RALEIGH, N.C. — When Florida State assistant Chuck Amato became head coach of his alma mater North Carolina State, he brought Manny Diaz along as a graduate assistant. Diaz lacked the experience of his fresh-faced peers – he didn’t play football beyond high school – but Amato thought he might develop into a good coach.
His faith was rewarded the first time he handed his young staffers some game film. Diaz soon returned an expertly detailed breakdown.
“The other guy had to do his over four times,” Amato said. “Manny’s very, very intelligent.”
Sixteen years after arriving with Amato, Diaz returns to Raleigh this weekend as the successful defensive coordinator of his own alma mater, Miami.
“I lived in Raleigh six years,” Diaz said. “Two of my [three] sons were born in Raleigh. We really enjoyed our time there. It’s like anything else: you kind of think about it when the plane lands on Friday, but the game is still going to be the game.”
This has been a season of homecomings for Diaz, 42. The son of Miami’s former mayor, he grew up attending Hurricanes games in the Orange Bowl, and is deeply honored to wear orange-and-green for a living. Saturday’s game against N.C. State (12:30 p.m., ACC regional networks) brings him back to Carter-Finley Stadium, where he apprenticed as Amato’s linebackers, safeties and special teams coach from 2000-06.
“It’s going to be a good environment,” Diaz said. “The fans are right on top of you, they’re very close to the field. It’s an energetic crowd. And obviously we know it’s a team that’s desperate for their sixth win, so we feel like we’ll get their best effort.”
To win and become bowl-eligible, the Wolfpack (5-5, 2-4 ACC) have to overcome a Diaz-coached defense. That hasn’t been easy for anyone this year.
Miami, after five years of mostly-mediocre play under coach Al Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, leads the nation in tackles for loss (91). It finished no higher than 96th in that category the last four years.
“We still show them every week that we should have had more,” said Diaz, whose team had nine in last week’s 34-14 win at Virginia but, according to his estimation, “probably missed four or five that we had wrapped up the backfield.”
Though Diaz noted that UM could force more turnovers – “we feel like we drop an interception a game” – it has held eight of 10 opponents below their season scoring average. It ranks highly in every major defensive stat: 13th in points allowed (19.3), 16th in yards per play allowed (4.84), 17th in sacks (3.0 per game), 23rd in yards per carry allowed (3.5) and 46th in opponent passer rating (123.07).
The Hurricanes are good at holding opponents to field goals in the red zone (46.67 touchdown rate, 13th-best) and stopping teams in that area (76.67 scoring rate, 25th). UM is 60th in third-down defense (39.13 percent conversions allowed), but only Alabama and Duke have better success in stopping fourth-down tries (UM’s defense: 13-for-17).
That kind of turnaround in Year 1 is impressive, but is more so given the personnel losses.
Miami’s secondary lost a first-round NFL draft pick (early departure Artie Burns), a fourth-round draft pick (Deon Bush) and a free-agent-turned-NFL-starter (Tracy Howard). Its top linebacker (Jermaine Grace) and defensive end (Al-Quadin Muhammad) were dismissed for violating NCAA rules amid a rental-car scandal. Another experienced linebacker (Juwon Young) transferred for the same reason. Starter-quality linebacker Jamie Gordinier tore his ACL in September. The most experienced linebacker, junior Darrion Owens, spent the offseason rehabbing a devastating knee injury.
Entering the year, the Hurricanes were the only team in the nation to start more than two true freshmen at any position. They start three at linebacker (something Amato, 70, said he’s never seen). In total, five true freshmen have started on defense, and as many as six have been on the field in critical situations.
True freshmen linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud have made game-changing plays. Defensive end Joe Jackson leads Miami in sacks (5.5). Cornerback Malek Young, who started last week because of an injury to senior Adrian Colbert, is “a very talented player” with “a bright future, and for better or worse, that future is now.”
Amato, a Florida State assistant for 18 years under Bobby Bowden and now Akron’s defensive coordinator, said Diaz’ early success came when he realized a coaching truism. “It’s not what we know,” Amato said. “It’s what they know.” Amato said Diaz, as a young coach, was “just a little bit ahead of everyone. He’s such a smart person.” Once he learned how to teach, he steadily rose in the profession.
“He’s going to make a good head coach one day,” Amato said.
He’s been right about that sort of thing before.