Barry Jackson

Four reasons Hurricanes are very optimistic despite loss to Gators

A six-pack of Hurricanes notes on a Thursday:

Why does head coach Manny Diaz feel so optimistic about the team after a loss in the opener? He cited several factors during a news conference and radio interviews this week:

Reason 1: “What our guys found out Saturday is when we play, we can beat anybody,” Diaz told Joe Zagacki and Don Bailey Jr. on UM’s Hurricane Hotline. “It doesn’t matter the [Gators] were No. 8 [in the preseason AP rankings]. We were more than good enough to beat them. We whipped them up front. They see physically we matched up with who we were playing.”

(Diaz also made the point that “when we don’t play, we can lose to anybody on our schedule.”)

Reason 2: “In Jarren Williams, they saw a leader who didn’t look out of place.”

Publicly, Diaz was far less critical of Williams than offensive coordinator Dan Enos was.

Even though everyone knows the redshirt freshman quarterback can’t take as many sacks (Enos said five of the 10 against the Gators were Williams’ fault), Diaz raised a good point in noting he didn’t throw an interception, while Gators QB Feleipe Franks threw two.

“Do we want to be careless with the ball as Franks was?” Diaz said. “Jarren was not.”

Reason 3: Diaz believes the young offensive tackles — Zion Nelson and John Campbell — are highly skilled players and will improve with experience.

“Those are our guys, and they never flinched, never blinked,” Diaz said. “They got beat; that’s going to happen. That’s hard. They had some good dudes that seniors would have a hard time blocking. But we didn’t build this program for Aug. 24. The idea here is to build a monster to last and is sustainable.”

Reason 4: Enos’ offense — coupled with the talent of the Canes’ playmakers — produced the type of opportunities that Diaz expected. UM simply didn’t take advantage of enough of them.

“Jeff Thomas is running uncovered by any Gator [on multiple plays where he didn’t get the ball],” Diaz said. “There’s always the ‘oh but’ one thing [about why a play didn’t work]. What players can see is schematically there are yards all over the place if we get can attention to detail a little bit better.

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“To score 20 on them when there was a lot more available, there was confidence to be gained on the offensive side of the ball from that.”

Diaz expects the package for quarterback/receiver Tate Martell to continue to expand.

“He wants to play; that’s one thing we love about him,” Diaz said. “He’s a gym rat. He wants to do anything he can to help the team. He gives us creative options on things we can do offensively and there will be more of that to come. The guy has got skills, and he will only continue to get better in all the roles we use him at.”

Diaz was asked why UM didn’t use guards Navaughn Donaldson and D.J. Scaife — who have experience at tackle — at tackle against UF instead of two inexperienced players (Nelson and Campbell).

“We felt D.J. and Navaughn do a nice job at guard,” Diaz said. “We have a lot of confidence in our guys. And sacks do not define offensive line play at all. There were easy throws in the first half. We don’t fan out to a linebacker we should pick up [and] a man comes unblocked, but the ball should have come out. Everyone understands it’s an 11-man job to protect the quarterback.”

Defensive coordinator Blake Baker cited these players as worthy of more playing time off the opener: safety Robert Knowles (16 defensive snaps against UF), defensive tackle Chigozie Nnoruka (11) and defensive end Trevon Hill (14).

“Rob Knowles is the first guy that comes to mind,” Baker said. “He did a great job. We have to do a better job of getting him on the field more, and I told him that. I think we have to probably play some more guys.”

Baker wasn’t as critical of his unit publicly as Enos was — nor did he need to be. But Baker was openly critical about a few things.

“The biggest thing is tackling; we did a poor job tackling at all three levels,” Baker said. “The 66-yard touchdown, three missed tackles — should have been a first down [but nothing more]. … We have to tackle after the catch.

“The No. 2 thing is we have to be able to communicate better across the board. There were some breakdowns from a lack of communication that cost us.”

He said Gilbert Frierson wasn’t entirely to blame for the 65-yard passing play.

“It wasn’t just Gilbert; Gilbert is the one everyone on TV sees chasing the guy down, but we have to have a safety playing the middle of the field,” Baker said.

“There’s a safety [apparently Amari Carter] that needs to be over the top — that ball should never be thrown. We didn’t do that and paid the price for it.”

Baker also said linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney “played average. They know they didn’t play their best game. I thought maybe they tried to press too much, do too much. They get it. They’ll bounce back.”

Diaz said his team wasn’t sad in the aftermath but “angry, ticked off, understanding the missed opportunity of one we let get away.”

He mentioned on Hurricane Hotline that “Miami, Florida and Florida State are always going to have guys [talented players]. Humpty Dumpty can coach at Florida; they’re always going to have players. We started to show we have some guys that can play too. We showed everything we’ve been talking about is not just talk; it was real.”

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