Some of the performances by the UM football team’s defense last season had fans calling for the firing of defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. After all, the Hurricanes gave up more than 500 total yards in five of their last six games.
When coach Al Golden said he would retain D’Onofrio and the entire staff at his end-of-the-year press conference, Golden alluded to improvement coming in the form of continuity, incoming talent and development of current personnel.
Through seven spring practices in Golden’s fourth season with Miami, those improvements are beginning to come to fruition.
“The group, overall, there’s more collaboration, there’s more communication, there’s less mental errors and they’re just executing a lot better right now,” Golden said.
The communication more evident thanks to group text messages sent amongst the players on defense during time off. Although players compete against each other for positioning on the depth chart, the texts involve upperclassmen and younger players alike trying to get better as a unit.
Junior defensive tackle Jelani Hamilton, who is trying to become a starter and finally feeling healthy after battling knee issues his first two seasons, said this is the first time he has seen this level of leadership and cohesiveness.
“The fact that we’re talking to each other off the field, it brings greater communication on the field,” junior safety Deon Bush added.
The linebackers appear to be the strongest unit at this point. At Saturday’s practice, Thurston Armbrister was seen in a black jersey, which symbolizes a starter and/or leader on defense — making it four linebackers joining Denzel Perryman, Raphael Kirby and Alex Figueroa.
Kirby, who spent most of last season behind Jimmy Gaines at middle linebacker, is now playing on the weak side while Perryman, who opted in the offseason not to enter the NFL Draft to return for his senior season, mans the middle. Armbrister and Figueroa will battle it out on the strong side.
However, if you ask quarterback Ryan Williams, he said the secondary he has to compete against is currently the top unit.
Sophomore Jamal Carter got his black jersey back for Saturday’s practice after losing it temporarily. According to Golden, the 6-1, 207-pound safety is coming into his own this spring.
“It’s lightyears right now, just his maturity, his preparation,” Golden said. “He’s experienced now, so he’s playing with a lot more poise, and he is a physical, explosive [safety].”
Carter, who was carrying his 8-month-old son after practice, says having a baby has accelerated his maturity. It’s evident on the field, as well. He had a sack and laid loud hits on wide receiver Herb Waters and running back Walter Tucker on Saturday.
“Right now I know the game better. I’m trying to be a playmaker this year,” said Carter, allowing Jamal Jr. to have sips of his Gatorade. “I have more football IQ. I’m more loose. The game has slowed down.”
With several starters returning and plenty more emerging as potential starters, it appears D’Onofrio should have the weapons he needs at his disposal for a successful season.
THIS AND THAT• Defensive tackle Olsen Pierre did not return to practice after making an early exit Tuesday, limping off the field. Golden said he should come back next week.
• Waters was a full participant for the first time all spring.
• Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Olsen took snaps with the first team like Golden said he would on Thursday, although Ryan Williams remains solid as the No. 1 quarterback. Olsen was thrown into a two-minute drill and converted a 4th-and-long on a drive that resulted in a touchdown pass to Waters.
• Practice, which lasted about two-and-a-half hours, ended with linemen making comical attempts to field punts. Anthony Chickillo made a diving catch near the sidelines while questionably waving his right hand in the air for a fair catch. And Hamilton did a Ray Lewis dance as his teammates mobbed him after successfully hauling in his attempt.