Since his arrival at the University of Miami two years ago, coach Al Golden has been clear about his intent to repair a broken football program.
Mr. Fix-it got the offense clicking.
Now, he’s got to overhaul the malfunctioning defense.
Constructing a pass rush for the 2013 season is the most critical task confronting Golden and his much-maligned defensive coordinator, Mark D’Onofrio.
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UM’s defense was the worst in school history, giving up more yards (487) and points per game (30.5) than any previous squad.
This is the alma mater of Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed?
Golden vows a reversal. He reiterated Tuesday at his season-concluding news conference that he is extremely “excited” about his roster, and the commitment of his players to get bigger and better as they mature from underclassmen to upperclassmen.
UM will lose only one starter on offense — running back Mike James — and one on defense, cornerback Brandon McGee. So the refrain we’ve been hearing about the team’s inexperience will be more muted next season.
It’s been convenient and to some extent accurate to blame UM’s struggles on Randy Shannon, although the talent shortage began before Shannon’s four-year tenure and hastened his firing after that dismal loss to South Florida at the end of 2010.
Golden took another swipe at his predecessor when he defended D’Onofrio.
“To be honest, Mark should be as mad as anybody because imagine coming to UM and having to play a bunch of kids, imagine being saddled with that,” Golden said. “He is mad. He’s going to fight. He’s not a quitter. None of us are.”
Golden backed D’Onofrio further when he cited a blown play against Duke when “a kid went the wrong way and we give up a 99-yard touchdown,” not saying Rayshawn Jenkins’ name but asserting: “I wouldn’t trade that kid for anyone. He’s going to be a champion.”
Likewise, Golden will stand by D’Onofrio, and gave his friend and colleague more absolution when he shifted responsibility to himself for deciding to adopt a strategy of “outscoring opponents,” which overtaxes the defense.
Nevertheless, nothing softens the fact that UM ranked 116th in total defense in the nation among FBS schools — just four spots from being the most generous defense of them all. The Canes were so unthreatening they collected a mere 13 sacks — 114th in the nation. The secondary was consistently burned — 100th in the nation. Rushing defense — ranked 113th; tackles for loss — ranked 105th.
UM’s young athletes might not be as spectacular as the high draft picks of past championship years, but they are certainly not down there with the dreg teams of college football.
It’s not just the players, but the playbook that’s a problem. UM gave up 32 points to Boston College, 37 to N.C. State, 41 to Virginia, 45 to Duke.
D’Onofrio is known as Onofrio by dissatisfied fans. Get it? No D!
He needs a defense with more bulk, more muscle, more snarl. He needs to take more risks, call more blitzes, play more man-to-man coverage.
Sounds simpler than it is when you’ve got three freshmen on the defensive line and lost Olivier Vernon and Marcus Forston prematurely to the NFL when they “left for 20 cents on the dollar,” as Golden said. When projected sack master Anthony Chickillo endures a sophomore slump, plays hurt and is targeted by opponents. When Curtis Porter misses most of the season after an appendectomy.
UM, so low on depth, is gaining momentum. Golden plans to add 14 redshirt players and 15 recruits to his 20 returning starters.
“We’ll have symmetry, finally, after two years,” he said. “You need that competition. If guys go down, you need guys who can move in without missing a beat.”
Now it’s up to Golden and D’Onofrio to resist pointing at what they don’t have and develop the players they’re counting on. Mold Denzel Perryman into the next Sean Spence. Help Eddie Johnson, suspended twice, fulfill his potential. Coach Deon Bush and Tracy Howard to be dangerous partners. Get a UM defensive tackle drafted for the first time since 2007.
Sign Miami prep stars Artie Burns, Jamal Carter and Matthew Thomas, and rekindle the memory of Jerome Brown.
“Tyriq McCord will look a lot different at 245 pounds than he does at 214,” Golden said, licking his lips in anticipation of weight room sessions and spring camp.
Golden could lament the thinly stocked cupboard he inherited, the burden of impending NCAA sanctions, the sacrificed opportunity of playing in the ACC championship game and a bowl game. But he won’t hedge his optimism. He can already envision opposing quarterbacks under duress. He has “complete confidence” in D’Onofrio and his players.
Heading into Year Three of the Golden era, he said: “We’re just getting started.”