ATLANTA — Faced with the prospect of stopping Georgia Tech’s maddening offense, Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz reached into his bag of tricks.
He pulled out a new alignment, and thanks to some unheralded graduate assistant coaches, some walk-on fullbacks.
It greatly helped his three true freshman linebackers, Michael Pinckney, Shaq Quarterman and Zach McCloud, and other first-timers who had never seen the triple-option beat the Yellow Jackets 35-21 on Saturday.
It started last summer, when Diaz at random would deem a practice “Georgia Tech Day,” quarterback Brad Kaaya said. The defense would practice fronts designed to stop the tricky offense. After using a 4-3 base in previous games (along with nickel and dime alignments), UM debuted a new 3-4 look, stacking outside linebackers behind defensive ends.
It continued during training camp and ramped up two weeks ago, with Miami enjoying the break in its schedule. Diaz had a defensive meeting at his house last Thursday evening. He and players ate dinner and watched No. 5 Clemson stifle Georgia Tech. That gave them a few ideas.
The best one?
“Smaller bodies,” Diaz said.
A graduate assistant — he declined to say whom — recommended Miami’s scout-team offensive line, which normally consists of redshirting offensive linemen, instead use fullbacks, of which Miami had a roster surplus. The smaller, quicker “linemen” would be able to simulate Georgia Tech’s cut-blocking techniques with greater ferocity.
It worked perfectly. In the game, the newcomers brushed off blocks with regularity, having a better idea of how fast real-life linemen would dive at their legs.
“The speed was slower to me,” Pinckney said. “It was way faster to me with the scout team. … I’m not down-talking [Georgia Tech], but in practice I got cut like seven times. Not at all today.”
Said Quarterman: “For two weeks straight we had been running past these little guys, using our hands, trying to defend them. When we came into the game and the linemen were bigger, our speed was on another level.”
Even though he had never seen that type of offense before, Quarterman said there was nothing in the game that surprised him.
“Our coaches did a great job preparing us,” he said. “They did everything. There wasn’t anything new out there. That let us play fast and physical.”
No coach can completely prepare for the way an oblong ball bounces, so it when Diaz was running down the sideline after happy surprise when freshmen Shaq Quarterman and Joe Jackson recovered fumbles and ran them in for touchdowns on back-to-back series in the second quarter.
One of those can be traced to coaching. Seeing Miami’s low rate of turnovers — they gained four entering the game, all interceptions — defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski suggested they focus more on stripping the ball in practice.
Defensive end Trent Harris’ strip-sack of quarterback Justin Thomas bounced to Quarterman, who ran it in from the 17. Jackson scooped up ball Thomas dropped and scooted in from the 18. Diaz used a baseball term to describe the two fumbles, calling them “charity hops.”
Which brings us to another good call Diaz made. It was revealed on the WQAM radio broadcast that the helmet decals Miami wore to honor late Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez were Diaz’ idea.
Diaz, a Miami native in his first year as a UM coordinator, is a baseball fan. He is also the son of Miami’s former mayor, who like Fernandez immigrated from Cuba. Fernandez, who died in a boat crash last Sunday at 24, was a beloved figure in Miami.
“I feel like UM is Miami’s team,” Diaz said. “I felt like that was a big thing in our city this week. Any small part that we could do to honor his memory I felt was vital to us and coach [Mark] Richt agreed with that. It was our small gesture to what Jose meant to the people of Miami.”