University of Miami

Manny Diaz, Dan Mullen view game through ‘a similar lens.’ It’s obvious in their styles

Miami Hurricanes discuss UM-UF rivalry

University of Miami defensive end Scott Pathcan (71), tight end Will Mallory (85), and wide receiver K.J. Osborn (2) talk about the excitement around playing the Florida Gators in this year's season opener.
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University of Miami defensive end Scott Pathcan (71), tight end Will Mallory (85), and wide receiver K.J. Osborn (2) talk about the excitement around playing the Florida Gators in this year's season opener.

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders were hopeless trying to bring down Anthony Dixon when the Mississippi State Bulldogs visited Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 2009.

The running back, who later spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and and Buffalo Bills, ran wild for 135 yards in a three-touchdown win.

There was a lot that stood out to Dan Mullen, then Mississippi State’s coach, about the Middle Tennessee defense and, in particular, their energetic coach on the sideline.

Manny Diaz was the Blue Raiders’ defensive coordinator at the time, and his combination of enthusiasm and creativity left an impression on Mullen. The coach filed Diaz’s name away. He wanted to keep an eye on him in case the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator job came available.

“I put his name in my folder as people to consider if the position came open,” Mullen told reporters Monday in Gainesville, “and then afterwards meeting him and found out just, you know, how intelligent he was. He had the energy, he had an interesting scheme, he wasn’t afraid to think outside the box with his scheme and then had the intelligence to back it up. We got along pretty well.”

Ahead of the following season, Mullen hired Diaz as his defensive coordinator for the first time.

Diaz spent one season in Starkville, Mississippi, as Mullen’s defensive coordinator, then left for the Texas Longhorns after turning around Mississippi State’s defense. In 2015, Mullen hired Diaz as his defensive coordinator again and Diaz stayed there until former Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt brought Diaz home in 2016.

On Saturday, Diaz will be on the sideline in Orlando for the first time as a coach in a real game squaring off against one of his most important mentors at Camping World Stadium. Diaz is now the coach of his childhood team and carrying Mullen’s influence with him every day in Miami even as Mullen is now the coach of the Florida Gators.

“I feel like we’ve always viewed the game similarly,” Diaz said Monday in Coral Gables. “He’s kind of a very creative guy a little bit of an outside the box thinker and we tried to always be the same way defensively.”

Like Diaz does on defense, Mullen blends the old-school with the innovative on offense.

As Florida’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2005-2008, Mullen helped the Gators win a pair of national championships in 2006 and 2008. He was the position coach for Tim Tebow, a decidedly old-school bruiser at quarterback, and he utilized the Heisman Trophy winner perfectly in a spread season.

Tebow, who never cut it as a consistent passer in the NFL, finished his Florida career as the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in both passing efficiency and rushing touchdowns.

Diaz brings a similar outlook to his defense. The Hurricanes have primarily played a 4-3 defense as long as Diaz has been in South Florida and almost exclusively played man-to-man coverage. He has innovated, though, too, adding the striker position last season and emphasizing smaller, faster defenders to keep up in the modern spread-heavy era.

“It was a great fit for us at Mississippi State and I thought we worked really well together,” Mullen said. “There are schools — like at Mississippi State — you had to think outside the box for a lot of different things and we were able to do that.”

By the time kickoff arrives in Central Florida, Diaz said the connections won’t matter anymore. Both coaches have changed so much since the last time they worked together, any familiarity can only matter so much.

“We know it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t think there is any sort of advantage because we know him and he knows us,” Diaz said. “Just get on the grass and it’s going to come down to all the standards of who can block, and who can get off blocks, who can cover and who can throw and catch.”

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