There were plenty of times last season when coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said he went to his bench too much as he tried to plug the holes and solve the woes of a putrid Hurricanes defense.
“Last year we probably played 25 to 28 guys in certain games,” D’Onofrio said Tuesday. “We had too many guys on the field at the same time who were susceptible to a big mental error, a missed tackle, those sorts of things.”
The 16th-ranked Hurricanes, who host 60-point underdog Savannah State (1-2) on Saturday night, aren’t throwing the kitchen sink at opponents anymore. Bigger, stronger, deeper and finally with real veteran leadership, UM’s defense played only 19 players against Florida, D’Onofrio said, a sign there is finally a standard of excellence where only the best who can hold their own will play against the best.
“That was the right number for that game because at this point those 19 can execute at a high level and not have a drop-off where you get gashed or somebody is not in the right spot,” D’Onofrio continued. “I’d like to play more, but I’m not going to play more until they play at the level the 19 are executing at.”
A year ago, D’Onofrio said there were current third-team players on his defensive line who got upwards of 300 snaps.
With the additions of veteran players like senior defensive tackle Justin Renfrow and ends David Gilbert and Ufomba Kamalu, freshmen and sophomores who aren’t ready aren’t being pressed into action anymore.
The Hurricanes, ranked among the worst defenses in the country last season, are surrendering only 2.9 yards per carry this season and rank second nationally in red-zone defense.
“There is leadership. There’s accountability. There’s guys in the room who take a lot of pride in what they’re doing now as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, I’m on the team and I’m starting or I’m a backup,’ ” D’Onofrio said. “Like I mentioned [Monday], those guys were a starter or a backup on a team that wasn’t playing very well.
“You can pat yourself on the back for that or you can get better. The guys realize that. And they realize they had to do their job and execute better. By no means are we a finished product yet. We’re 2-0 and we’ve improved in some areas, and I expect us to continue to work hard to continue to improve.”
A big reason the team is also gelling on defense more, according to coaches and players, is that leaders have stepped forward. There is a level of accountability for mistakes and blown assignments between teammates.
“I think it started in the summer,” senior and defensive captain Shayon Green said.
“Not having the coaches around, the leaders, me and Stephen [Morris], Alonzo [Highsmith], Jimmy Gaines, the players saw who was in control. The coaches had been asking us, ‘Who was going to step up and do it?’ A lot of guys take PCP — Players Coaching Players. There’s a big difference from Coach saying it and Shayon saying it or Stephen saying it.
“When I tell a player to do something or we do something as a team, there’s no backlash anymore. If this is what we got to do to win, that’s what we’ll do. Weight room? Five minutes early? Guys listen. It’s all a big help.”
Green, Miami’s leading tackler a year ago, said he’s averaging about 20 fewer snaps a game than he did last season. Denzel Perryman, Miami’s workhorse at linebacker, said he was happy to see there was no drop-off against Florida the times he elected to come off the field because he was tired. He said backup Tyrone Cornelius more than held his own, and the coaches agreed.
“I feel like from my freshman year to now guys just aren’t afraid to say something to one another anymore,” Perryman said.
“Before, I don’t want to say we were afraid, but the coaches did all the yelling. Now, we kind of do it amongst each other. If I was to mess up on a play, Shayon will get on me, Jimmy will get on me instead of just Coach.
“Nobody is taking it negative, fighting among one another. I feel like that’s making us better.”