Barry Jackson

What we're hearing on UM's defense, by position, heading into the summer

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 UM's defense.
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 UM's defense.

What we’re hearing on the UM football team’s defense heading into the summer, by position:

Defensive end: There was no more exciting story in the spring than the development of early enrollee Greg Rousseau, who had nine sacks in three spring scrimmages and was disruptive with his exceptional wing span and speed off the edge.

UM privately believes he can be elite. But they caution against expecting too much too soon.

"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. “We call them ‘tarantulas.’ They’re like these guys with these big arms. He’s got great genetics for that position….

“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.”

UM feels very good about its top five ends: Demetrius Jackson (a skilled run-stopper who was limited in spring off November knee surgery), Joe Jackson(Miami still believes he can take his game to another level), Jonathan Garvin (five sacks combined in the spring game and final scrimmage but still needs to be more rugged against the run), Rousseau and Scott Patchan (two sacks in the spring game and skilled at getting his arms up in the passing lanes and deflecting throws). But depth beyond the top five is a concern here; converted linebacker Terry McCray is the No. 6 end.

Defensive tackle: Gerald Willis had a terrific spring, but UM must hold its breath to an extent on a player who has played 19 college games in four years, transferred from UF and sat out last year for reasons that have never been explained.

Pat Bethel, who has a knack for making meaningful plays at key times, surpassed Jon Ford in the second half of the spring. Ford has an NFL body but more production is expected.

Former defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who left for Alabama, thought summer arrival Nesta Silvera was the nation’s best Class of 2018 defensive tackle, and he figures to get early snaps. So should Illinois transfer Tito Odenigbo, who also arrives this summer; the 6-3, 290-pounder started four games last season and had 29 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups in 10 games, while also blocking a field-goal attempt at South Florida.

Linebacker: A wrist injury knocked Zach McCloud out of most of spring practice, creating an opportunity for Derrick Smith and Romeo Finley to get lots of work in a new “striker” position, which is a mix of safety and linebacker and is an important role in a modern defense.

Smith has the range and length to be effective in pass coverage but must improve there, as Clemson showed when they victimized him in the ACC championship. He made two dynamic plays in the spring game, one in coverage, another on a DeeJay Dallas run that he snuffed out for a 2-yard loss.

Most encouraging development at linebacker: Waymon Steed, who missed last season after a high school knee injury, impressed with his ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage. “Neat surprise,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz called Steed. Bradley Jennings (five tackles in the final scrimmage) improved, De’Andre Wilder had some moments and Charles Perry should help when he returns this summer from last year’s knee surgery.

Starters Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney had good springs, but UM needs them to be consistently great to have an elite defense. And Mike Smith — who was competent last year — must become more impactful to hold off younger players.

Safety: For those expecting Amari Carter to overtake Sheldrick Redwine — who played well most of last year but struggled badly late — it hasn’t happened. Redwine enters August as the starter alongside Jaquan Johnson, who might have been UM’s best player in 2017.

Robert Knowles, exposed at times last year, worked his way back into the mix with a solid spring. Early enrollee Gurvan Hall’s bid to crack the rotation was short-circuited by a knee injury early in spring. Before that, he flashed and “made a play that sort of made everyone’s jaw drop,” Diaz said.

Cornerback: The most encouraging signs: Michael Jacksonwas steady all spring, Trajan Bandy showed more of a comfort level playing on the boundary instead of merely in the slot and early enrollee Gilbert Frierson flashed an impressive skill set (he intercepted N’Kosi Perry in the end zone of the spring game and later had a sack in the game).

The concern: UM is still waiting for Jhavonte Dean to validate being the nation’s most highly recruited junior college cornerback 16 months ago. One UM source said he seems to lack confidence at times. When it’s a quick play, and Dean can use his instincts and doesn’t need to think, he’s pretty good. But generally, there’s too much hesitation in his game. He has the speed and size to play better than has shown.

Early enrollee D.J. Ivey was beaten deep by receiver Brian Hightower in the spring game, but he and Frierson are positioned to get defensive snaps early. Al Blades Jr. and Nigel Bethel have ground to make up when they arrive this summer.

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