The University of Miami brought back 17 lettermen on defense before making some major improvements in 2014.
It rose from 90th to 14th in total defense (426.4 yards allowed per game to 329.6); from 76th to fifth in the plays of 20 yards or more allowed (61 to 39); and from 66th to 37th in scoring defense (26.8 to 24.3).
“Those were dramatic improvements,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “Now we have to take the next step.”
That next step: being more disruptive at the line of scrimmage and creating more tackles for loss (UM ranked 105th with 4.92 tackles for loss per game) and sacks (68th, 2.08 sacks per game), playing better red zone defense (UM ranked 78th in allowing touchdowns), stopping teams on third down (UM ranked 72nd at 40.31 percent) and creating more takeaways (Miami ranked 41st with 23 takeaways).
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Coach Al Golden added being called for fewer penalties, too. Last year, UM’s defense gave up 29 first downs via the penalty (113th nationally) — a whopping 19 more than in 2013, when it allowed the 12th-fewest.
Even with Butkus Award finalist Denzel Perryman and five other defensive starters gone, there are reasons to believe Miami’s defense could continue to improve this season. Just like last year, the Hurricanes bring back 17 players from their defensive rotation, and have depth on their defensive line and experience at the safety position that they haven’t had before, D’Onofrio said.
Plus, there are a few impressive freshmen turning heads (defensive lineman Kendrick Norton and cornerback Sheldrick Redwine) in camp, and a few veterans who were redshirted last season (defensive linemen Jelani Hamilton and Quan Muhammad) that will fill important roles.
Basically, there are a lot more bodies around — bigger in size and built the way Golden wants them —to run D’Onofrio’s hybrid scheme, which he has spent four years installing and trying to perfect. In other words, it all might finally be coming together on defense the way Golden wants.
“Oh yeah — this is fun,” Golden responded Wednesday when asked if he finally feels like he has the type of size and depth up front needed to run this defense. “Just seeing the guys compete and having all the noses look the same and all the ends kind of look the same and the tackles, having some speed rushers, this is good.”
The Hurricanes haven’t had a pass rusher produce more than five sacks in a season since Allen Bailey had seven and Olivier Vernon had six in 2010. Asked who his best pass rusher was Wednesday, D’Onofrio said he couldn’t name just one because “we have a two-deep right now that I feel very strongly about when it comes to rushing the passer.”
That could be coach-speak or a way to say no one has really separated themselves. Of all the defensive linemen, the only players consistently praised have been senior tackle Calvin Heurtelou and Norton, the 6-3, 310-pound freshman who has continued to impress.
The only defensive players D’Onofrio said are locked into jobs heading into Saturday’s pivotal, depth-chart-setting scrimmage are middle linebacker Raphael Kirby and weak-side linebacker Jermaine Grace. The strong-side linebacker job is a battle between sophomore Darrion Owens and senior Tyriq McCord. The rush-end spot continues to be a battle between redshirt sophomore Al-Quadin Muhammad and sophomore Trent Harris.
After Juwon Young’s foot injury, Owens has moved to backup middle linebacker to get reps and can play all three linebacker spots, D’Onofrio said. Freshman Jamie Gordinier and redshirt freshman Terry McCray are providing depth there. The backup weak-side linebacker spot is being fought for by converted sophomore safety Marques Gayot and freshmen Charles Perry and James King.
“I think guys are flashing at times,” D’Onofrio said. “What we’re looking for is consistency.”
D’Onofrio said in his eyes he has three starting cornerbacks in veterans Corn Elder, Artie Burns and Tracy Howard. Elder and Howard are interchangeable in the nickel scheme. D’Onofrio said he expects two freshmen to serve as the fourth and fifth cornerbacks.
“I think Redwine, Michael Jackson and Terrance Henley will all play for us. Some of their roles are going to be bigger than others,” he said. “The two best special-teams players out of the three will probably get the nod.”
At safety, where veterans Deon Bush (20 career starts), Rayshawn Jenkins (12 starts), Dallas Crawford (five starts) and Jamal Carter (two starts) are all competing, the starting jobs “are really up for grabs,” D’Onofrio said.
He added that in a pinch Bush and Crawford could also move to corner to provide depth. Freshman safety Jaquan Johnson, a former Miami Killian standout, will likely see most of his early action on special teams.
“I’ll know better after Saturday night [how many guys will be in the defensive rotation],” D’Onofrio said. “There’s just certain positions right now where somebody might get the job that’s a freshman just because we don’t have the same depth at that spot that we do somewhere else.
“Again, when you talk in terms of returners we return about 17 guys that played for us last year and then another four guys that redshirted that played for us the previous years. We have enough experience back.”
It’s been a while since a Hurricanes defensive coordinator said that.