STANDING TALL ON DEFENSE Miami linebackers in fast company as one of best trios ever

NEW ORLEANS -- Several years ago, they were brought together to the state where the sun shines bright and quarterbacks glitter. And while watching several Miami players work out for NFL scouts, Micheal Barrow reached this conclusion about himself and fellow linebackers Darrin Smith and Jessie Armstead.

"I thought all three of us could go in the first round," said Barrow. "We were fast. We were strong. We just needed to work hard to become the most destructive unit in college football."


And so they have. Three senior linebackers. Three potential first-round picks. And arguably the best trio ever assembled.

Need proof? Ask Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Joe Paterno at Penn State, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. And now Gene Stallings at Alabama, whose No. 2 Crimson Tide must face No. 1 Miami in theUSF&G; Sugar Bowl tomorrow night.


Stallings can sum up this group in one word.


"You can basically forget about going east and west," said Stallings. "Their linebackers are as fast as our receivers. They make mistakes, but they recover so quickly. There have been better individual linebackers in college football, but not one better group."

The three are the reflection of a system put in place by former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson and continued by his successor, Dennis Erickson.

The system takes advantage of speed, encourages resourcefulness and does not limit freedom.

Smith runs a 4.42 in the 40-yard -- and Armstead a 4.47. Barrow is the slowest of the group. He runs a 4.6.

"We recruited guys with speed and we let them use it," said Tommy Tuberville, Miami's linebacker coach. "We teach them technique, but we allow them to be able to deviate and do things on their own. These linebackers are not real big [Barrow is the heaviest at 230 pounds], but they play games with big offensive linemen. That's the only way they can survive."

Barrow knows all about surviving. His home was destroyed after Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida with wind gusts of 164 mph in late August.


He's now more appreciative of football.

"I saw something my mother work for all her life destroyed in one day," said Barrow. "That was incredible. I don't take this game for granted anymore. I play every game like it's my last."

Barrow, a middle linebacker, leads the team in tackles (12 per game) and big hits. That's why they call him "Bam Bam."

He also makes a lot of noise, mostly about himself.

When Barrow stood in front of cameras before the start of preseason practice, someone asked him to identify the large, pointed white objects dangling from the chain around his neck.

"Amp Lee's teeth," said Barrow of the former Florida State running back now in his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers.


"Mike keeps us in check," said Armstead. "He may mess up a little, but he makes that big play -- bam! Darrin makes those smooth plays and I make the quiet ones, just like our personalities."

Quiet, as in five sacks this season. Quiet as in pressure on the Penn State quarterback that led to an interception returned for a touchdown. Despite suffering ligament damage in his right knee in 1990, opponents know Armstead is flying around the field somewhere. He has81 tackles this season.

Teammates call him "Superman."

"Jessie came into this program with more notoriety out of high school than any of us," said Barrow. "Once he got injured, all the publicity subsided. But Jessie will get his. The NFL will see to that."

Smith can cover any running back or wide receiver one on one, hence the nickname "The Flash." He was a Butkus Award semifinalist for the second straight year and a repeat second-team All-American. He was second on the team with 106 tackles.

All three linebackers love to compete, from checking to see who has the most tackles to who has the biggest biceps. They even had a contest to see who was best-looking.


"Former players help keep our egos out of the way," said Smith. "They keep our heads from getting too big."

Well, sometimes.

When The Sporting News preseason college football issue came out, the publication ranked the top 10 linebacking groups in the nation, and Miami's wasn't mentioned.

"Nobody disses on the 'Bermuda Triangle,' 'The Hit Squad' like that," Barrow said. "We called them and let them know who we were. I betcha they know who we are now.

"I'm going to miss these guys," Barrow added. "That's why I only look forward. If I looked back, I might start to cry from the memories."