Manny Diaz is one of the best interviews in South Florida sports — perhaps rivaled only by Miami Heat President Pat Riley in his ability to string together illustrative sentences, according to longtime local observers.
I sat across from the desk of the UM defensive coordinator last week for a specific purpose: to talk about the growth of linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud. That story is here, if you haven’t read it. I also posted a Q&A with Pinckney, one of the more talkative Canes players you’ll meet.
Because some may find it interesting, here is my 13-minute conversation with Diaz, lightly edited for clarity. He discusses the standard at ‘The U,’ the growth of his three returning starters, how to avoid a sophomore slump and the legacy he wants them to leave:
You talk about the standard you want a Miami linebacker to play to. Where did it come from?
“In a broader sense, it came from what we define as the standard of what it means to play defense at Miami. So much of what happens now in recruiting is the kids are drawn, we see it online all the time, ‘I want to play at ‘DB U’ or ‘LB U,’ ‘D-Line U.’ There are so many colleges that try to make – OK, that’s fine, and that’s a great recruiting ploy, but when you come to the school, that’s really where it goes from being a blessing to a curse.
“You have to understand there’s so much that goes into that other than you play football where Ray Lewis or Sean Taylor played football. You have to uphold the standard of how they played. We want our guys to feel that pressure because we sensed the guys weren’t living under that pressure.”
So you want them to think about Jon Beason, Jon Vilma, those players, when they perform.
“Exactly. That’s what makes the University of Miami different. When you see those faces surrounding our practice field, they’re watching you. If you’re putting out an effort that’s not acceptable, it’s on you.”
“There’s two different things. One, there’s your idea of what a linebacker should be. That evolves throughout your coaching career, and you always mold your coaching to where you are at a school. When you see a school like the University of Miami, which had a great defensive tradition at all three levels, it was very important that try to very quickly reestablish that again with the guys that were on our campus.”
How do you measure their effectiveness? Shaq, for example, played 82 percent of your snaps last year. He was on the field a ton, and I can’t think of too many plays he was absolutely roasted. How do you measure how effective he was?
“Well they were effective in the easiest definitions, in terms of were we a solid defense, and the overall numbers –”
They had to have been at least decent because the numbers were good.
“Right. But it’s not just them. It’s very hard in football to take things apart and say just this part is the reason why. They benefited from playing behind the front we had. They benefited from having experienced guys behind that made their mistakes not glaring.
“The thing I was most proud of, they never looked out of their element. They always did the things we talk about, which is they played fast and they played physical. The assignment aspect of the game they were able to handle very well, which speaks to who they are, their mental makeup.
“I think there are certainly parts with all three of them where you can see the physically wore down. They know that now. They understand what they’re lifting weights for now, instead of arbitrarily trying to get bigger. They know they’re preparing for a 12-game season. Shaq, you could see sometimes in November he may not have been the same guy. Pinckney was dealing with issues from the second game of the season. That’s where the losses of [Jamie] Gordinier and D.O. [Darrion Owens] on his comeback trail (showed up). They got left out there longer than they should have.
“I think against North Carolina Shaq might have played 80 snaps, which should never happen [it was actually 86, of 89 — the third-highest of any Hurricane in a single game all year]. And then had to turn around and played five days later on the road [at Virginia Tech].
“I think that’s where they have their understanding, going into year two, of what it’s really all about and what they have to prepare themselves for physically and mentally.”
In this story I’m trying to attack in real terms where they can get better. It seems like that, then: preparing yourselves better, eating better. They seem pretty dedicated to that already…
“Oh, they are.”
So where else?
“They know the why now. Like anything in life, you can understand it on an intellectual level because it makes sense, but now you’ve been through it and you really get it. It consumes you even more.
“Beyond that, there’s just so many things they can improve on. Their consistency down-by-down. Understanding what’s going on, understanding their reads, being able to play faster. Being able to anticipate more — which they did as the season went on — understanding backfield sets and what’s getting ready to happen, to the point where they can actually now make the people around them play better.
