A six-pack of Hurricanes defensive notes on a Monday:
▪ This was a pretty remarkable stat: In spite of the talent on UM’s defensive line last season, the opposing offensive line was whistled for just three holding penalties in 11 regular-season games against Miami, plus one each in the ACC Championship game and the Orange Bowl.
That's five for the season against a defense that ranked first in the country in sacks and fourth in tackles for loss. That's difficult to reconcile.
At one point, UM went 31 consecutive quarters without a single holding penalty being called against the opponent's offense.
UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, appearing on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline last week, cracked to Joe Zagacki that even when holding penalties were called on opposing offensive lines, “they always call holding on the same play where you sack them” so that if UM accepts the penalty, it would wipe out the sack.
Diaz said “our players never said peep about it during the year. I hope the fans all go crazy and boo. We just play. I don’t want to say we expect it to be that way. We don't make excuses for our performance. We've got to understand, we're not the champion right now.”
Using a boxing analogy, Diaz said “if it goes to the judges, we're not that guy yet. Until we get to that point, we shouldn't expect any favors from the judges. We've got to knock out the champ. That's the whole theme of spring. Now that we've finally got into the ring, we have to knock out the champ.”
▪ One player who really came on strong recently in spring ball: defensive tackle Pat Bethel. That’s critical, because UM needs each of its likely top three tackles (Gerald Willis, Bethel, Jon Ford) to be excellent.
“Pat Bethel, the second half of spring is really, really taking a huge step forward, playing alongside Willis and really seems to have found a home,” Diaz said on WQAM. “Sometimes things just click with certain guys. The work [new defensive line coach Jess] Simpson has done with Pat has really made a big impact with him.”
Willis, meanwhile, “has been awesome,” Diaz said. “He has that knack for making a play. Has a great feel for the game.”
▪ Diaz said the creation of a new position — “striker” on the defense “has been very valuable to us.”
The striker is a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Derrick Smith Jr., Romeo Finley and De’Andre Wilder are all playing it.
“It gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of things we can call,” Diaz said. “It increases our response time on plays on the perimeter, which is such a big thing now the way offenses are rolling. It's just another tool in the toolbox. There are times you play a more pure nickel — a guy like [cornerback] Trajan [Bandy] which we did sometimes last year. Or maybe some instances where you have to play with three bigger sturdy bodies like we did with Wisconsin.
“The scheme doesn't matter if you're not putting your best players on the field. We look at it as a coaching staff of how do we best maximize the best players on our roster? We like Derrick. We like Romeo. It's up to them this spring to prove they can be one of the best 11 guys on the field.”
▪ Here’s something else Diaz likes about his defense:
“We are blessed with a bunch of long guys,” he said. “D.J. Ivey, Gilbert Frierson – our strength staff has turned both those guys [to where] they look like they're arm wrestling champions in just three months. Length shortens the field, narrows the field. Length actually equals speed. A Miami defense should always be fast - part of that is athletic speed; part of that is speed of thought.”
▪ While Mark Richt has cautioned against overly high expectations for impressive freshman defensive end Gregory Rousseau, this is hard to ignore:
He has nine – nine! – sacks in the three scrimmages, including the spring game.
"Some of his deal is just line up on the edge and get off and beat the tackle around the corner and sack the quarterback. He did that really good, I can tell you that,” coach Mark Richt said. “Or you run a zone-read, you’re handing the ball to a back, and there’s Rousseau, end man on the line, the guy you don’t block. He’s so long, he can kind of still get the back, but if you pull it, he can still get the quarterback.
“We call them ‘tarantulas.’ They’re like these guys with these big arms. He’s got great genetics for that position. He’s a super guy. He’s learning. He’s a happy kid. He should be, he’s got a lot of success right now.
“But did we really challenge him? When he shows up in the LSU game, will this veteran tackle whip his tail and teach him a lesson? I don’t know. We don’t have anybody who can teach him a lesson.”
Jon Garvin had three sacks in the spring game and two more in this past Saturday's scrimmage and should be a menace in his sophomore year.
With Joe Jackson, Demetrius Jackson, Garvin and Rousseau, UM has four highly skilled defensive ends.
Scott Patchan has looked good this spring and had two sacks in the spring game. UM has worked former linebacker Terry McCray at defensive end for depth purposes and he had four tackles in Saturday's scrimmage.
▪ After sitting out last season because of a knee injury sustained during his senior year of high school, linebacker Waynmon Steed has had some good moments this spring. He had 3.5 tackles in the spring game, which was fourth on the team and UM named him its most improved linebacker.
Second-year linebacker Bradley Jennings led UM with five tackles in Saturday's scrimmage and also has improved.