Shaquille Quarterman wants to have the top rushing defense in the nation.
The Miami Hurricanes aren’t far from it. They’re ranked No. 8 against the run this season, allowing an average of just 69.3 rushing yards through three games.
But the overall numbers haven’t been what’s expected of a team that finished fourth in total defense last season. The Hurricanes’ typically vaunted pass rush has recorded eight sacks so far, and Miami is averaging eight tackles for loss after leading the nation with 10.46 per game in 2018.
Quarterman said tackling has been a focus since defenders struggled to wrap up ball carriers in UM’s season-opening loss to Florida, but he’s seen the improvement ahead of Miami’s upcoming match up against Central Michigan Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
“It’s all about ... getting vertical,” the senior linebacker said after Wednesday’s practice. “If the D-Line attacks, that allows the linebackers to attack, and we have to have a great secondary that knows how to tackle. We didn’t start so hot with that the first game, but I feel like we’ve been emphasizing that. And our corners are coming to play now. Our safeties are coming to tackle.
“So, when you have a great tackling team, that really helps when you want to be the best defense in the nation.”
Defensive lineman Pat Bethel added that the Hurricanes (1-2, 0-1 ACC) pride themselves on playing vertically on defense and getting in the backfield, and that signature defensive efficiency is about team effort.
“That’s with the help of our DB’s, our safeties and our linebackers,” he said. “So, if [opposing offenses] go back to pass, and they can just throw the ball right away, then that means nobody is covering them. Thankfully, we got people who can cover. Thankfully, we got guys who are busting their tails on the back end so the D-Line can go and get a sack, and that’s just the way it works. Everybody works together for the common goal in the end.”
Defensive lineman Gregory Rousseau has been essential to helping the Hurricanes’ defense achieve that goal this season.
With a team-leading two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss so far, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound redshirt freshman has helped anchor a Hurricanes defense that’s tied for fifth in the nation in getting off the field on third down.
“First and second down are considered normal downs to us,” Quarterman said. “But third down, when we bring our personnel on the field, we only have one goal: We have to get off the field. Whether it’s getting after the quarterback or just playing coverage, the thing is, ‘I will not allow something to be caught on me. I won’t allow myself to miss this sack when my brothers are in coverage.’”
UM still has a bit of a climb if it wants to make its return as one of the nation’s top defenses. As of Wednesday, Miami had the No. 26-ranked defense in the country. And even though it has plenty of time to return to the calibre it was a season ago, just one turnover in the past two games (five total) doesn’t help.
“We just gotta keep at it. When you look for [takeaways], they don’t come,” Qurterman said. “When you do your job, they come often. So, we’re just continuing to do what we do best: run to the ball and tackle. The ball will pop up and be in the air, and it’ll be ours for the taking.”
Defensive coordinator Blake Baker said his team needs to do a better job of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, and despite the team’s 63-0 shutout of Bethune-Cookman on Saturday, the defense should have had at least three more sacks.
Baker added that the battle at safety between Gurvan Hall, Robert Knowles — who started last week’s game in Hall’s place -- and even Amari Carter will continue as the team strives to build depth at the safety position.
“To me, competition makes everybody better,” Baker said. “I think we have three good safeties that are gonna challenge each other. We’re gonna open it up every week, and if you’re producing, you’re gonna go ahead and get the nod. All three guys are gonna play as well. When you look at total snap counts, it was probably about even last week, and that’s a good problem to have.
“It’s a long season, and you want more than three, but I think having three good safeties is a good start.”