Barry Jackson

UM’s Diaz challenging a defense that could be one of nation’s best

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz coaching during opening day of the University of Miami Spring football practice on Tues., March 15, 2016.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz coaching during opening day of the University of Miami Spring football practice on Tues., March 15, 2016.

You know one of the greatest compliments you can give Manny Diaz, who transformed UM’s defense from disappointing to dynamic in his first year as coordinator last season?

“There have been people who have expressed that opinion [to me] that it looks more like the Miami Hurricanes that they remember,” he said. “Special players make special plays in special games. That’s the type of player we’re recruiting to UM. That is the legacy of all the guys before: It’s not just that they’ve been talented. They made the game-winning plays. And that’s our challenge for this bunch.”

With the exception of three key starters in the secondary (Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins, Jamal Carter), UM returns most from a group that ranked 20th nationally in total defense (up from 69th in 2015), ninth in yards per play (up from 86th), 12th in scoring defense (up from 77th), fifth in tackles for loss (105th) and 22nd in sacks (from 70th).

But with camp opening Aug. 1, Diaz is pushing hard for growth from the three promising sophomore linebackers, good-but-not-yet-great defensive end Chad Thomas and everybody else.

Some of Diaz’s thoughts:

• I asked him if having a top five-in-the-nation defense is realistic with this group.

“The most important thing is winning defense,” he said. “You want to lead the nation in wins. We look at the games we didn’t win and say what are some of the things we could have done differently to give us a chance to win? When I was at NC State in 2004, we led the nation in total defense and won five games that year. That was pretty telling at that point in my career that there has to be more to this thing than yards allowed. I think the players get it and understand where the improvement should come.”

How good could they be?

“We’ll find out,” he said. “Even as coaches, we’ll find out in August. Sometimes they develop that special bond in the summer when nobody’s watching, a little bit of that competitive greatness where they attack the season with a different mindset, a different mentality.

“A year ago, we were learning to be dominant. At times we were surprised by it. It felt like the bowl game was the first time, from a player’s mentality, they felt they could dominate somebody and they went out and did out.”

• What was the top priority when Mark Richt hired him with regard to talent procurement and where are they now with that?

“When you are first on the job, we didn’t even know,” Diaz said. “From a pure numbers standpoint, our numbers in the secondary were not where it should have been in terms of scholarship allotment. That’s why we’ve been playing catch-up for the last couple years. That’s why we did grad transfers the last couple years. That’s why we signed a JC player [Jhavonte Dean] to make up the numbers on the back end with an eyeball on this next recruiting class. The numbers are still not where they should be in the backfield.

“One byproduct of being young is everyone comes back. We were young in our front seven, which could be a problem but everyone returns. We do have a lot of age and experience in our front four especially. When they think back to Virginia Tech on the five-day week, the injuries we were carrying from week four and how few players we had traveling to that game. We had to move Anthony Moten to end. We had four defensive ends for that game that amounted to the Coastal championship game; two were true freshmen and the other was a nose tackle who moved to end. That’s where we hope our depth will help us in those tough situations.

“We want to get to a point where we can roll two deep and not drop off. That’s what separates top college football programs from the next one.”

We’ll share Diaz’s thoughts on each position in a three-part series over the next three days.

We’ll start today with linebacker.

I asked him which of the three sophomore starters he’s expecting to make the biggest jump - Shaq Quarterman, Mike Pinckney or Zach McCloud.

“They all have their different steps,” Diaz said. “Zach McCloud has a chance to make a big jump because of the game becoming slower for him. With his instincts and ability to read and diagnose plays, that is going to make a big impact with him.

“With Shaq in the middle, it’s being more productive and understanding to let himself go and trust himself at times and make the plays that are there and be more active. I think he sees that.

“With Pinckney, it’s a matter of his consistency and playing blocks better. He has such a great knack for making the spectacular plays, and it’s sometimes being better at making the standard plays. That’s what’s so neat about him. They all see where they’ve got a chance to continue to improve and they all want it.”

He believes depth is improved; he expects Jamie Gordinier to be ready for camp after last September’s knee injury.

“We do have some depth,” he said. “Those guys like Gordinier. And Darrion Owens and Mike Smith made a big jump in the spring. We’ve got some young guys coming in. We want to see what they can do. As a coach, it helps you when you have competition. Players understand if you take your foot off the accelerator for a day or two, somebody is going to pass them by and that is the basis of any great program.”

Is Owens running better, now that he’s two years removed from knee surgery?

“He is and so much is between the ears and being confident in it. It’s seeing things and letting that dynamic playmaker ability that a WILL linebacker is all about. That’s why Pinckney always shows up. It is the playmaker’s spot. You have to make quick decisions and trust yourself and let it go.”

• Does freshman Waynmon Steed redshirt after last November’s major knee injury in high school?

“We will find out when we come back in August,” Diaz said. “We try not to make any assessments in the summer. We don’t want the players thinking that. There’s not a person on our defense that we’ve made a decision if they’ll play or redshirt.”

Coming Thursday: Diaz discusses his defensive line.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz