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‘Fairly young but very talented’ Hurricanes linebackers getting chance to shine in spring practice

CORAL GABLES — Francisco Mauigoa, Wesley Bissainthe, K.J. Cloyd and Corey Flagg Jr. were the four linebackers with the most snaps for the Hurricanes last year.

Mauigoa is out for the spring due to injury, Cloyd is trying his luck in the professional ranks and Flagg transferred to Missouri, giving a young group of Miami linebackers a chance to impress their coaches during spring camp.

“We are fairly young but very talented,” said linebackers coach Derek Nicholson, who was promoted to co-defensive coordinator. “We’re competing every day, and it changes. It’s very fluid.”

Bissainthe, a Miami Central alum, will likely play an even larger role on this year’s team as he enters his third season with the Hurricanes. Bissainthe had 44 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last year.

“Huge step, mentally,” Nicholson said. “He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger, he’s more explosive, he’s got a clear understanding of not only what he’s doing, what the 11 pieces of the puzzle are doing, defensively, and he understands what the offense is trying to throw at him. Wesley has taken a jump. He’s had a really good offseason, and I’m really proud of his progression. But we’ve got a long way to go, and he understands that.”

Both Nicholson and head coach Mario Cristobal praised Bissainthe for the steps he has taken to be a leader among the linebackers.

“Just being more of a role model to (the young players) and just leading them to the promised land,” Bissainthe said.

Miami has three rising second-year, full-time linebackers: Raul “Popo” Aguirre Jr., Marcellius Pulliam and Bobby Washington. Two others, Malik Bryant and Kaleb Spencer, have spent time at other positions; Bryant has spent time at the “jack” edge rusher spot, and Spencer has played safety.

Cristobal said Aguirre, who was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, has stuck closely to Nicholson and has learned UM’s defense well.

“Popo has done a great job,” Nicholson said. “He’s continued to take steps, leaps and bounds from what he was at the end of the year, continuing to understand, have a great concept of, the defense. He communicates well. He’s confident in what he’s doing. This is his first spring. He didn’t come early last year. He has improved each and every day. That’s one thing Popo has done, and I’m excited about his future.”

Washington, the twin brother of wide receiver (potentially turned cornerback) Robby Washington, has also progressed. He is one of the faster players on the team and is working at strong-side linebacker as well as special teams.

“He’s continued to take steps and he’s continued to grow,” Nicholson said. “He didn’t play a lot for us last year, but he’s had a really good offseason so far.”

Miami also has two freshman linebackers on campus for spring football: Adarius Hayes and Cameron “Bobby” Pruitt. Pruitt was a long-time Miami commit despite pressure from Alabama to flip. Cristobal said he believes Pruitt will grow into a “spectacular” player.

“Cameron ‘Bobby’ Pruitt just has flashed,” Nicholson said. “Every day, seems like he’s making some type of flash play. He’s done a real good job of learning and having a clear understanding of the defense and playing with confidence. If there’s one thing you just notice, it’s his speed, his overall athleticism and his feel of the game, knowing his way around the football field in different spots because he’s also playing different spots, as well, depending on the package and what we’re doing.”

Hayes was a touted prospect, earning a four-star ranking in 247Sports’ composite rankings. He flipped from Florida on early signing day.

“Adarius, full pads, got all our stuff on, was out there today and he was thumping, so that was really good to see,” Nicholson said. “You can see him, confident, trotting around there, which you like to see from a young player.”

Mauigoa is expected to return in time for fall, but the Hurricanes’ spring practices give the whole linebacker corps a shot to prove they also deserve their share of playing time.

“It’s opportunities for everybody, continuing to get better and better,” Nicholson said. “When that happens, there’s competition. When there’s competition, that brings the best out of each and every individual, and that’s what you want.”