By now, pretty much everyone who knows anything about University of Miami football knows that defensive end Anthony Chickillo was a Hurricane before he made his grand entrance into the world on Dec. 10, 1992.
Not that the University of South Florida, which plays No. 15 Miami at noon Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Chickillo’s hometown of Tampa, didn’t give it a shot.
But Chickillo’s father was a Hurricane. Chickillo’s mother was a Hurricane. Chickillo’s grandfather was a Hurricane. He even sucked on a pacifier with a U on it.
Former USF defensive line coach Kevin Patrick, a former Hurricanes All-American defensive end, naturally, recruited Chickillo out of Tampa Alonso High — when the high school All-American was being courted by just about every major program in the alphabet.
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“I had a great relationship with him,” Chickillo, a junior, said this week of Patrick, who was one of several coaches fired at the end of last season by new Bulls coach Willie Taggart. “My dad and him were friends for a long time, so I have a lot of respect for the [USF] program.
“Growing up in the area, you’d watch them and they were always on TV.”
Chickillo said he unofficially visited USF “a lot” and “felt comfortable with Coach Patrick.
“But I was always going to come here.”
The Bulls, ranked as high as No. 2 in 2007, are now 0-3, including a 53-21 embarrassment to Football Championship Subdivision member McNeese State and a 28-10 loss to FAU of Boca Raton.
These days, Chickillo — the son of former UM nose tackle Tony and grandson of the late former first-team UM All-American lineman Nick — knows that the person he needs to focus on most is himself. He played his first two seasons as a young, undersized, high-profile end who was constantly double-teamed on a raw, deficient defense still learning the system.
The struggle for all of UM’s defensive players was intense, but Chickillo, a leader from the start, had a heap of pressure thrown on to his shoulders because of expectations from the outside.
He started the final nine games his freshman season (finishing third in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, with a team-leading five sacks) and all 12 games last year.
He said his goal was to have 10 sacks last season, but he stopped with a team-leading four.
Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio and coach Al Golden both were effusive this week about Chickillo’s maturity, leadership and growth as a player, and how, despite being driven, he has learned to focus inward on himself and the team.
UM (3-0) has allowed only three touchdowns this season and ranks first nationally in turnover margin, fourth in red zone defense, fifth in pass efficiency defense and seventh in scoring defense.
“At the end of the day, the problem with Chick is everybody wants to see his sack production,” D’Onofrio said, “and that’s at the bottom of my list. I want him to play hard. I want him to play his gap. I want to see him do his job.
“If he just lives up to our standard, he’ll be fine. That’s all he has done since he has been here. He has improved each year, going from 238 [pounds] to 274 pounds, executing his role.”
Make that “roles.” The 6-4 Chickillo now moves to tackle on third-down packages because the Canes have found two talented youngsters — freshman Al Quadin Muhammad and sophomore Tyriq McCord — “who can rush off the edge,” D’Onofrio said, allowing Chickillo to do his thing inside.
He came into 2013 with 83 tackles, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries, and has 12 tackles and two sacks after three games this season — though he hardly played against Savannah State.
“He’s smart,” D’Onofrio said. “He gets after the quarterback, he’s gotten hits on the quarterback, he’s gotten sacks — he gets stuff because of his technique and he knows what he’s doing. I just want him to keep doing his job and the stats will come.
“But that’s really not what we’re about. We’re about winning and executing our defense, and he does a great job with that.”
Chickillo described the team’s defensive improvement as “awesome.”
“There’s a lot of excitement around the program,” he said. “Everybody is enthused.”