University of Miami

‘Coach Kool’ has turned Hurricanes’ defensive line into sack-happy bunch

University of Miami defensive line football coach Craig Kuligowski works with the team during practice on Mon., Aug. 15 , 2016.
University of Miami defensive line football coach Craig Kuligowski works with the team during practice on Mon., Aug. 15 , 2016. emichot@miamiherald.com

For a defensive line guru with a résumé for churning out first round picks and units that led the Southeastern Conference in sacks and tackles for loss, it’s a wonder how Craig Kuligowski has coached major college football for 25 years without once taking a defensive coordinator job.

“You know, I’ve asked myself that question a few times over the years,” Kuligowski, 47, said Monday after practice. “But the truth is, God’s got a plan. If his plan is for me to be a defensive line coach the rest of my life, if it’s to be a coordinator and head coach later on, great. If not, that’s OK, too. I’ll keep doing what I do. I love doing it. I just want to be the best at whatever I do.”

In the eyes of Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt — and many others in the coaching profession — few are better at getting the most out of their defensive linemen than Coach Kool. It’s why Richt ultimately said he took former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s advice to hire Kuligowski without waiting to hire a defensive coordinator first — and why Kuligowski is now helping defensive coordinator Manny Diaz with defensive game plans.

So far, Richt’s decision feels like it is paying off handsomely. Not only is UM’s line getting to the quarterback regularly in practice (the defense produced nine sacks in last Wednesday’s scrimmage) and beginning to defend the run better, but players are no longer privately complaining about having to put on weight to play in a scheme they are uncomfortable with. Players say there is also a lot less thinking, a lot more learning going on and much more happiness across the board.

Thomas discusses what he's learned from his new position coach Craig Kuligowski and more on Mon., Aug. 15, 2016.

Few seem to fit that bill better than junior Chad Thomas. The only five-star recruit on UM’s roster said Monday he’s as motivated as he’s ever been playing in a system that reminds him of high school — when he was an All-American at Miami Booker T. Washington.

Thomas, who has just one career college sack in two seasons, often bets his teammates he’ll get to the quarterback first in practice. The loser, teammates say, usually has to do push-ups as the penalty.

Last Wednesday, Thomas had a pair of sacks in UM’s first scrimmage. Kuligowski said Thomas is showing him things now he didn’t see from him in the spring in terms of leadership and toughness, and Thomas’ teammates are echoing that.

“He looks a little different,” said sophomore defensive tackle RJ McIntosh, who along with Thomas, redshirt junior defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and sophomore defensive tackle Kendrick Norton make up UM’s first team defensive line. “He’s more of a leader this year. He’s taken this football thing very serious — at least more serious than last year.”

Said Thomas: “I [haven’t] lived up to my expectations. I made some plays, but I didn’t make enough. Just going off that and we’re in a defense that I like, I just have to perform. I have to do my part. All the coaches are doing their part.”

During his 15-year tenure at Missouri — the longest-tenured position coach in the SEC — Kuligowski coached 24 players to all-conference honors and produced four first-round NFL Draft picks since 2009. UM hasn’t had a defensive linemen drafted in the first round since Vince Wilfork in 2004.

Miami Hurricanes tackle talks about the defensive group pushing each other during training camp on Mon., Aug. 15, 2016.

Miami has had just seven defensive linemen drafted since then (Anthony Chickillo, Olivier Vernon, Allen Bailey, Calais Campbell, Kareem Brown, Baraka Atkins, Orien Harris) and hasn’t had more than 30 sacks in a season since 2010.

Kuligowski’s defensive line helped the Tigers rank second in the nation in team tackles for loss last season. In 2014, Mizzou led the SEC in sacks (a school-record 44).

“I think they’re progressing about how I figured [they would],” Kuligowski said of his unit. “I think we have some talent. I think we have some guys who look how you want them to look and play like you want them to play, in terms of athleticism. Now it’s just getting them to do the right things in the right way. I haven’t been disappointed, they’re working hard, they’re teaching each other the drills now, they’re making it their own. I feel we’re going to be successful because guys have bought into it. They haven’t really fought me on anything, to be honest with you.”

Diaz said last week he wanted to have UM’s first- and second-team defensive line unit split reps equally in games to keep up with fast-paced offenses and so players wouldn’t tire and the level of play would not drop off. So far, Kuligowski said, “it’s probably going to be close” to see if the Canes can do that.

Of the backups, Kuligowski said, second-team end Trent Harris is “producing at a higher level in practice than anybody else on our defensive line.” Redshirt sophomore Gerald Willis said he and Anthony Moten, the backups at defensive tackle, are getting as many reps as McIntosh and Norton.

Redshirt sophomore Demetrius Jackson, who is running with the second team at defensive end, said he’s learned how to play with his hands a lot better than he ever has before under Kuligowski.

“I love him,” Jackson said. “He brings a lot of technique that he’s taught some of the greats before, like Aldon Smith, Shane Ray, Michael Sam. He’s bringing it here, and we trust him, because his résumé, the guys that he taught. We know that’s a guy we can trust. We just take it to the field and it works.”

▪ Richt said redshirt sophomore cornerback Ryan Mayes is dealing with a left shoulder ailment, but said it won’t require surgery. Mayes, competing for the fourth cornerback spot, was on the stationary bike Monday during the media-viewing portion of practice.

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