University of Miami

UM Hurricanes’ defense leads nation in multiple categories, but needs Jaquan Johnson back

UM Defensive Lineman Gerald Willis ‘Ready to Ball’

University of Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis (9) speaks Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, after practice at Greentree Fields in Coral Gables.
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University of Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis (9) speaks Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, after practice at Greentree Fields in Coral Gables.

The Miami Hurricanes’ defense leads the nation in tackles for loss and stopping opponents on third down and has risen to fourth nationally in total defense.

UM, with 35 tackles for loss, has stopped opponents 36 times of 43 attempts on third down, meaning its opponents are successful only 16.2 percent of the time.

The Canes, no doubt buoyed by a 77-0 blowout over Savannah State two weeks ago, also are ninth in passing yards allowed (136.7 per game), and lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in the aforementioned categories.

Individally, cornerbacks Trajan Bandy and Jhavonte Dean have an interception apiece, with safety Sheldrick Redwine adding another.

And senior defensive tackle Gerald Willis, who temporarily came out of Saturday’s Toledo game (and went back in and out) with what was described by UM coach Mark Richt as cramps, has been a beast. Willis is fourth nationally and leads the ACC in tackles for loss.

Seven of Willis’ 14 tackles have been for losses, and two of them were sacks.

UM is 23rd nationally in rushing defense (99.3 ground yards per game allowed).

But it’s clear from what happened when preseason AP All-American safety Jaquan Johnson left the Toledo game Saturday with a hamstring injury, the sooner UM gets him back, the better. During his weekly radio stint Monday on WQAM, UM coach Mark Richt said he wasn’t sure of the severity of Johnson’s injury, other than to note it’s not as bad as the hamstring pull receiver Ahmmon Richards had before last season.

Saturday at Toledo, backup safety Amari Carter, a hard-hitting, talented sophomore, couldn’t be there because he was giving the eulogy at a funeral for a family member. After Jaquan Johnson left the game late in the second quarter, the Rockets began to get big chunks of yardage, including an 18-yard completion against safety Robert Knowles. The Rockets scored before the half, then scored another two touchdowns and a field goal to come within seven points twice.

“The perimeter took a little bit of a hit,’’ Richt said, citing Carter’s absence and Johnson’s injury. “...So, we got thin real quick at the safety position and it got a little scary there for a minute.”

UM sophomore Bandy, whose fourth-quarter pick led to an eventual touchdown, said he brought the defense together after Johnson was hurt “and told them that we’re going to have to keep fighting.”

“Just because Quan went down, it’s the next man. We went out there and we continued to fight. We gave up a couple plays but, you know, great players, they’ve got short mindsets.

“...Their wide receivers were good. They gave us a battle. But at the end of the day we won that battle, and that’s all we can do. Just keep winning those battles and keep winning as a defense and we should be OK.”

Richt said Monday that “the quarterback run’’ hurt the Canes “more than anything.”

“We did not do a good job of containing the quarterback. There were times when we were running the twist and the guy from the inside is twisting to the outside and didn’t do a good job of creating an edge there. We had a few times were we got everybody covered and the guy took off... And that hurt us.

“But other than that they could not run the ball. They wanted to establish it. They could not. The tackles for loss and all the negative yardage plays just help us so much. They’re getting there.”

Last season, the Hurricanes led the nation in sacks-per-game (3.38), ranked third in tackles-for-loss per game (8.54) and ninth in opponent yards-per-play (4.5). UM’s 31 turnovers were third most in the nation and its turnover margin was tied for No. 5.

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