Barry Jackson

Canes new defensive coordinator dishes on lineup and personnel issues

A bunch of nuggets from my Tuesday one-on-one conversation with new UM defensive coordinator Blake Baker, who takes over a unit that was second in the nation in yards allowed per game last season:

▪ There are several players who have emerged in the past month, but perhaps none more than safety Gurvan Hall, who has three interceptions in two scrimmages and could be the cusp of joining a long list of genuinely impactful safeties here.

“He can be a special player,” Baker said. “He’s got incredible ball skills and he’s an incredible ball carrier once he gets the ball in his hands. He took one [scrimmage interception] to the house that he caught within the 10 yard line [and took 90 yards].

“His ceiling is extremely high. From a physical standpoint, he can run, he’s physical at the point of attack. He’s a really, really smart, instinctive ball player. He has to continue to get better at technique. That’s part of coaching.”

▪ Most improved player? Hall would rank among them, but Baker said Al Blades Jr. and DJ Ivey - the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks - “have improved maybe more than anybody on our defense, especially Al Blades.

“I knew DJ kind of took over from the end of spring ball and pulled ahead. Al Blades is a different player than he was this spring. I think Al Blades can have a special year for us. I feel very comfortable with both of them in the game.”

Blades has been running with the starters for much of camp - opposite Trajan Bandy - but regardless, Ivey will play a ton in nickel packages on the boundary, with Bandy shifting to the slot.

▪ Hall and Amari Carter are front-runners to start at safety, but UM expects Southern Cal transfer Bubba Bolden - who arrived last week - will get on the field.

Bolden - who last played FBS ball in 2017 before a USC suspension last year - is working at both safety spots, and Baker said he can also play striker. He has three years of eligibility at UM.

“He’s very smart, picked up things quickly on the defense,” Baker said. “He has a unique skill set with his length. He’s 6-2, with really long arms. He can end up playing all three positions - both safety [spots] and our striker position. Right now, he’s been playing primarily safety. He’s got a really unique skill set. As smart as he is, he will position himself to play” on defense soon even after his late arrival.

▪ Baker said Zach McCloud is back playing linebacker; he was listed as a striker this past spring. He’s lining up with Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney in some formations, with striker Romeo Finley replacing McCloud in some natural passing situations.

So who’s the team’s fourth linebacker, with Bradley Jennings Jr., Waymon Steed and Patrick Joyner all sidelined by injuries?

Freshman Sam Brooks and Darian Stephenson, according to Baker. But Baker said a couple players could shift positions; he declined to name them because “we haven’t made that decision.”

Joyner is expected back by October. Manny Diaz has said Steed and Jennings are out with longer term injuries.

▪ UM is very comfortable with the defensive line that has started since Day 1 of camp: Jon Garvin and Scott Patchan at end and Pat Bethel and Jon Ford at tackle.

Patchan has made the most of a UM career that has involved several switches between offense and defense; Garvin can be an elite player; Bethel is very solid; and a UM official said Ford has looked like a first-rounder at times this spring and summer.

Among backup defensive tackles, UCLA transfer Chigozie Nnoruka “is playing phenomenal,” Baker said. “He’s really, really good, probably will be the first guy off the bench inside. And Jordan Miller is another guy when you talk about most improved since spring ball. He really changed his body, gotten in shape. He’s a guy that’s going to help us inside for sure.”

Miller lost 20 pounds and is now at 315.

Defensive tackle Nesta Silvera is expected back from a foot injury by early to mid October.

As for backup defensive end, Baker knows UM is fortunate to have starting-caliber talents as their third and fourth ends with Virginia Tech transfer Trevon Hill and Gregory Rousseau.

“A lot of teams would count Trevon and Rousseau as one and two; we’re blessed to have those guys,” Baker said. “Our defensive line is by far the strength of our defense from top to bottom.”

What has Baker seen so far in Hill, who spent much of the offseason recovering from a shoulder injury last season?

“First and foremost, he can rush the passer, has a natural bend,” Baker said. “He has a variety of pass rush moves. He’s hard to block; the constant on his film is he plays extremely hard and is really good at rushing the passer. Every day he’s gotten better, and a lot of that is playing himself back into playing shape. He will continue to get better and better as the season progresses.”

▪ Coaches have been thoroughly impressed with freshman defensive end Jahfari Harvey, who figures to get work as the No. 5 end.

“Harvey might be the one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around,” Baker said. “He’s 6-3, 6-4; coach [David] Feeley has got him up to around 240 pounds. He’s extremely explosive. As we continue to evolve defensively, he can drop into coverage and rush the passer.

“He plays extremely hard. Still have to have him continue to stay in the playbook. He’s still a true freshman, but being here in the spring, I don’t look at him that way. Physically, he looks like he’s a senior. He’s going to be a really, really good player here for a long time.”

Manny Diaz has been effusive about freshmen defensive tackles Jalar Holley, Jared Harrison-Hunte and Jason Blissett, who all certainly look the part physically.

“Physically, when you first look at them when they get off the bus [it’s impressive],” Baker said.

“They all provide a little different skill set. All three have twitchiness. Jalar is a little sturdier, a little more compact build than the other two. Jared is a freak athlete, [which is evident] when you watch him go through [drills] and obviously with his basketball background. And Blissett is really a combination of the two.

“They all offer different skill sets. The thing I love about all of them is they’re all natural leaders. All have great personalities. The team has really embraced them. I can see any of the three being captains of this team.”

▪ While Baker and the other new defensive assistant - defensive line coach Todd Stroud - have added wrinkles to the defense, this will largely be the attacking scheme that Diaz ran.

“Just having coach Stroud and different views, maybe there are different ways to do some of the things they had been doing,” Baker said. “That just naturally happens with coaching. But we’re going to do what coach Diaz wants us to do. I cut my teeth under him. We’re not going to stray too far from what we both know very well.”

QB NOTE

▪ The most pleasant surprise about Jarren Williams from the past three weeks of practice? Offensive coordinator Dan Enos said it was his ability to extend plays.

“I saw him several times take off, run, take off, buy time, make a play with his arm,” Enos said. “I saw him make several good pocket throws in the spring. But this fall camp, I saw him several times maneuver in the pocket. He runs better than I gave him credit for. That was the biggest surprise; that guy kind of has that in him, too. To me, that’s huge, for a guy to make off-schedule plays.”

Enos said Williams will get all the first-team snaps leading into the Gators game Aug. 24, and N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell will split second-team snaps.

Here’s my Tuesday six-pack with Manny Diaz and UM teammates discussing Tate Martell’s plans, and other nuggets.

Here’s my Tuesday Heat piece where a scout and other NBA people weigh in on whether the Heat is a playoff team.

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