when they get to the point of contact. They’re ahead of their years in terms of how they play. I believe all three of them were early enrollees, so you can feel that from them. They play with a lot of confidence. They’re having fun.”

They are, but it’s not exactly fun times at Miami right now on the depth front.

Defections and injuries are already taking a toll, and the season has barely started.

Two defensive starters were dismissed from the team after an investigation into how they had access to luxury car rentals, and a third player didn’t even wait around for the probe to be completed before he left and enrolled elsewhere. And then in the first quarter of the Florida A&M; game, redshirt freshman linebacker Jamie Gordinier - who would have logged plenty of time for this team - tore a knee ligament and saw his season come to an end.

“We don’t have any choice,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We have to have a bunch of guys play. We’ve got to have guys share snaps for us to succeed. You’ll ultimately pace yourself if you’re playing every snap. We have what we have and just like we said on Saturday, everybody’s got a role to play and everybody’s got to play.”

Thing is, there aren’t very many options left.

That puts even more pressure on the freshman starters. Quarterman is the analytic one, Pinckney is the high-energy one and McCloud is the quiet one.

“We feed off each other a lot,” Quarterman said.

And teammates say they’re ready to handle whatever comes their way.

“They’re mature,” Miami wide receiver Braxton Berrios said. “I think coming in they all knew they had a chance to start. I don’t know if all three of them knew; I don’t think anybody would have guessed that with everything going on this offseason. They were ready. They were ready when their number was called and I think all of that is just part of maturity. They really came in with a good mindset.”

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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