Barry Jackson

Diaz with high hopes for UM’s talented defensive line, which lost Willis on Thursday

University of Miami Hurricanes defensive linemen Chad Thomas walks off the field after being injured in a play in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against FAU Owls, Saturday Sept. 10, 2016, in Miami Gardens.
University of Miami Hurricanes defensive linemen Chad Thomas walks off the field after being injured in a play in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against FAU Owls, Saturday Sept. 10, 2016, in Miami Gardens.

Second in a three-part series on UM’s defense from the perspective of coordinator Manny Diaz.

One of the hallmarks of the great UM teams of an earlier era was a dominant defensive line.

UM does not seem to have a Warren Sapp or Russell Maryland type talent on this defensive line, but the Hurricanes have a bunch of good players.

UM is loaded at defensive end. But there are now depth concerns at defensive tackle amid Thursday’s news thst Gerald Willis will be taking a leaving of absence from the football program and won’t play in 2017.

More on d-tackle in a moment.

As for defensive end, coordinator Manny Diaz expects a “super competitive” battle for two starting jobs at end, where Chad Thomas is the clear favorite to land one of them, and Demetrius Jackson, Joe Jackson and Trent Harris can all make a case to start.

Thomas, the only five-star recruit left at UM, has improved, but Diaz wants more.

“Chad has improved a lot under coach [Craig] Kuligowski,” Diaz said. “Now he’s beating his men with the technique that he’s learning. Now it’s just finishing a play, understanding how to finish on the quarterback, finish on the running back to be that guy who can make that play in that game to help you secure victory. He’s ready for it to be his time. He’s welcoming the challenge.”

Joe Jackson (8.5 sacks as a freshman) “came in and showed his skill he had but there is so much more that defines a defensive player other than sacking the quarterback,” Diaz said. “He’s blessed. He has a special skill [pass rushing]. But in terms in terms of understanding the assignments, understand where he’s supposed to fit in particular running plays, those are the things we expect him to make a jump in year two.”

Diaz said Demetrius Jackson “was playing at a very high level until he got hurt last season. With Demetrius, what stands out is energy and effort. He was really relentless, early in the year making a lot of plays, chasing the ball down the field, making hits and really was earning respect in the locker-room doing those type of things.”

And Harris, Diaz said, is “so intelligent. He’s played so much football, has positional flexibility. We’re able to move him around and still at times play a big SAM linebacker for us. You always have to beat Georgia Tech in our division and he can play a special role for us in that game. You’ve got to have guys like Trent Harris to have championship football teams. He is so valuable, has the ability to help us in so many ways.”

UM expects Scott Patchan to finally be healthy after playing only six snaps last season.

“The ultimate small sample size,” Diaz said, noting he was productive on those six snaps. “We’re excited to see him expand on that.”

With January arrival Jonathan Garvin, “we really like what we saw in the spring,” Diaz said. “Has a length and athleticism that are very unique. Very serious demeanor, very businesslike approach to the game. Really excited about watching him develop in our program.”

Sacramento-based freshman D.J. Johnson, the most recruited player in America last season, enrolled this month and “we are so excited we finally get a chance to see him,” Diaz said. “His ability to be able to run at that size [6-5, 240] is very special.”

As far as defensive tackle goes, Diaz believes starting tackles Kendrick Norton and Richard McIntosh Jr. “definitely” have the ability to be all-ACC.

“They certainly have the ability do special things,” Diaz said. “Can they improve in pass rush and being more dynamic in other places? They have to.”

Can they make the step from good to great? “There are a lot of guys in that same boat,” Diaz said. “We bring back a lot of players who have made great plays, but we remind them the definition of greatness is being consistently good. That is the challenge.

“Because people have seen them do it, it’s in there and that’s the question: Can they do it at a consistent level where when you leave the school, you are remembered for a long time.”

News that Willis will miss the season is compounded by the fact that Courtel Jenkins was dismissed and is now playing for Diaz’s predecessor, Mark D’Onofrio, in Houston.

Diaz, interviewed before the Willis news, said Willis was valuable because “he understands where the ball is. There are a lot of guys that don’t. He’s a guy that can finish the play. Some guys get in the backfield and can’t make the play when they get there. He can.”

That leaves Anthony Moten and converted end Pat Bethel as the top two backup tackles, with Ryan Fines and Tyreic Martin likely fifth and sixth at tackle, though not necessarily in that order.

Diaz said “we feel like Moten has improved this offseason. And we really like what Bethel brought inside after his move in there. Pat is such a hard working kid. Such a dependable guy to have in there. We feel good about what we have.”

If you missed it, here’s part one of our series with Diaz’s thoughts on several issues involving his defense and his linebacker group.

Coming tommorow: Diaz discusses his defensive backfield...

Here’s my post, from moments ago, with a six-pack of Dolphins notes, including Miami being disregarded, updates on Jarvis Landry, quarterback an available free agent and more.

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