Two weeks into UM fall camp, there’s beginning to be some level of clarity for UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Diaz shared in-depth analysis on where things stand at each position:
• At cornerback, it appears Citadel transfer Dee Delaney is on track to be one starter, which is no surprise.
“On the back end, the story in the secondary right now has been the development of Dee Delaney,” Diaz said. “Dee is really coming. He’s really starting to assert himself. And if he keeps working the way he’s working, then he’s going to be exactly what we envisioned when we brought him here. The other guys are all battling. They’re all battling. We’re not ready to name anybody No. 1 and No. 2. But we think we have guys that can play. We really feel we have five corners and five safeties that all have a chance to see playing time this year and help us out.”
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I asked Diaz if he sees skills in Delaney that make him recognize why he’s an NFL prospect?
“The one thing that shows up is that if you throw it near him, he’s going to catch the ball. That’s one thing where we were a little bit lacking. It’s almost starting to be one a day; it’s getting to that point. You can see his comfort level on the field in terms of being the guy. It’s hard sometimes coming in where you’re the one new guy. He knows he has four months to make a massive impression. Dee feels he knows it’s his last go-around.”
As for the second starting corner job, how tough a call will it be between Malek Young and Jhavonte Dean when UM is in base defense?
“It’s not just Jhavonte,” Diaz said. “It’s Michael Jackson.”
Are all three really close? “Yes. And then [freshman Trajan] Bandy has as good a feet at the line of scrimmage as anybody we have right now. We could really see him being a big time nickel for us.
“We don’t necessarily make the third corner the first nickel. It could be a safety. Jaquan played it some last year. So it comes down to: How do we feel with our third safety being in the game as opposed to how we feel with our third corner.”
Diaz said Young will be in the nickel corner mix as well.
• At safety, Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine continue to run with the starters, but Diaz said they haven’t become certain starters (though that seems likely).
“Redwine and Jaquan have played at the highest level of camp, but they’re not at the point where you’re ready to say it’s a no-brainer,” Diaz said. “We loved Redwine’s tackling from a year ago. That was one of the reasons we wanted to put him inside [and move from him cornerback] The new play at safety is the ball coming right at you. That is the hardest play to practice.”
How much distance is there between Redwine and the next three safeties - freshman Amari Carter, Robert Knowles and Romeo Finley (in no particular order)?
“Even Jaquan, I don’t know that we feel like anybody in the back end is a sure fire No. 1 if we were going to rank the guys at each position,” Diaz said. “Jaquan has the edge in experience, but he hasn’t been the day to day guy. He’s still learning how to do that. Romeo Finley did have a really good day on Staurday and Amari Carter is still doing a lot of really good things. It’s like one big pot of guys, and what it’s going to come down is everybody in the back end fighting against their weakness. When they can conquer that, he’s really good, but. The guy with the smallest ‘but’ is going to play.
• Diaz said two stories have evolved at linebacker:
No. 1: “[Shaq] Quarterman and [Zach] McCloud just raising their game to a different level, which has been obvious.
No. 2: “In the absence of Mike Pinckney [who has missed time with an injury], Mike Smith and Darrion Owens closing the gap where we felt like a year ago, when those guys weren’t on the field, you weren’t sure what you had. Now we feel like that dropoff, whatever role they have when it’s all said and done, we feel like that dropoff will be a lot less.
Darrion is more comfortable in the scheme, more confident in himself. Mike Smith the same way. Mike Smith has positional flexibility; he can play mike or will, which is a blessing for us. And then De’Andre Wilder has been a pleasant surprise. He has really done some nice things over at SAM linebacker. Provides a speed element out there that we really kind of want in that position. So he’s been one of the pleasant surprises in camp for us.”
• At defensive end, Diaz said: “Chad Thomas is still leading the line there. You could see it the first day we came back in January. The strength coaches immediately noticed the way he worked in the weight room. He had always been good, but it went to a different level. In February, we did on early-morning mat level program. He had always been good but he took it to a different level. Spring practice, he elevated his game. When you’re a player and you have measurable things that you know you’ve improved on, that’s how you gain confidence you’re going to improve this year. You always need your seniors to play their best ball. We don’t have a lot of seniors on defense. We expect a lot out of Chad this year.”
Beyond Thomas, “Joe Jackson has been very productive and is starting to hone in more of some of the responsibilities on the quarterback run game, things like that, which was a weakness of his a year ago. So that’s been a positive. I thought [freshman Jonathan] Garvin on Saturday in the stadium, it didn’t look too big for him. He just played. So that’s encouraging.”
I asked Diaz if he and Craig Kuligowski can find enough playing time for seven defensive ends - Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Demetrius Jackson, Trent Harris, Scott Patchan and impressive freshmen D.J. Johnson and Garvin if the last three prove worthy of playing time?
“Yeah, without a doubt, because we already see what happens throughout the year last year. We have different packages we can use to utilize the strengths that we have. The attrition that happens, you can never have too many guys that can rush the passer.”
• At defensive tackle, the top four are clear: Kendrick Norton, Richard McIntosh Jr., Anthony Moten and Pat Bethel.
“Still seeing improvement with Norton and McIntosh,” Diaz said. “Trying to push both guys to be dominant players every snap. And we still like the way Bethel and Moten are coming up behind them.”
Has either Ryan Fines or Tyriec Martin done enough to give you any level of confidence that they can play if you need them as a fifth defensive tackle?
“They all flash. There are times they are assignment sound and know what they’re doing. I do think they’re improving in that regard. But we’ll probably lean on the main four at this point.”
Here’s my 10-pack of UM personnel nuggets on offense and special teams, including an interesting reaction on a recently departed UM player, Michael Irvin’s problem and who’s impressing.