Manny Diaz goes in-depth on Miami Hurricanes defense on media day

After 10-plus minutes of nitty-gritty talk about individual players, a reporter prefaced his query to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz by saying it was “a global question.”

Diaz paused.

“I thought you were talking about the environment and global warming,” he joked. “‘What do you think about the penguins and Antarctica?’ ‘Funny you asked, I’ve been dying for someone to ask me.'”

Though we won’t get his thoughts on the rising tides — that might be a question for his father, the Democratic former mayor of Miami — we got plenty of insight from Diaz on Monday afternoon during the Hurricanes’ media day:

— Does he have enough talent and depth to play the attacking style he wants?

“We have what we need to be a good defense. The question is, do we have enough? Do we have the depth? You hope. Injuries are part of football. That’s where the questions come up in terms of lasting the season, lasting a game, making sure we’re strong in the fourth quarter. We have some obvious inexperience at spots, and there is no substitute for that. … We need to grow up in a hurry in some spots. That’s rather obvious. There will be growing pains.”

— Diaz wants to identify in the next five days who the best defensive backs are, and whether their third linebacker is better than their fifth defensive back. The issue: he doesn’t know the identity of his fifth DB or third LB.

Clearly, Jermaine Grace and Shaq Quarterman are the top two linebackers, with Michael Pinckney, Jamie Gordinier, Zach McCloud, Charles Perry and the still-injured Darrion Owens in the mix.

As for the defensive backs:

— On cornerback Corn Elder, whom he criticized in the spring:  “We’re only five days in, but Corn’s playing at the highest level I’ve seen. I think the urgency of his senior year’s kicking in.” Diaz said competition from grad transfer Adrian Colbert and new freshmen at wide receiver are making Elder better.

— Diaz said Elder, Colbert and sophomore Sheldrick Redwine are the top three cornerbacks, and no one among Michael Jackson, Ryan Mayes, Terrance Henley and freshman Malek Young have stood out. “Right now those guys are all kind of in a pot. One day this guy pops up, the next day another guy pops up.”

— On Young: “We are planning on him being ready” to help this year.” Young told me he is working on punt and kick returns as a second-teamer.

— Safety Jaquan Johnson (5-10, 190) has enough size to contribute because “he’s strong and powerful.”

— On safety Robert Knowles: “He has started off camp on a positive note” but needs to be more consistent. “You can’t grade 95 percent at safety,” Diaz said, because those mistakes are touchdowns.

More on the linebackers:

— At Will, Diaz hopes Owens (still limited by a knee injury) will be able to challenge Pinckney and Gordinier for a starting spot. “He’s doing more and more every day. … He is a big, imposing guy. You can see where he was a big miss when he was out” last year. Diaz said UM will be careful with Owens “because it’s a long season.”

— Gordinier “runs better than I think you would think,” Diaz said, adding that he can play Mike or Will “which could be important for us. … We either need six I can play with, or we need five and someone’s going to have to play more than one position.”

— Pinckney, he said, is “very bright” and makes excellent reads. “He makes the game seem like it’s easy.”

— At Sam, Diaz said freshman McCloud “is probably a nose ahead” of sophomore Perry, but both are mostly neck-and-neck behind Grace. Diaz likes McCloud’s length (6-2, 230).

— On recruiting the Sam position — which he wants to run and play in space, and not sub out in running situations — Diaz said he’s looking for players like Grace, though players with Grace’s speed, agility and striking ability are not common.

About his defensive line:

— Tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh “have nosed out in front” through the first few days of practice, “but when you say that, the suggestion is that other guys are going backward, and that’s not the case. We really like all five guys,” referring to Gerald Willis, Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said UM can win “a lot of games” with those five tackles.

“The whole group could benefit with more experience, but we’re not going to get that,” Kuligowski said. “We have no seniors on our defensive line.” He praised UM’s linemen for adjusting to the scheme change (3-4 two-gap to 4-3 one-gap) and changing their bodies to accommodate it.

— What does Diaz expect out of Willis, a former blue-chip recruit: “All he needs to do is be a serviceable college football player, which he’s never been.” Diaz said the “recruiting anointment of greatness” is a negative for Willis and others. “That really messes with kids,” he said. “I tell the kids when they first come in, ‘I have a big wastebasket. Throw all your stars in the wastebasket, because they don’t matter anymore. Nobody in college football cares.'”

— On expectations for defensive end and former five-star recruit Chad Thomas: “I think Chad knows that Chad’s in the best shape of his life, and I keep repeating that, but that’s a big deal. … He’s the best version of himself he’s ever been. Instantly, I have a real confidence” about Thomas and others who have changed their bodies. “He’s a long, strong, talented guy. But before we want him to become an All-American, we want him to be a real good defensive end at the University of Miami. When he starts doing [that], then people can vote him” an All-American.

— On freshmen Tyreic MartinJoe Jackson and Pat Bethel: “Right now they’re all swimming.”

— At end, Kuligowski said he expects Al-Quadin Muhammad and Thomas to be top players. He said Demetrius Jackson has looked “excellent” so far and praised Trent Harris for having a strong spring and five “really good practices.” Jackson and Harris, he said, “have really benefited” from the scheme change.

— Kuligowski said Thomas and Muhammad, who have shown violent pass-rush ability in what the media has been allowed to see, are “absolutely” showing it for the duration of practice. “That’s what we’re looking for,” he said. The issue, Kuligowski said, is how much UM can use them in games and still get high-level production.

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