Barry Jackson

Why there should be concern about the Hurricanes’ defense and how UM is addressing this

UM defensive tackle Gerald Willis (91) and end Joe Jackson (99) - seen here sacking FSU quarterback Sean McGuire in a 2016 game - will be key pieces on a UM defense that lost several important contributors.
UM defensive tackle Gerald Willis (91) and end Joe Jackson (99) - seen here sacking FSU quarterback Sean McGuire in a 2016 game - will be key pieces on a UM defense that lost several important contributors.

From a fan standpoint, much of the offseason focus at UM will be on whether one of the ballyhooed young quarterbacks (N’Kosi Perry or Jarren Williams) can wrest the job from Malik Rosier. And that’s reasonable; the quarterback play here must improve for UM to be playoff-worthy.

But do you know what should be just as big a concern?

A defense that has lost so many productive players this offseason that it now can no longer afford any more significant injuries/attrition and now badly needs a handful of freshmen to contribute significantly and immediately.

Arguably UM’s four best defensive linemen from last season are gone — graduating Chad Thomas and Trent Harris and NFL-bound Richard McIntosh Jr. and Kendrick Norton — plus rotation tackle Anthony Moten, Ryan Fines (who wasn’t going to be a factor here) and four-star prospect D.J. Johnson, who transferred to Oregon because of what he said was a family health issue.

Two of the team’s best backup linebackers are gone — Darrion Owens transfered to Houston (where he will reunite with former UM coordinator Mark D’Onofrio) and Jamie Gordinier gave up football because of a history of knee injuries.

Now, ball-hawking starting cornerback Malek Young — who extracted as much out of his 5-9 frame as any player possibly could — is lost to a career-ending neck injury, while Dee Delaney moves on to the NFL.

Though plenty of talent remains, don’t gloss over the loss of 10 former or future rotation players, at least half of whom should be in the NFL someday.

There is legitimate cause for some concern here; it’s only mid-January and UM no longer has the cushion at defensive end or tackle or cornerback to sustain any more attrition such as a significant injury to a starter in the spring or fall camp or any more bizarre stories like Gerald Willis taking a leave of absence.

All of this also has heightened the importance of landing high-end talent on the defensive line and cornerback with UM’s eight remaining available scholarships.

Remember when UM signed 19 players on Dec. 20 and 21 and it felt like Feb. 7 Signing Day would be almost an afterthought?

It shouldn’t feel that way now.

Here are the facts:

▪ UM has only three proven defensive ends it can count on for 2018 (Joe Jackson, Demetrius Jackson and Jon Garvin, with Demetrius Jackson coming off an injury). Incoming Gregory Rousseau is a terrific prospect, but he can’t simply be gifted the No. 4 end job without competition.

That’s why it’s vital UM snags three-star Jamarcus Chatman or Plantation American Heritage four-star end Andrew Chatfield, two players who showed UM love a while ago but now seem conflicted.

Chatfield at one time was reportedly a Miami lean but tweeted in the last week about his “great” in-home visit with Gators coach and “great” official visit at FSU.

Chatman tweeted “loved Virginia Tech” after his visit last weekend and subsequently tweeted “Go Hokies.” He visits FSU this weekend and UM the next.

Per Canesport, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski this week visited Alabama-based three-star end Malik Langham, but Alabama remains his leader.

Another UM target, three-star Missouri-based end Daniel Carson, recently committed to Texas.

UM says that at this point, Scott Patchan — who moved from defensive end to tight end in August in pursuit of more playing time — hasn’t moved back to defensive end. But that remains a logical option.

▪ UM has only one defensive tackle with any significant game experience (Pat Bethel), another strong talent who left UF after a year and then mysteriously sat out last season (Willis) and a high-end prospect who played sparingly as a freshman (Jon Ford).

There’s also highly regarded four-star recruit Nesta Silvera, the only of 20 UM oral commitments who didn’t sign Dec. 20 or 21 (and who visited UF last week); Tyriec Martin, who redshirted as a freshman with a knee injury in 2016 and didn’t play at all in 2017; and grad transfer Tito Odenigbo, who started four games for Illinois last season.

And that’s it. No wonder UM is scrambling to add another defensive tackle, perhaps Houston-based tackle Keondre Coburn, a Texas commit who very much enjoyed his UM visit last week (according to Canesport) or Kissimmee’s Dennis Briggs (who told The Herald two weeks ago he favored UM but told his coach he liked his South Carolina visit last week and has FSU up next).

UM is in a precarious spot here, and unless the Canes can snag a couple of ready-to-play, high-level ACC caliber tackles and ends — and there aren’t many of those left among high school seniors — then the Canes will need to find more help on the grad transfer market this spring.

▪ Cornerback: Young’s injury leaves Michael Jackson, Trajan Bandy and Jhavonte Dean as the only returning cornerbacks.

Dean, rated the nation’s top junior college prospect a year ago, didn’t make the impact many expected last season, but coordinator Manny Diaz —before the Young injury — told me: “We will be very disappointed if he’s not a major guy for us next year.”

Young’s injury means at least two of the four freshmen corners (Al Blades, Gilbert Frierson, D.J. Ivey, Nigel Bethel) will need to play a lot immediately.

UM remains in the running for Plantation American Heritage five-star cornerbacks Pat Surtain and Tyson Campbell, but appears to have ground to make up for both, with Surtain linked to Alabama and LSU and Georgia linked to Campbell.

Campbell has said he will visit UM Feb. 2 and Surtain might, as well.

In a pinch, UM would have other options that aren’t especially ideal: move Sheldrick Redwine back from safety to corner a year after he switched, even though he’s better suited for safety, or move running back/receiver DeeJay Dallas to cornerback, even though he proved his value as an offensive weapon (including in the Wildcat) late in the season.

The Redwine move, while hardly preferred, could be worth considering if promising sophomores-to-be Derrick Smith Jr. or Amari Carter or freshman Gurvan Hall prove worthy of significant playing time alongside Jaquan Johnson.

There’s also the possibility Mark Richt and his staff could find more ready-to-produce grad transfers, as they did the past two years with Adrian Colbert and Delaney.

Bottom line: Despite the good work of Diaz and his assistants, roster attrition — some expected, some unexpected — should have Canes fans at least somewhat concerned about this defense, with UM now in need of a handful of players who can help next season on a unit whose coaches like to substitute liberally so their top players don’t wear down in the South Florida heat.

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