The competition in the secondary was, for the most part, wide open throughout the spring and summer in Coral Gables.
The Miami Hurricanes had to replace three starters — both safeties and one cornerback — which left veterans, transfers and freshmen battling to fill out the two-deep depth chart.
A crowded competition thinned out last week.
On Wednesday, Derrick Smith announced he was transferring. On Friday, Nigel Bethel Jr. followed him in entering his name into the transfer portal. Suddenly, Miami was down two potential contributors in the secondary.
“It’s next-man-up mentality and I think our guys that have been called upon to answer the bell have done that,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. “When you look across the board, there’s going to be some young guys that we are counting on.”
The Hurricanes’ first depth chart of the season, released Monday ahead of coach Manny Diaz’s weekly press conference, is now filled with inexperience at defensive back.
All three freshman defensive backs cracked the depth chart. Bubba Bolden, the former Southern California Trojan who arrived late to training camp as part of his transfer, is Gurvan Hall Jr.’s backup at one safety spot. There’s only one senior defensive back listed on the depth chart.
Bolden, a redshirt sophomore safety, is maybe the biggest beneficiary of the transfer’s last week. Smith consistently earned praise from coaches throughout the early part of fall camp and was in line to play some role at safety.
Hall and Amari Carter, however, won the two starting jobs and Smith announced his intention to transfer. Miami initially wasn’t sure how quickly Bolden would become a significant contributor, but now it has no choice. The defensive back will be counted in some capacity Saturday when the Hurricanes open the season against the No. 8 Florida Gators in Orlando.
“Bubba has been drinking out of a firehose a little bit since he came because it’s new, Bubba’s very intelligent and he has experience. He’s picking it up,” Diaz said. “Bubba’s a great learner. Physically, he stands out of the field with his range and athleticism, and there’s some things that have wowed everybody in the program since he’s been at practice.
“I think his role will increase as the year goes on.”
The same will be true of Miami’s three freshmen in the secondary. Safety Keontra Smith now is unquestionably part of the Hurricanes’ top five at safety — he’s listed as one of Carter’s backups with fellow safety Robert Knowles — and Te’Cory Couch and Christian Williams are both listed behind Trajan Bandy at one cornerback spot.
Couch was singled out by Baker at his weekly press conference Monday.
The freshman from Chaminade-Madonna has impressed coaches all preseason and grabbed an interception in one of the Hurricanes’ intrasquad scrimmages earlier this month. Bethel was competing with Couch for the fourth cornerback spot behind Bandy, Al Blades Jr. and DJ Ivey, and the cornerback’s departure now has Couch rounding out the two-deep. He’s Bandy’s primary backup in the slot when Miami puts three cornerbacks on the field and he can play on the outside, too.
“He’s come in every single day and proved his worth to play well within our scheme,” Baker said.
Even the so-called veterans in the secondary are mostly inexperienced. Bandy and Carter, both juniors, are the only two players who have started a game before. The cornerback spot opposite Bandy is still an ongoing competition between Blades and Ivey, neither of whom played much on defense in 2018.
The decision as to who will actually start at Camping World Stadium will be decided this week. Either way, both will see significant playing time and have to limit mistakes in a potential defensive struggle.
“We grade every single day. I think both guys can see reps throughout the game,” Baker said. “I feel comfortable with both of those guys playing out there at corner, but competition has made them both better. Competition among each other has made them up their game and really, really proud of the way those two have competed, so they’ll both see playing time.”