Yes, the Hurricanes’ uncertainty at quarterback has created some uneasiness, as Mark Richt told me recently. But here’s the good news: This could be the best UM front seven in a decade.
Not only are they in very good shape with their three sophomore-to-be starting linebackers (Shaquille Quarterman, Zach McCloud and Mike Pinckney), but depth will be substantially better with freshmen newcomers Waynmon Steed (enrolled but off knee surgery) and Bradley Jennings (enrolled) and summer arrival De’Andre Wilder, joined by Jamie Gordinier (off knee surgery), Darrion Owens (who will be well over a year from knee surgery) and others.
Even with Courtel Jenkins’ departure, the Canes are in good shape at tackle, with Kendrick Norton, Richard McIntosh, Gerald Willis, Anthony Moten, defensive end Pat Bethel shifting there Tuesday so that he has the ability to play both spots, plus newcomer Jon Ford, as well as unproven returnees Tyreic Martin and Ryan Fines.
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski called McIntosh and Norton “easily, two of the best tackles in the ACC. Gerald Willis is a playmaker. Anthony Moten is really good, too. We should have great d-tackles next year.”
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But Willis missed practice Tuesday for undisclosed reasons; he was seen in the facility but not in practice gear after practice --- three months after he was suspended for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
At end, there’s enviable depth with Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Demetrius Jackson, Trent Harris, Bethel, Scott Patchan, newcomers Deonte Johnson (who had the most scholarship offers of any player in the country this year) and Jon Garvin.
Kuligowski said Johnson and Garvin fit the NFL body type at defensive ends and Ford projects as a high-end tackle.
“Garvin is doing very well, learning well,” Norton said of UM’s only early enrollee defensive end.
Johnson, who arrives this summer and was rated the 62nd best player by ESPN, “actually contacted me and wanted to know if we were interested in him,” Kuligowski said. “That’s way back before the spring,” he said. “I said, ‘Who are you?’ After I watched the film, I said, ‘Yeah, we want you.’”
Thomas is the only five-star player on the roster and he made a “big step forward last year,” but Kuligowski also said he’s got “a lot of space left” between where he is now and his ceiling. “He’s an extremely talented guy.”
Thomas had 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season and here’s how defensive coordinator Manny Diaz assessed Thomas last December: “When you look at where he was [when Diaz arrived], he has made substantial improvements. There is still so much more there and Chad knows it. He took a step of being a solid, top-tier defensive end in the [ACC]. He needs to take the step of being a guy who can dominate a game.”
One UM official (not the aforementioned coaches) told me some people inside UM wonder whether Thomas’ passion for music has affected his drive to maximize his football skills - something UM would never say publicly.
Thomas, who doubles as a local music producer nicknamed “Major Nine,” produced the opening track “Apple of My Eye” on hip hop artist Rick Ross’ new album “Rather You than Me.”
Now let me make myself clear on this: Thomas deserves lots of credit for his talents and achievements in that area. College is the time to develop your skills in potential career paths and it’s commendable Thomas is doing it. But Thomas has a lot on his plate - classes, music and football.
I am in no position to say whether he has too much on his plate, but the fact a UM football person wondered about this (expressing some level of concern) was something I found interesting.
Thomas explained to The Washington Post how he responds when people tell him he should stick to sports:
“A lot of people just see the image, and they don’t want to pay attention to the process. I can’t really explain the process to people, you know? Everybody probably thinks I’m just sitting there, going to the studio all the time and being there late at night. Really, I’ve got my own studio in my room, so I ain’t got to go nowhere. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got to spend these hours on my music.” I really make music when I feel like it. I could be laying in bed and wanna just get up for 30 minutes and make some music.
“I can’t really explain my process to everybody because everybody will say, “You’re doing too much of this. You need to stick to football.” But I never listen to outsiders because they don’t understand. They couldn’t live my life. I can’t just have a Plan A. My Plan A is school, and my Plan B is football, really. And I gotta have a Plan C and D. I try to learn as much as possible.”
A Thomas/Joe Jackson pairing should do a lot of damage.
Jackson (7.5 sacks as a freshman) “made huge leaps and bounds [last year] and I think he will do the same thing,” Kuligowski said.
At one point, UM wasn’t sure what would happen with Patchan, who was limited to six snaps last season because of more knee problems. But Kuligowski apparently likes him and said he believes he can make an impact.
Spring is the time for optimism across college football practice fields.
But with UM’s front seven, it’s entirely warranted, with this group returning largely intact and a big reason why UM closed the 2016 regular season ranked sixth in tackles for loss, 14th in scoring defense and 22nd in sacks.
“It's pretty loaded,” Norton said Tuesday of this defensive line. “We've got a lot of older guys, a lot of juniors and seniors. We should be very good this year. We focus on being the best unit in the ACC and eventually in the country.”
Norton emphasized the defense is “very ahead” of where it was a year ago because “everybody knows what we’re doing now” in Manny Diaz’s attack-first system.
What this program needs now, recruiting analyst Larry Blustein said, is first-round caliber defensive tackles, such as Cortez Kennedy. Those are tough to find in South Florida, but Richt is looking.
• This was neat: Columbus cornerback Trajan Bandy, who isn’t enrolling at UM until the summer, told Canesport’s Matt Shodell that he followed around cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph during Tuesday’s practice.
“Where he went I went,” Bandy said. “I was listening to what he was saying, watching those guys’ mistakes, everything they do. When he calls up the huddle I stuck my ear in there a little to hear what he’s saying. I’m just trying to pick up the plays early, just know them.”
Bandy has a chance to be one of UM’s top four corners, with Jhavonta Dean, Dee Delaney and Malek Young (in no particular order). Sheldrick Redwine is being tried at safety, and none of the other returning cornerbacks (Michael Jackson, Ryan Mayes or Terrence Henley) has done enough to earn significant playing time.
“I have the basic stuff down,” Bandy said. “I’ve played the position a long time and I’m just picking up more stuff from coach Rumph, watching the techniques. I’ll be good, will pick it up super quick.”
Please click here for my Heat post from Wednesday morning, including a Heat player making clear he fully expects to make the playoffs and more information on Hassan Whiteside’s injury, including exactly how he played after returning from the same injury two years ago....
Please click here for my Dolphins post from this morning on Mel Kiper’s new pick for the Dolphins and why the Dolphins/Zach Brown negotiations are irking me.
And please follow me on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz)