Miami’s front seven could be missing three pieces next Saturday against Florida A&M (6 p.m., ESPN3.com), with starting defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and senior linebacker Jermaine Grace potentially suspended.
UM is expected to make a determination this weekend on their status, The Post reported this week. We also reported defensive tackle Gerald Willis, a promising second-teamer, will be suspended for FAMU.
A look at where Miami’s defense stands with the season-opener eight days away:
If Muhammad is out, that could put Demetrius Jackson or Trent Harris in the starting lineup opposite Chad Thomas. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who wants to rotate at least four ends and five tackles, said he expects to get freshmen Joe Jackson and Pat Bethel ready to play since injuries can drastically change a team’s plan. No determination has been made on whether they’ll redshirt, he said. Miami was encouraged by redshirt freshman Scott Patchan‘s progress before his ACL tear, but he is still weeks from returning.
“Things change so fast. All of a sudden injuries shuffle the deck. When you’re fifth in line, that line can get short,” Diaz said.
Willis has played well in scrimmages, but his disciplinary issues leave him at the back of a five-man tackle rotation for now. Sophomores Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh appear to be the starters, with Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins first off the bench. UM has been pleased with all. “We can win a lot of games” with that group, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said earlier this month.
If Grace is out, true freshman Zach McCloud could be in at strong-side linebacker. Diaz likes his style. “Zach is a runner and hitter, he might be as hard a hitter as anyone we have maybe on the whole defense. He’s learning the discipline of playing linebacker … but because he’s tough we’ll always have place for him,” said Diaz of McCloud, from Santaluces High.
“He knows he’s one of our big bangers on our defense. We just have to make sure he’s hitting the right guy. It can’t be ‘ready, fire, aim.’”
The other contender to back up Grace is Royal Palm Beach High’s Charles Perry, whom Diaz said “has the athleticism to play out there. The battle [for both] has been learning in the new scheme. The tiebreaker is going to be physicality and toughness. Right now that’s where Zach [is ahead].”
Diaz said no decision has been made on the weak-side linebacker spot, where freshman Michael Pinckney has been splitting reps with redshirt freshman Jamie Gordinier. UM likes Pinckney’s speed and nose for the ball, though his hamstring injury has kept him from showing the mobility he had in the spring. What does Gordnier (6-4, 235) do well? “I know what to look at,” he said. “I guess I’m in the right spot a lot of the time.”
Shaq Quarterman remains the starter in the middle, with redshirt freshman Mike Smith his backup. Smith, a dogged pass-rusher at Miami Northwestern said Friday he has regained the speed he lost when he tore his ACL in early 2014.
Diaz appreciates the “urgency” of fifth-year transfer Adrian Colbert and said UM “really likes” sophomore Sheldrick Redwine, though his relative lack of experience shows at times. Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said the battle between the two has been “really tight. One day Redwine has a great one, one day Colbert has a great one.”
It seems Miami won’t have to pick … one.
“We need all those guys to play,” Diaz said, referring to that pair and senior Corn Elder, a projected starter. Any one of those players could play as the fifth defensive back in UM’s nickel package, a formation it began drilling Friday.
If Redwine proves he’s starter-quality, Elder could be the nickel back; his quickness and agility helps him guard receivers in the slot, and he would be an upgrade over Dallas Crawford, whom Mark D’Onofrio often used as a fifth defensive back (Jamal Carter saw time there, too). Elder led Miami defensive backs with two sacks and four tackles for loss last year, and broke up 11 passes, fifth in the ACC.
On Friday, however, the first-stringer was sophomore Jaquan Johnson, whom safeties coach Ephraim Banda praised as “a starter” last weekend. He’s manning nickel while seniors Rayshawn Jenkins and Carter play safety, but Johnson said all three are rotating just in case.
“The nickel’s fine with me,” Johnson said, but “anything can happen, somebody could go down.” Johnson, who played on special teams last year with Redwine and saw action as Miami’s fifth safety, had three tackles, a sack and a pass break-up in last Wednesday’s scrimmage, per UM.
As for the fourth cornerback spot, freshman Malek Young has jumped into the mix with Michael Jackson and Ryan Mayes because of his speed. “He plays with a calmness to him and he’s not worried about someone beating him over the top,” Rumph said. “Fast players don’t get scared.”
At fourth safety, Diaz said Miami is “pleased by the development of Robert Knowles” and that freshman Romeo Finley (two interceptions in Thursday’s scrimmage) is promising, but handling what opposing offenses will throw at him is a different story.
His development and that of others will change how Miami aligns its defense.
A note on nickel
Last season, according to friend of the blog Daniel Gould, Miami played five defensive backs 30 percent of the time (up from 18 percent in 2014). This year, Miami could play more nickel given its depth issues at linebacker and the emergence of six defensive backs.
Miami, a 4-3 team, could use nickel as its standard formation against teams that like to run four wide receivers. Washington State, last year’s bowl opponent, and its Air Raid offense is not on the schedule, but pass-heavy teams could include Virginia Tech will go up-tempo this year under quarterback whisperer Justin Fuente, and North Carolina State might go deep more than usual with Eliah Drinkwitz (formerly of Boise State) calling plays.
The passing game doesn’t seem to be a strength of Appalachian State, Pitt wants to (and should) run the ball behind an excellent offensive line. Florida State should be balanced. Miami played nickel against Georgia Tech and UNC last year (part of the reason: it lost linebackers Raphael Kirby and Darrion Owens to knee injuries and in the second half of the year, felt more confident about its defensive backs).
Diaz, at this point in the season, is trying to learn whether his third linebacker is better than his fifth defensive back, and which players behind them can hang.
“If we have five defensive backs on the field, are they going to play every snap against a tempo offense?” he said. “Who goes in for them? Is the nickel a third safety or is it a third corner? If you have all your safeties in, how do you feel about four and five? That’s really the pause we have right now,” Diaz said.
“We really need to find out by Saturday what we can do best. And that will change week in and week out, because Romeo Finley’s going to be a much player in November than he is going to be in September. And so is Zach McCloud. So that changes things in terms of how we put our best players on the field.”