Barry Jackson

UM football official dishes insight on Canes' defensive tackles

UM defensive linemen Gerald Willis (91) and Joe Jackson (99) — seen here sacking FSU quarterback Sean Maguire in a 2016 game — will be key pieces next season on a Hurricanes line that loses several key contributors.
UM defensive linemen Gerald Willis (91) and Joe Jackson (99) — seen here sacking FSU quarterback Sean Maguire in a 2016 game — will be key pieces next season on a Hurricanes line that loses several key contributors. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Like defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, former UM standout offensive lineman Joel Rodriguez is an exceptional communicator, and that extends to analyzing UM’s personnel.

Rodriguez, who focused on offense last season, will be the Hurricanes’ director of player development/defense, this season. And Rodriguez offered a cogent assessment of UM’s defensive players in a June conversation, a couple of months before UM’s Sept. 2 opener against LSU in Arlington, Tx.

We’ll offer up his assessment in a four-part series this week, beginning with defensive tackle.

“You don’t have as much of the top heavy depth as you had last year when you had R.J. McIntosh and Kendrick Norton and Anthony Moten,” he said. “This point two years ago, we had Gerald Willis. At this time last year, we had more quality proven depth at the top end of the rotation.

“This year, you have guys you’re not completely sure about. Jon Ford hasn’t played a ton of snaps. [Freshmen] Nesta Silvera and Jordan Miller played zero. [Illinois transfer] Tito Odenigbo played meaningful snaps in the Big 10. We love the potential. We love the way they’re working. They had a really good spring.

“[New defensive line coach Jess] Simpson has done a phenomenal job of endearing himself to those guys and bringing a fresh set of eyes. And you have instant credibility when you coached in the NFL.”

Here's how Rodriguez assesses the veteran tackles:

On Willis: “H’s been awesome – Gerald’s issues were never on the field. He was always a really good player who practiced as hard or harder as anyone on the team. His issues were general maturity, making good decisions at the right time.

“We are fortunate where we have a locker room that’s really strong, with phenomenal leadership guys like Shaq Quarterman and Jaquan Johnson – guys we think are high quality leaders for us. Top to bottom our roster is made up of a bunch of really good kids. That’s really helped Gerald mature. He’s had phenomenal mentorship in the program.

Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Gerald Willis is thrilled to be playing again after taking a leave of absence last season to practice with scout team and iron out some personal issues.

“He lives with Demetrius Jackson now and D-Jax is going to be Time magazine Man of the Year one day. Having that positive influence on a daily basis has [helped]. He has matched the high quality output he’s always had with being a higher quality decision maker and overall person. When you live right, things go right for you. He’s living proof of that. Hopefully, that will lead to a long NFL career.”

On Ford: “He’s about where we thought he would be at this time. He’s a big, strong, very athletic kid who can hold the point of attack. Hard to move. Still learning how to play defensive line. When you are the biggest guy on the field, you don’t get challenged very often. We knew Jon would be a work in progress. He has definitely progressed. Not having a summer last year affected him; he lost the summer and pretty much lost all training camp because he wasn’t academically eligible until the end [of camp in August]. So that’s a couple hundred reps he missed out on.

“We didn’t think we would lose both Kendrick and RJ, so the thought was bring him along slowly and get him quality reps – and 2018 be ready to play a more prominent rotational role and by the time he’s a junior [in 2019] he can be a positive force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, when you lose Norton and RJ the same year, it means a guy like Ford having a bigger role on the defense than he’s probably ready for. LSU doesn’t care about that. He will be forced to [have] the reps but the rate at which he’s progressed – from first spring practice to now - is impressive. It’s a testament to Jon and coach Simpson.”

On Odenigbo: “It’s hard to say what we’re getting because you have such limited contact with them. We’ve seen him do agility drills. He’s a squatty body, thick kid we think will provide us some good quality depth and experience.”

On Bethel: “I can see Pat Bethel’s career at Miami mirroring that of [former UM defensive end] Trent Harris. They have very similar personalities. He won’t be a double digit sack guy, because with nose guards, that’s hard to do. Maybe other players are bigger or faster or more twitchy, but he will be in the right gap, hold the point and by doing that, the ball will find him sometimes and he will make the play. That’s what Trent really was; Pat will end up being that for us as a d-tackle. He will make plays you’re supposed to make.”

To refresh, here’s what Diaz told me earlier this year about the two freshmen additions at defensive tackles:

Diaz on Nesta Silvera: “By all accounts, what he did in the All-Star games and everything like that, he is the disruptive tackle in the 4-3 defense, which is what the entire defense is predicated on. Nesta is a pure Cane. We felt that all the way. The way he plays the game, his disruptive manner, the violence he plays with, he plays like how a Miami Hurricane defender should play like.

The University of Miami signed one of the top-ranked defensive lineman in the country, American Heritage's Nesta Silvera, on National Signing Day.

“And Jordan Miller, it’s just hard not to watch his film and not see Kendrick Norton. We were all watching him in the staff room together because he was kind of under the radar as sort of the hidden guy. None of us wanted to say it. And finally someone said, ‘He looks like [Norton].’ If he had number seven on, it would be just like Kendrick.”

Check back later this week for Rodriguez’s in-depth assessment of UM’s defensive ends, linebackers and defensive backs.

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