The biggest coaching improvement in the Mark Richt era? That’s assuredly Richt’s and Manny Diaz’s decision to ditch the read-and-react defensive approach of the previous regime and move to an attacking style.
“If you don’t build your defense on speed down here, you’re making a mistake,” Richt said on his WQAM show this week. “These guys can run. Let them run.”
But beyond that, don’t overlook this, too: Smarter use of personnel.
How often during the Randy Shannon/Al Golden eras did we hear complaints, from players to parents to people on the program’s periphery, questioning how the staff used some of their pieces – from Anthony Chickillo (inexplicably told to bulk up to play tackle) to Ray Ray Armstrong (unlike UM, the NFL thought he should play linebacker and not safety) to cornerback Tracy Howard (who was told to play a lot of zone even though he thrived in high school playing man to man).
It sounds simple, but picking the right players, putting them in the right positions, and playing to their strengths, has keep critical during this Hurricanes turnaround. The staff’s 10 smartest decisions this year, in no particular order:
• Maximizing Braxton Berrios as a receiver. It took a year, but Richt realized his role needed to be expanded because of his underrated speed, quickness and ability to pinball off tacklers.
So Berrios – who had 12 catches for 86 yards in Golden’s last season and 12 for 178 in Richt’s first – already has 25 catches for 337 yards and five touchdowns (as many as his previous three seasons combined).
•. Moving Kc McDermott to tackle. It took a Trevor Darling injury last November to put this move in motion, but it has clearly worked. McDermott has gone from an underachieving guard to an above-average ACC left tackle.
“When they moved me to tackle, I knew it would be a challenge,” he said. “My focus and intensity got higher.”
Offensive line coach Stacy Searels said Tuesday that “Kc has improved probably every game, has been the most consistent grader. He has started to eliminate the bad plays. He’ll play good the whole game, then there’s one pressure here, one bad block here. He’s done a good job eliminating the bad play and on Saturday made a great play on that last touchdown run by picking up the outside blitz.”
• Moving Darling from tackle to guard. The four-star prospect was uneven at left tackle but his play has been solid at guard – another smart decision by Searels.
• Shifting Pat Bethel from defensive end to tackle. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said it seemed an obvious move to him this past spring, and Bethel has thrived, giving UM quality snaps at a position where depth was depleted by the departure of Courtel Jenkins and Gerald Willis’ leave of absence (he’s back on the scout team but won’t play this year).
• Moving Sheldrick Redwine from cornerback to safety. A strong, physical tackler, Redwine has been of much more help at safety – where UM lost Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter – than he would have been at corner, where depth was considerably better.
• Using Michael Jackson for a lot of snaps at cornerback instead of leaving him buried on the depth chart. Not only does he have three interceptions, but he’s excellent against the run. “Out of nowhere, he decided to be a baller,” Richt said.
• Choosing Tyler Gauthier over Nick Linder at center. Gauthier’s spring snapping problems raised concerns, but UM saw a toughness and physicality in Gauthier that has been rewarded. Gauthier has played well all year. Linder left the program in August.
• Not giving up on Darrell Langham. With depth at receiver, it would have been easy for UM to keep him buried on the depth chart. But receivers coach Ron Dugans kept pushing him, Langham responded and UM has smartly used him against smaller corners. He has UM’s two most important catches of the season.
“When I arrived [in January 2016], I told him I will always have confidence in you,” Dugans said. “But you’ve got to have confidence in yourself.
“I said I will never give up on you. [Kids] want to know that they care about you. I wanted to give Langham the confidence. You beat a kid down so long, he has no confidence in himself. Beat him down a little bit but at the same time, show him that I love him also.”
• Game-planning to get freshman receiver Jeff Thomas more involved recently. UM knew that it absolutely had to incorporate him more the past two weeks because of his electrifying speed, and he rewarded them with two chunk plays – for 70 yards and 48 yards (and a touchdown).
“To know you have a guy that can run like that has got to cause a defense some problems,” Richt said.
• Picking the right quarterback. This decision became obvious as camp unfolded, but Richt wisely chose the guy who most ready and best equipped (Malik Rosier, 29th in the country in ESPN passer rating) -- not the one with more recruiting stars (Jack Allison, who transferred when it became clear he wouldn’t be the choice, or raw N’Kosi Perry).
In their defense, Shannon and Golden made some sound personnel decisions, including Shannon moving Sam Shields from receiver to cornerback as a senior. But Richt and his staff have made more, and that’s a big reason for this ongoing 11-game winning streak.
• Searels said that guard Navaughn Donaldson “could have played last week” despite his ankle injury but UM wants to “get him a little bit better. Hopefully, he’ll be back out this week.”
• On Hayden Mahoney, who started in Donaldson’s absence last week, Searels said:
“He’s earned his position by the way he works, the way he competes, the way he comes out every day to practice, the way he takes notes in the meetings - he knows what to do. He may not have the most ability, but he goes out and trusts his fundamentals, his techniques and plays with great effort and I trust him. He’s done a good job.”
• Travis Homer’s backups got not a single carry last week, and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown was asked if any of them are close to helping.
“I think last week kind of hurt Trayone Gray, as far as how much empty we were going - he’s not our empty back,” Brown said. “He didn’t do anything wrong from a practice standpoint, it was something we introduced for Syracuse. I have confidence in Trayone.
“Deejay Dallas has a long way to go when it comes to pass protection, and Syracuse was a huge pressure team, we couldn’t afford to have a mishap. The more he learns and adjusts and gets more reps” the better equipped he will be.
• Though Homer has been very, very good, Brown said Homer hasn’t always made the correct reads in the red zone and he “has to do a better job being decisive and knocking some guys into the end zone.”
Here’s my six pack of Heat notes today. Here’s my post with lots of Dolphins personnel nuggets today... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz