University of Miami

Miami Hurricanes defense making progress in the trenches

A new mantra surrounding the Miami Hurricanes defense in fall camp is “Hurricane Finish.”

It’s about having 11 players swarm to the ball relentlessly.

“What are we going to do to change the game from a defensive standpoint? How are we going to finish?” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio asks of his players. “Let’s take that finish to another level.”

It’s often said that for a defense to be effective “it all starts up front,” so if the defense is going to achieve that “Hurricane Finish” and improve off some pedestrian performances in pivotal games last season, it will need to get that key push in the trenches by a group of mostly new faces on the interior of that line.

Three players of the four-deep rotation of defensive tackles in 2013 — fifth-year seniors Curtis Porter, Luther Robinson and Justin Renfrow — have moved on. Add to that the fact that the Canes also lost defensive end and third-leading tackler Shayon Green, and it’s hard to be optimistic about D’Onofrio’s unit making strides outside of the secondary in 2014.

But the hope is that the new blood — or girth — up front is exactly what the Canes need.

“We made plans to try to replace those guys,” D’Onofrio said.

At nose guard, junior college transfer Calvin Heurtelou — who said he came to Miami because he “realized that there was a desperate need” — has come into his own after struggling in the spring and working assiduously over summer.

“Calvin comes in, he’s heavy, he’s not ready for the conditioning part of this deal. He gets to spring ball and he’s doing some different techniques that he’s never done before, struggled there,” D’Onofrio said. “But the thing that he’s done is that he made a commitment. He worked tirelessly on his conditioning, and he worked on his technique.

“You see him running with arm violence, you see energy on every play. I think it’s an awesome transformation. He’s been a great kid to coach.”

Helping Heurtelou along the way has been the one constant in the rotation in senior Olsen Pierre, who played in every game last year and started 12 of the 13 games while collecting 33 tackles and a sack.

“Calvin’s been holding his own — physical guy, smart guy,” Pierre said of the 314-pound Heurtelou. “At the point of attack, he’s really physical.”

For Pierre, he believes it’s now his time to step up and become a leader after this defensive line lost so much over the offseason.

“At first, it felt like we had lost a lot of depth, but coach [Al] Golden did a great job of recruiting these young guys. They’re going to help us a lot,” Pierre said. “It brought out more leadership [in me]. Those guys are fifth-year seniors that taught me a lot. I’m trying to bring that along to these guys.”

Pierre has become a mainstay on the Hurricanes defense in the Golden era. As a recruit, he was committed to Temple when Golden and D’Onofrio were there and followed them to Miami after the 2010 season.

“He’s proved that he belongs at this level,” D’Onofrio said. “Certainly, we wouldn’t have given him the opportunity at Miami had we not thought that he was a guy that could play at this level.”

While Heurtelou has been the new interior lineman who has emerged in fall camp, there’s even more of a buzz surrounding the mammoth-sized Michael Wyche — a potent 340-pound nose guard who has shed 10 pounds but lacks conditioning.

“We’re trying to push the pedal to the metal and move him on, but he’s clearly behind,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s where Calvin was when Calvin got here in January. We’ve got to get him over that. … We’re in a race to get him better. We’re not looking at it as a long-range plan.”

Added Wyche: “It’s been getting better. I’ve been fighting through it. All my life has been hard, so I’m just trying to get through this obstacle right here, get back in shape.”

Before Heurtelou took over first team, junior Earl Moore was in that spot. D’Onofrio said Moore has become reliable and understands where he fits.

There’s also hope that Jelani Hamilton — who has been hampered with knee injuries since he was a senior in high school— can emerge as a three-technique behind Pierre, but Ufomba Kamalu is currently ahead of him at that spot.

The competition for playing time among the big guys up front could become the deciding factor for the Canes to “Hurricane Finish” atop the ACC Coastal for the first time since joining the conference in 2004.

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