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By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) -- A middle linebacker is expected to have a major impact on a game, not only making sure the defense is lined up correctly but also making big plays.
And in his first college start at that crucial position, Miami's Denzel Perryman did just fine.
In the Hurricanes' season opener last week, on the road at Boston College, Perryman returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown. It came on the final play of the first quarter and enabled the 'Canes to tie the game at 14 after they had fallen behind by two touchdowns. The 'Canes eventually went on to win 41-32.
"Clearly a quick strike like that really gave us some momentum and just got us back to a level playing field," said Miami coach Al Golden. "That was a big play in the game just to get us settled down, to give us a chance to regroup."
Perryman said a blitz was called and his job was to stick with the Eagles' running back. If he stayed in to block, Perryman's next key was to read the eyes of quarterback Chase Rettig.
"I took a step up and realized the running back was blocking, so I immediately snapped my eyes to the quarterback's eyes," Perryman said "I saw he was looking to my left the whole time. So I started to shuffle over to my left and as he was getting ready to throw the ball I decided to break that way. When he released the ball it popped right into my hands."
Securing the ball was the first step. Then came the second, just as important.
"When I caught the ball, I knew it was open field, just straight green, and I've got to get there as fast as I can," he said. "When I had the ball I wasn't thinking about the score or anything, I was just thinking about getting to the end zone. I didn't realize it was the end of the first quarter."
BC coach Frank Spaziani didn't think the game turned on that play but agreed it shifted the momentum at the time.
"Their linebacker was a good football player that made a nice play," he said. "We might have gone to the well a little bit too often. Chase (Rettig) didn't see him, obviously, and we might have been able to help him out a little bit there. But kudos to the Miami kid. He made a nice play."
Perryman finished the game with seven tackles, five solo. He's used to that, having recorded 69 tackles last season, second most on the team. That was as a strong side linebacker ("Sam," in football terminology), where he played as a true freshman. He appeared in all 12 games, with five starts.
The Hurricanes lost an excellent middle linebacker, Sean Spence, to the NFL. When injuries took their toll at the position in fall camp, they turned to Perryman. He had played the middle (called "Mike") in high school but had grown accustomed to the outside spot in college.
"It's a big difference," he said of the switch. "Playing outside, it's making more coverage calls with the tackle and defensive end, (making sure) who's blitzing. At Mike, you've got to make more one-on-one calls, you have to know where a lot of people have to line up, you've got to make all kinds of checks. When they first told me to move to Mike, the next day in practice it was really difficult because I really didn't know anything."
Perryman solved that by talking with some other "Mikes" on the team and huddling with linebackers coach Micheal Barrow. They went through the playbook and Perryman began to get a feel for the position.
"I think anytime you have somebody that's strong, explosive, has the speed to match it, you owe it to yourself to see if he can instinctively see (the game) as a middle linebacker," Golden said. "Many young players can't. They're better at playing one side of the ball or the other. If you can move in there, he's still instinctive, still playing fast, then you have a chance for a special one."
Perryman realizes he's a bit under-sized at 6-feet and about 225 pounds. But he said he makes up for it with speed, power, agility, endurance and toughness. Not to mention another attribute.
"Right now I love it," he said of playing the middle. "I feel like I have that passion for it."
Perryman has a lot to live up to. When he was at Coral Gables High School, a mere two blocks from the Miami campus, he used to go to Hurricanes practices. He became friends with Jonathan Vilma, one of the school's best ever at the position. And he wears jersey number 52, made famous by Ray Lewis, who starred for the Hurricanes before becoming one of the best ever middle linebackers in the NFL.
When Perryman signed with Miami, he was asked for three uniform numbers he liked. He picked numbers 2 (from high school), 12 (his older brother's number) and 52. The other two were taken, so when he was given 52, he realized he couldn't be just an ordinary player.
"I heard (when Lewis was at Miami) he was real hard-working, one of those guys who would stay here late," Perryman said. "He became successful because nobody worked harder than him. He was a smart guy, always knew where to be, called the offensive plays before they even happened. He really studied the film."
That's a habit Perryman has picked up, which hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Nobody prepares harder for the game than he does," Golden said. "He studies film and seldom (makes) a mental error."
Perryman said it was important for the 'Canes to start their season by winning a conference game. Their task this week is another tough one, a road game at 21st-ranked Kansas State. When the teams met last year, the Wildcats won 28-24 last year, stopping Miami at the goal line on fourth down late in the game. Most of that Wildcat team returns, including quarterback Collin Klein, who passed for two scores and ran for another.
"They have a great offense with a real good quarterback and good offensive linemen," Perryman said. "We have to put (the BC game) behind us and move forward."
One other thing about Perryman: Yes, he was named after Denzel Washington. His own favorite film of the actor is the intense "Training Day," which he says he watches often. Perryman said his parents also considered naming him Sebastian.
"I think my dad said he had a real good friend (by that name), but Denzel ended up being my name and I'm happy for that," he says.
And, by any name, Miami is happy he's playing middle linebacker.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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