Ah, the impact defensive lineman. A species once native to Coral Gables, it largely migrated elsewhere over the last 15 years, save for a few hardy outliers. Local experts at one time believed it was in danger of extinction.
It appears to be making comeback.
Currently seen on Miami’s campus: hulking, fast-moving tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, a vastly improved Chad Thomas, up-and-coming end Demetrius Jackson and several other promising prospects forming what should be the most effective defensive line the Hurricanes have had in five years.
“As coaches we believe they all have a ton more improvement in them, but from what we’ve asked them in the first three weeks, we’re pleased with how they’ve played,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said Wednesday.
Freshman linebacker Shaq Quarterman had a different view.
“There’s some monsters up there,” he said.
Against clearly inferior September competition — and despite a key offseason dismissal and a host of injuries — Miami ranks No. 1 nationally in yards per play allowed, points allowed and tackles for loss. It is No. 2 in rushing yards per carry allowed, No. 6 in third-down defense and No. 8 in sacks.
Great early returns, but there is reason to believe 14th-ranked UM can sustain its impressive play during its ACC slate, which begins Saturday at Georgia Tech (noon, ESPN2).
First is coaching. Diaz and position coach Craig Kuligowski preach aggression from the snap, where former coach Al Golden and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio wanted the line to hold their blocks, read the play, and then react. Miami’s line uses its speed and strength to collapse pockets and hunt negative plays.
“We’ve been working harder in the offseason, working harder in practice,” Norton said. “We have the freedom to attack more and just go. That’s been a big help, too. Being able to go and not worry about a lot of different things.”
As Jackson put it, the scheme allows them to “have no mercy on anybody.”
Another reason is conditioning. Miami players have for months raved about trainer Gus Felder and team-specific nutritionist Kyle Bellamy. “Norton and McIntosh came back in camp you could tell the job the strength staff had done over the summer,” Diaz said of his sophomore starting tackles, each of whom dropped bad weight and increased their strength and speed. He had greater praise for Thomas, who checked in at a lean 6-5 and 265 pounds after playing with extra baggage last year.
“It sounds so over-obvious, but you can’t play your best if you’re not in great shape,” Diaz said. “Because ultimately, fatigue makes cowards of us all. You will start to pace yourself. When you pace yourself, you’re not playing at the physical best of the gifts that you’ve been blessed with. When you get in better shape, you know it.
“By no means does he have the game whipped, yet. But I think you are seeing the natural maturation of a football player.”
Diaz said Jackson, tied for the team lead in tackles (16) and tackles for loss (5.0), “still has a ways to go as a pass-rusher. Some of the sacks he’s had have been in situations where he’s been unblocked.” He said Jackson plays with great effort, though. He also likes what he’s seen from tackles Gerald Willis, Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins, who see plenty of action behind Norton and McIntosh. “We always felt the other guys weren’t far behind,” Diaz said.
Through three games, seven Hurricanes defensive linemen have three or more tackles for loss. Five reached that total in 13 games last year. Perhaps Miami’s production will tail off with tougher competition, but Diaz is encouraged that depth will increase. Jenkins and Moten have missed time — both are expected to play this week — and end Trent Harris is playing with a soft cast on his broken hand.
“The key is at that position if you can rotate a lot guys, your better players play better because they can be fresher,” Diaz said.
Other thoughts from Diaz (we’ll cover what he said Wednesday about Quarterman and fellow freshman linebackers Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud in a post to come):
* What changes when playing a unique triple-option offense like Georgia Tech’s?
“There’s still a key. He’s going to go to the right or the left. The question is how quickly can we get there, how do we treat blockers when they come on us and how do we treat the ballcarrier when we get to him. That’s part of what we’ve done is, we don’t want to over-complicate things, and let them trust what they’ve done up to this point.”
* Does Miami have to strike a balance between attacking and being gap-sound?
“I don’t think the two are at odds with each other. … There’s a mentality that ‘assignment football’ only shows up when you play option teams, but there’s always an A gap, a B gap and a C gap, and somebody’s got to be responsible for it, and the demeanor with which they play shouldn’t change.
I still think the challenge for our guys is to not let what they do make you play slow. That’s what they want. They want you to become slower and they have a lot of things that will make you think and make you slow down. Our job as coaches is to get them to play fast and play through those things.”
* Option offenses exist across college football. How unique is Georgia Tech, specifically?
“They’re fully committed to it. When you’re as committed to it as they are, they have the little nuances of changing up blocking schemes. You say, ‘This guy’s got dive, this guy’s got quarterback, that guy has the pitch,’ well, they know that too. So they can block your guy who has dive. Well, now the next guy’s got to have dive. They can block your quarterback player. Now somebody else has to have quarterback. They can change the blocking schemes, and you have to change your responsibility. When you’re fully committed to it and you’ve done it so long, there’s not a defense you can throw at them they haven’t seen.
“There’s only so many ways you can line up. It’s not a scheme game. The four teams that have played them the first four weeks have all relatively played the same scheme against them with varying levels of success. So you factor in who you have, and how you play. We’re bringing our guys, and hope that our guys play – and that’s what they’re saying with their guys. They’ve got to block better than they did last week, they’ve got to run harder than they did last week. We’ve got to defeat blocks better and tackle better. It’s still ball.”
* Asked which defensive back has pleased him the most since August, Diaz gave the same answer he did then, when asked who improved most from the spring.
“I still think it’s Corn [Elder], in terms of intensity and urgency,” he said. “He played so well against App State in ways that people don’t understand. Not in terms of PBUs and interceptions – they only threw the ball his way twice – but in terms of how he tackled and set edges and just played great team defense as a corner. Things that a lot of corners don’t want to pride themselves on but we’ve made a big deal about since we’ve been here.”