With seven sophomores and a dozen freshmen on his depth chart, Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark DOnofrio has endured a seasons worth of growing pains through seven games.
This University of Miami defense the youngest in the Atlantic Coast Conference with as many as seven first- or second-year players who are slated to start Saturday night against 12th-ranked Florida State is on pace to give up more points, more yards (rushing, receiving and total), more first downs and produce fewer sacks than any Hurricanes team ever.
But while Hurricanes fans grit their teeth in anger and frustration each time an opponent blows past one of DOnofrios young players, the 43-year-old former Penn State linebacker remains headstrong. He said his defense will grow up and eventually turn the corner. DOnofrio said he saw glimpses of growth particularly from his young corners and defensive tackle in the second half of Saturdays 18-14 loss to North Carolina, when UM gave up just three points and 173 yards.
But this weeks showdown with the Seminoles ranked sixth in scoring (46.0 points per game), 12th in total offense (530.57 yards per game) and armed with 6-5, 240-pound quarterback EJ Manuel (fourth-highest rated passer in the FBS) might turn out to be a challenge that is just out of the Hurricanes league.
The stats speak for themselves, DOnofrio said. The visual and picture of watching the tape does it even more justice for me. Manuel is just tremendous, and he has a tremendous supporting cast.
Its not a matter of saying youre going to take one guy away. You have to play team defense, and you have to execute. We were better last week, but we have to execute a lot better if were going to win.
The Hurricanes, who rank 118th out of 120 FBS schools in rushing defense (253.71 yards per game), 117th in total defense (506.57) and 93rd in scoring defense (32.29 points per game), already have made some moves this week to prepare for FSUs speed, size and athleticism.
Sophomore Denzel Perryman, who started all five games he has played in at middle linebacker, was moved to the weak side (where he played all of last year). Junior Jimmy Gaines, sophomore Gionni Paul and freshman Raphael Kirby will all split time in the middle, DOnofrio said, with whoever practices the best getting the start, and whoever plays the best getting to finish Saturdays game.
Denzel and Eddie [Johnson] are probably our two fastest guys, DOnofrio said. This gives us the ability to have guys who can cover in space, who can handle screens when theyre thrown to the perimeter and who can blitz off the edge, do those type of things. I think it suits us better where the guys competing for the mike position are better suited to find the ball inside and maybe not play in space as much.
A year ago in FSUs 23-19 win in Tallahassee, the Hurricanes produced three sacks for 17 yards and kept themselves in the game by limiting the Seminoles to just 63 yards rushing. This year, FSUs offensive line is much improved. It is giving up just one sack every 43 snaps (it was one sack every 20 snaps in 2011). UMs defense, meanwhile, hasnt produced a sack in its past two games and is on pace to finish with just 12 on the season four fewer than its previous worst (16) in 1984.
DOnofrio said he has been trying different schemes and pressures to create more opportunities, but players simply arent executing.
At the end of the day, on third down the job is to execute and get off the field, he said. If its third down and less than 6 [yards] and the guy is getting the ball out immediately, youre not going to get there. So, sometimes it makes sense to have another guy in coverage. Thats not going to be a sack situation, but it can be a bat-down situation. Right now, were not batting enough balls down. To me, those are as devastating as a sack.
DOnofrio said his staff has shown players film of what Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt does to get up and block passes. It just hasnt happened enough yet. UM has four batted balls from defensive linemen this season.
I cant really explain why we havent been able to get to the quarterback more, said defensive end Shayon Green, who has one pass breakup but no sacks this season despite leading the team with 42 tackles.
What encourages DOnofrio from last weeks game is that his defense cut down on the number of explosive plays it had been giving up in other games this season. UNC had just two runs of more than 20 yards and one catch for more than 20 yards.
I just think we came out with a more physical mind-set and did what we were taught during the week, cornerback Ladarius Gunter said of why UM did better versus UNC.
DOnofrio said the return of sophomore defensive tackle Olsen Pierre, who missed the Notre Dame game, helped the defensive line a lot against the Tar Heels. He also said freshman Earl Moore continues to improve. DOnofrio said he rotated five at tackle in all.
You play how you practice, DOnofrio said. All those young guys up front and guys like [freshman cornerbacks] Tracy Howard, Antonio Crawford have made a commitment to practicing better, particularly the last two weeks.
Theres no magic pill. You just cant come up there and be a playmaker on game day without putting the money in the bank. Thats in the film room and thats on their own and thats where were at. I think our guys are starting to realize that.