Barry Jackson

Hurricanes coach offers insight on UM's safety situation, including one mild surprise

Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson returns an interception for a third-quarter touchdown against Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. Johnson, coming off a great season, again stands to be the leader of UM's secondary.
Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson returns an interception for a third-quarter touchdown against Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. Johnson, coming off a great season, again stands to be the leader of UM's secondary. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Part five of a five-part series assessing every player on UM's defense:

With UM football practice opening in a month, safeties coach Ephraim Banda offers insight on his group:

It’s difficult to find many — perhaps any — safety who played better last season than Jaquan Johnson.

Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins’ first-round pick who won the Jim Thorpe award for the nation’s best defensive back, actually played only a small percentage of his snaps at safety last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“When you look at Jaquan’s stats, going off straight numbers, he had better stats than the Jim Thorpe award winner, who was the best player in the country last year,” Banda said. “His tackles [96], interceptions [four], if you combine interceptions and fumbles [two recovered, three forced], he was elite.

“The biggest thing too about him is all the stuff he does in the game to help us get aligned and allow us to do things. What makes him the best safety in the country is his ability to erase mistakes. That's your number one job as a safety.”

So where could Johnson improve?

Banda uses this analogy: “It’s like a race car; one of those cars moves at extremely high speed; they are bringing that car to the garage and mess with a carburetor. It may only be a mile or two faster or run more efficiently longer, and that's what we're doing with Jaquan; let's come in and tinker with this thing and see where you can get better. There were countless things with Jaquan’s game I've addressed with him.

“Jaquan didn’t go through spring ball [because of conflicts with his class schedule]. He had only four or five practices. For a person who went through four or five practices, it's hard to have a good spring. He knows that hurt him and this camp is big for him. I would like to see him make more tackles for losses [three each of the past two years], would love to see him be more destructive in the backfield and see his number jump in that area in terms of takeaways and interceptions. He has to make all of the [big play opportunities], not some.”

Sheldrick Redwine not only emerged from the spring in firm grasp of the starting safety job alongside Johnson, but he stretched his lead over Amari Carter and Robert Knowles.

“He ran away from these guys,” Banda said. “I let those guys know that. I let Redwine know that because we want him to know he's done a hell of a job. I am extremely hard on Sheldrick. He's a guy I coach different from the others. Sometimes he gets frustrated with me, but he knows now I am going to coach him hard and knows I love him. I am proud of him.

“He was better at looking at film [this spring], making more plays in practice. Sheldrick is a six-footer, he has the measurables everybody sees. I told him, ‘You should be better than Jaquan.’ I challenged him. He had three or four interceptions [in the spring, after two last season. A couple years ago,] he dropped those. We worked hard at that. We threw tennis type balls that are hard to track; that forces you to bring your hands together. His hands were an issue but have improved dramatically. I expect him to be an All-American and All-ACC.”

Banda said Knowles enters August camp ahead of Carter for the No. 3 safety job, which remains open.

“Couple games we had to put Rob in the game where Red got hurt last year,” Banda said. “At the time, he hadn't played a lot on defense. We went with Rob in those situations, and he struggled a little but anyone would struggle. But he fought and tackled. You are going to make mistakes, but if you tackle, to coach [Manny] Diaz and I, that's all that matters. Rob has always been a good tackler.

“The biggest thing I wanted Rob to improve on was confidence and being calm and not being so wound up that he can't function the way he functions in practice. If you saw him in practice and games, you wouldn't see the same guy. Rob Knowles in practice is elite. Rob got the first high score of the spring.

"Rob has to take what he does on Greentree to Hard Rock. Right now, I put Rob ahead ahead of Amari. I told Amari that. Right now, Rob has done a better job.”

As for Carter, Banda said: “Amari is extremely physical. He has proven to the locker-room his toughness and ability to strike, which is the number one thing in our room. Now he has to stop making the small, little mistakes. He has to stop repeating mistakes. If he makes a mistake and corrects it, then great. But if he makes mistakes and makes it again, that's not what we're looking for.

"One big thing that happened in the spring game - I told him something and he went out there and didn't do it and it cost us a big long pass right before halftime. I told him I can’t put you in the game if I tell you what’s going to happen and you don’t do it and it looks like [freshman cornerbacl] DJ [Ivey] made a mistake and it wasn't - it was on you. He's learning he has to do it exactly what I want him to do. He wants to, he's just young.”

On the plus side, Carter “has excelled in the weight room, has really improved his speed and agility."

Freshman Gurvan Hall, who was sidelined for the final two-thirds of spring with a knee injury, “is full go,” Banda said. “He has gone through summer workouts.”

Hall, Banda said, “he has a skill set that is what you expect to be at Miami. He is fast and physical and has great intuition, can diagnose the play, can power through plays and power through blocks. The biggest thing I saw in the first four or five practices is he knows football, but he understands the concepts. You would think all of them do but that's not true. Jaquan has that.

"Gurvan will play this year. All five will play. Gurvan has to play great for [special teams coach Todd Hartley] before he can ever play for coach me and coach Diaz.”

Walk-on Colvin Alford, who played at Coral Reef, would be an option to be Miami’s sixth safety if UM needs one.

But as Banda said, "if the fifth best guy is a corner and we need him at safety, we will play him at safety.”

Please click here for my archives with the first four parts of this series.

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