What happens when you take a defensive line that struggled last year to stop the run, didn’t make enough disruptive plays and lost its premier pass-rusher (Al Quadin-Muhammad) just a week before the season?
That would seemingly be a harbinger for disaster, but that has hardly been the case with the University of Miami.
Through three games, albeit against the weakest part of their schedule, Hurricanes defensive linemen have been exemplary, a big reason why Miami leads the nation in tackles for loss and sacks per game.
The numbers are staggering:
• UM already has 40 tackles for loss, compared with 66 all of last season. They have 13 sacks, compared with 26 last year.
• They’re allowing 1.6 yards per carry, which ranks second in the nation behind only Houston, compared with 5.4 last season, which ranked 118th of 128 FBS programs.
• They’re permitting 65 rushing yards per game, compared with 210 last season, which was 107th.
And they’re doing it with largely the same personnel on their defensive line, minus an NFL prospect in Muhammad, who was tossed from the team for his role in a luxury car scandal.
The enormous caveat, of course, is that UM’s defensive line hasn’t been tested by a formidable Atlantic Coast Conference opponent yet.
Over the next two weeks, the Hurricanes face a Georgia Tech team that ranks 36th in rushing yards per game (217) and a Florida State team that ranks 21st (244).
The early signs have been encouraging, and a byproduct not only of individual improvement, but also the coaching of coordinator Manny Diaz and highly-regarded defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who developed four first-round defensive linemen at Missouri.
Kuligowski has “taught us a lot to help us out,” defensive tackle Kendrick Norton said Wednesday. And “we have the freedom to attack more and just go. That’s been a big help, just being able to go and not have to worry about a lot of different things.”
Diaz said he is pleased with all five defensive tackles --- starters Richard McIntosh Jr. and Norton, as well as reserves Gerald Willis, Courtel Jenkins and Anthony Moten, though “as coaches, we all believe they have a ton more improvement left in them.”
Kuligowski smartly moved McIntosh from end to tackle last spring because “he looks like a tackle.”
Norton already has 4.5 tackles for loss, and McIntosh and Willis 3.5 apiece, even though Willis was suspended for the opener.
With starters McIntosh and Norton, “you can tell the job the strength staff had done with them over the summer,” Diaz said. “It had made a big impact with the way they have played. We always felt like the other guys weren’t far behind. The key is at that position, if you rotate a lot of guys, because that’s hard duty in there, your better players play better because they can be fresher. In a 4-3 defense, your tackle play is where it all begins.”
At defensive end, Chad Thomas’ improvement has been dramatic. He has 15 tackles, five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in three games, compared with 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 16 games under the former staff.
One key: He’s in significantly better shape.
“The big thing with his body, and he’s an example for the entire team,” Diaz said, “is his conditioning level and the way he got into shape, and that goes into everything, that goes into the work of our nutrition staff, the work of the strength staff.
“It sounds so obvious but you can’t play your best if you’re not in great shape. Ultimately, fatigue makes cowards of us all. You will start to pace yourself and when you pace yourself you will not be playing at the physical best of the gifts you have been blessed with. The fact he’s in better shape and can go harder gives you an extra confidence.”
And, Diaz said: “When you are stronger, you are more confident. He knows he’s stronger; those are numbers that are measurable. He was able to take all those things on the field and be able to play better. You are going to play better defensive end in year three of your college career regardless of scheme, coach, anything else. It’s a position that just takes a while to learn the ropes. In no way does he have the game whipped. But you are seeing the natural maturation of a football player.”
With AQM booted from the team, UM also is getting good work from defense end Demetrius Jackson, who has started all three games and has five tackles for loss and two sacks.
“We need [Jackson] to be stout vs. the run,” Diaz said. “He still has a ways to go as a pass rusher. Some of the sacks he’s had have been in situations where he was unblocked. One thing I’m impressed with, with Demetrius, in the first month of the season is his effort. He’s making a lot of plays where he’s coming in out of the stack. We’re making a tackle two yards down field and he’s coming in and getting an extra pop on the ball carrier.”
Defensive end Trent Harris, who has been playing with a cast over his injured hand, is expected to contribute more as his injury heals.
“We are getting Trent more into the lineup,” Diaz said. “He’s been wearing this crazy cast on his hand; it’s hard to play with a pillow on your hand.”
Freshmen ends Joe Jackson (two sacks) and Pat Bethel also have given UM some quality snaps, and Scott Patchan is working his way back from a torn ACL.
So the early signs suggest a significantly improved defensive line, but the next two games will provide a more telling gauge.
Georgia Tech “is a game that always favors players that have played against this team before and we don’t have a ton of those guys,” Diaz said, referring to the d-line and UM’s three freshmen linebackers. “They’ve got to respond the way we’ve coached them to over the last two weeks.”
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