CORAL GABLES — For someone named after The Millionaire on “Gilligan’s Island,” Thurston Armbrister certainly hasn’t had much handed to him.
Last year it was Eddie Johnson. This fall, he’s facing touted freshman Alex Figueroa. Throw in a painful torn labrum suffered sometime last season, and the Miami’s outside linebacker has faced a few challenges in the past year.
But after losing the starting job to Johnson — the lone bright spot on the 2012 defense before he left Miami — Armbrister is in better shape for another battle. He is toe-to-toe with Figueroa, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound specimen who has turned heads since his first spring practice.
Armbrister, who is named for the infamously shipwrecked Thurston Howell III, moved ahead of Figueroa on the Aug. 9 depth chart. There’s still work to do, but it’s a long way ahead of where he stood in the winter.
Armbrister suffered the shoulder injury at some point in the 2012 season. He couldn’t remember when, but surgery came in January. Already on the small side for a linebacker after converting from safety, Armbrister lost significant weight after the injury. Down to 204 pounds after entering last August at 222, a new plan was necessary.
“I didn’t want to be an undersized linebacker anymore,” Armbrister said. “So I put in a lot of work in the offseason to get where I needed to be.”
Like many other Hurricanes linebackers, he changed his diet to add pounds. The difference is more than noticeable from a year ago.
His speed didn’t drop off, either. He ran 4.6 in the 40-yard dash last year and the same this August. The experience of losing the job to Johnson also helps in the competition this year.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” Armbrister said. “Everything isn’t as fast anymore. The game pace is slowing down and letting me make the plays.
After starting the season opener at Boston College and making three stops, Armbrister was replaced by the redshirt freshman with 18 extra pounds on his frame.
“As we went on, he just produced more,” Armbrister said. “I guess he weighed more. He played more aggressively than me.”
Johnson continued to progress, but later found trouble. He was suspended for games at Virginia and Duke and had a limited role against USF. Armbrister moved in to record career-highs with six stops apiece against USF and Duke — all with the torn labrum.
Size and maturity is the biggest difference senior middle linebacker Jimmy Gaines sees in Armbrister.
“He’s really starting to put it together,” Gaines said. “I’m excited for him.”
Sitting out spring practices, Armbrister saw Figueroa solidify himself atop the outside linebacker position. The junior still works with his competition to teach him the intricacies of the defense.
“He’s a very aggressive player, relentless,” Armbrister said. “He just has great instincts and finds ways to get to the ball.”
Tyriq McCord also spent some time working at that outside position when Armbrister was injured, but defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio likes the progress he’s seeing.
“I’ve always been a fan of the things Thurston can do,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s sneaky strong, even though he wasn’t at the weight we wanted him to be last year. He’s a guy who can bend. He’s got long arms and legs and he can bend and can play with pad level.”