On-field priority No. 1 for UM coach Manny Diaz and his new staff has been fixing the quarterback position.
But priority No. 2 must be augmenting a defensive line that is losing its two best players: NFL-bound Gerald Willis and Joe Jackson.
There was legitimate cause for concern after Wisconsin ran up the gut and steamrolled UM for 333 yards rushing, on 5.7 per carry, in the Pinstripe Bowl. UM didn’t have Willis for all of that game and Jackson for part of it.
That’s why it’s vital that UM supplement that line with additional talent.
And the Canes have taken significant steps toward achieving that in recent weeks, adding two four-star defensive ends, a former UCLA starting defense tackle, three well-regarded high school defensive tackles while at the same time pursuing, among others, former UCLA five-star defensive end/outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips, who’s interested in Miami, and ex-Virginia Tech end Trevon Hill.
Here’s where things stand at defensive end and tackle, and coaches’ thoughts on the incoming talent:
▪ Defensive end: Jon Garvin will be the leader of the group, but UM is counting on a big redshirt freshman season from Gregory Rousseau, who impressed everyone last summer (nine sacks in three spring scrimmages), then sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the season’s second game against Savannah State.
Garvin, Rousseau and Scott Patchan — and potentially former Virginia Tech defensive end Trevon Hill — could end up as Miami’s top four ends. Hill hasn’t graduated yet, according to The Richmond Times Dispatch, but told the newspaper that he’s on track to graduate in May. If he does, he would eligible to play in 2019 as a grad transfer.
As we reported Monday, there’s mutual interest between Hill and UM. InsideTheU.com reported Thursday that Hill is expected to transfer to Miami, but that’s not confirmed — and he has tweeted about both UM and UCF in recent days. If he joins UM, he has a decent chance of starting. He had 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in three games this past season before being dismissed from the Hokies program after a September loss to Old Dominion.
UCLA’s Phillips, if he ends up at Miami, likely would need to sit out a year unless he secures a waiver. Phillips told me Wednesday he was working with UM coaches to coordinate a visit here.
If Hill or another grad transfer doesn’t enroll, Patrick Joyner Jr. and freshmen Jahfari Harvey and Cameron Williams will compete for the No. 4 defensive end job. Joyner played in four games and thus did not burn his redshirt.
Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons four-star end Khris Bogle will join that group if UM can get him to flip from Alabama. He’s considering visiting UM the weekend of Feb. 1 after a visit to UF this weekend.
The UM staff has been raving about Harvey, who is already enrolled and will participate in spring football.
“Another kid they don’t even realize how good he is,” co-defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda said of Harvey. “I talked to coaches during the recruiting process; they come and see him, say `Have you seen that d-end from Vero?’ I’m like `Yeah, he’s committed to us.’ They’re like `Dang, he’s going to kill every tackle in our conference.’ … Very ,very talented, twitched up kid, a steal.”
Outside linebackers coach and special teams coach Jonathan Patke said Harvey is “a steal; he’s one of the best defensive ends in this state, in the country. We got on him early and stayed committed with the Canes. You can ask many coaches around this country. He’s a diamond in the rough. Not even a diamond in the rough, because people found out about him. He’s one of the most talented pass rushers in the country. He is going to get on a nutrition plan and work with them and go through spring football. His defense will be installed where he gets to hear it three times before freshman year.”
And there’s this from UM player personnel director Matt Doherty, as offered up this week on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline: “Coach Diaz was the one that had eyes for him before anybody else did. He has developed into a guy that I think personally is ahead of where Jonathan Garvin was when he came in the door a couple years ago. I don’t want to put unrealistic expectations on Jahfari, but he is very much going to help us rush the passer this season. I’m really excited to see what he looks like this spring.”
Williams shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
He finished his senior year with 91 total tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. He recorded three tackles and a half sack in Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna’s 38-10 state-title win against King’s Academy on Dec. 8.
“He’s another defensive end that will come to the program,” Doherty said on WQAM this week. “He has prototype length. He is 6-5, weighs 230 pounds plus but doesn’t look it. He will grow into hopefully an NFL defensive end.”
▪ Defensive tackle: Pat Bethel, Jon Ford, Nesta Silvera and UCLA transfers Chigozie Nnoruka could be be the top four in some order, but Ford has much to prove after failing to live up to expectations this past season.
And all of them must hold off three freshmen tackles: four-star New York based Jason Blissett, three-star Georgia based Jalar Holley and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas’ three-star Jason Munoz.
UM also must develop Jordan Miller, who redshirted as a freshman.
Of Blissett, Banda said: “Jason is the steal. His athleticism is special. I saw him doing hurdles in track and it was `He’s a D lineman? No way.’ … He didn’t waver” after committing.
And of Holley, Patke said: “He got better and better throughout his senior year. We can only imagine what he will be when he gets here. When he was on his trip here, he looked great. He’s built different than Blissett. He’s thicker and bigger. He played well through his senior year.”
Munoz, who’s listed at 6-4 and 276 pounds, can play end but Patke — during the brief time when he was co-defensive coordinator — said he sees him as a tackle.
UM continues to pursue New York-based tackle Jared Hunte.
As for Nnoruka, he could be a better version of last year’s Illinois transfer, Tito Odenigbo.
Angus McClure, who recruited him to UCLA out of a junior college as a defensive end but quickly moved him to tackle, said in 2017: “He’s got some great instincts inside naturally. He’s able to take on double-teams, his technique’s improved.”
He was very productive as a starter in 2017 under McClure and former coach Jim Mora, with 46 tackles and two sacks.
But Nnoruka’s playing time plunged after McClure left last April for Nevada and new coach Chip Kelly installed a new defensive staff and a new scheme.
The front seven — and safety — were the two areas where UM was elite this past season. Staying that way next season — after losing Willis, Jackson and safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine — will be a challenge. But the additions in the past month — combined with the decision of all three junior starting linebackers to bypass the NFL — certainly will help.