Miami Hurricanes football: Manny Diaz happy about first win, but ‘a million things to fix’ on defense

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Like his players, like his bossManny Diaz felt the the pull of emotions as the Hurricanes’ bus pulled up to the stadium. He got off the bus and walked through a swelling crowd, clapping his appreciation at them.

“At that moment, it can tug on you a little bit,” said Diaz, who grew up watching Hurricanes games in the Orange Bowl and was about to coach in his first game as Miami’s defensive coordinator.

He was all business once Miami took the field, but stoic isn’t his style. Corn Elder got Diaz and everyone on the Miami sideline hopping with his interception three plays into the season-opener. The joy on Diaz’ face was evident.

Manny Diaz (left) celebrates with Corn Elder (29) and the Miami sideline after Elder's interception on the first drive of its season-opening win over Florida A&M. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Manny Diaz (left) celebrates with Corn Elder (29) and the Miami sideline after Elder’s interception on the first drive of its season-opening win over Florida A&M. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

“I was just happy,” he said. “It’s a long offseason and you sit around and you visualize this day for a long time. You want the best for your players, a guy like Corn, who we’ve really challenged since we’ve been here, we knew he had to play his best ball for us to have a chance.

“And so for the first third down of the season, Corn to make that play, there are so many different emotions, but the biggest emotion is you’re just so happy for him. If you could dream it up, that’s what you want to happen on that first third down. You want your senior, you want your leaders in your secondary to step up and make that play. There were a lot of emotions. This is football now. It’s supposed to be fun now—defense is fun.”

It was for the Hurricanes on Saturday, when they beat an FCS opponent by 67 points and allowed 2.9 yards per play. But this could be one of the more challenging times of Diaz’ career.

He learned last week he would be without standout senior linebacker Jermaine Grace and rising star defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad. Both were dismissed, joining linebacker Juwon Young. Muhammad’s replacement, Trent Harris broke his hand. Defensive tackle Anthony Moten separated his shoulder. UM suspended tackle Gerald Willis for a team rules violation.

To make matters worse: one of UM’s precious few linebackers, redshirt freshman Jamie Gordinier, sustained a season-ending knee injury on the first drive. Also, defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins limped off late in the game.

Diaz has a lot to figure out from here — “a million things to fix,” as he put it.

Miami’s greatest experience is in the secondary, so it’s possible he could use more nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six) than previously planned. UM’s only seniors on defense are cornerbacks Elder and Adrian Colbert (whose interception Saturday will “do wonders for his confidence,” Diaz said) and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter. Sophomores Sheldrick Redwine and Jaquan Johnson performed well. Both Johnson, who had five tackles and a sack, and Redwine (two tackles) are hard hitters.

“I thought our secondary tackled, which is what we challenged them to do all offseason,” Diaz said Saturday. “There’s a million things we have to fix, but the things we had to have – the aggression, the pursuit and the tackling – I was pleased with tonight.”

The most experienced linebacker on the roster, junior Darrion Owens, is still recovering from the serious, complicated knee injury he sustained last Sept. 11 at Florida Atlantic. It’s unclear if he can play in this year’s FAU game (6 p.m. Saturday,, but clearly, Miami needs him back as soon as he is ready. The Hurricanes like what they have in Shaq QuartermanMichael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, but they’re still green. And Miami’s only scholarship linebackers are the aforementioned four and Charles PerryMike Smith and Terry McCray.

Grace said publicly he wants to come back but there is little chance of that; Miami, which is on NCAA probation through the third week of October, would not have dismissed Grace, Muhammad and Young unless necessary.

Diaz said he liked what he saw from the defensive line, which was missing Willis (he’s back this week) and got a handful of snaps from Harris (wearing a cast on his left hand). Tackle RJ McIntosh had a team-best eight tackles (two for loss) and all three of Jenkins’ tackles were for losses. End Demetrius Jackson, making the first start of his career along with McIntosh, posted five tackles, three for losses, and two sacks. He and junior Chad Thomas (three tackles, one for loss, pass break-up) created immense pressure all night. Sophomore Kendrick Norton (three tackles, 1.5 for loss) and redshirt freshman Ryan Fines, thrust into action with Willis out, performed well.

“The question I had going in was would we go and disrupt in game one, or would we kind of still stand around and be unsure,” Diaz said. “At least on field level, it looked like we went.”

For a defense that lacks experience, Saturday was a crucial step. FAU will be another.

“Now you finally have something to fix,” Diaz said. “You can tell them every day in practice, they’re like, ‘I hear you coach, I hear you.’ But then you see in a game, and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we left that guy wide open. OK, now, I get it.’ And you make game corrections.

“Good football teams usually make a big jump from week one to week two. We understand that our opponent next week will be a tougher out than this opponent was. It’s imperative – because we’re going to get patted on the back for the next 24 hours – that we improve off this performance next week.”

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