“That’s one of the keys for them now. How do you affect the guys you’re playing with, whether that’s making the calls, calling out what you think is getting ready to happen. In pass coverage, being able to cover more ground and make it harder for people to throw the ball across the middle of the field. There’s tons of improvement they can make.
“And they’re finding out greatness comes from being consistently good. It’s not necessarily the spectacular. It’s being where you’re supposed to be down after down. The good thing about all three, we know they’ll hit, we know they’ll strike. Now it’s just about that consistent level of doing it and being there at all times.”
With a rebuilding secondary, you’d think a returning front seven as a whole will make it easier on the back end. How confident are you in these linebackers’ ability to help the secondary, whereas last year we saw [safeties] Rayshawn [Jenkins] and Jamal [Carter] cleaning up for the freshmen linebackers a little more?
“It’ll be interesting to watch. That’ll be one of the things to watch in springtime. Sometimes you have to just watch and see how it happens.
“They are guys the football team respects. But until you get out there and see how they operate, how they get along with the other guys … it’s still hard to tell a guy who’s only been on your campus for a year, ‘It’s your time to lead.’ But the reality is, that’s where we’re at.
“Now all that being said, our job is still to create a competition. We try to explain to them that they were the best we had in 2016, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best we have in 2017. Everything wipes clean. They have to re-prove themselves all over again.
“We have new bodies in. Even the guys we have are different now. We expect Owens to be a different guy. We’re hoping to get Gordo [Gordinier] back from injury and he’ll be a different guy. Some of the other guys, we’re hearing reports from the weight room that they’ve taken their training to a different level. The easiest thing to do is to rest and say, ‘I’ve got this college football thing figured out.’ That’s where you end up with the dreaded sophomore slump.
“Usually a sophomore slump does not happen because your play goes backward. It happens because you play at the same level you did as a freshman, and the expectation of how you should play increases. You realize you were playing good for a freshman, and everyone realizes you’re coming back, they expect you to take the game over, and then you press and you try to do things that were not in the framework of the defense. Last year, you were just trying to do your job, and you made all these plays. Now you go out there and try to make every play, and then you make no plays.
“That is a fine line – to keep it in between those two things of expectations and overdoing it, becoming complacent, or going too hard to make everything happen to prove you’re better than you were the year before.”
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What is the process of molding them from freshmen into great players?
“What you have to do with all of them is one, you have to form a relationship with them. You have to understand what makes them tick and who they are. Second is, they would probably tell you the same thing, we’re chasing a standard. We’re chasing this, whether it’s a perfect game or a perfect play, whatever it is where it’s all right. You never get it. You never reach it. But you always hold yourself to that.
“There’s just a level of competing we’re always trying to get to, where, you might beat somebody pretty soundly and only give up 14, and you’re still kind of mad you gave up 14 after the game. That’s what you’re trying to impress upon the guys. It’s the idea that good is the enemy of great.
“When you have a good relationship with your players, and they understand that you’re in it for their development and their improvement, that you’re constantly trying to push them to be a better version of themselves, and you can honestly see that there’s still something more in there, you can get more out, they can still be better than where they’re at, that generally once they believe that you’re in it for those pure intentions they’ll follow you to those places.
“The key is you have to maintain that line where you’re not always angry or frustrated that they’re not reaching that perfection, because it’s unattainable, but at that same time, you still have that quest, and understand that if you get pretty close to the top of that mountain, you’re going to be in a pretty good place.
They know about the history, they know about the greats who have played here and what they’ve done. When their time here is done, what do you want people to be saying about them?
“What you want is, number one, anyone who plays linebacker at Miami or any position on defense, you want them to get their face on the wall. We’ve got the wall of All-Americans [at Greentree Practice Fields]. That should be your goal. That’s how you leave your legacy. You get your face on the wall.
“Get your name on the board, not just for the guys that are drafted – getting drafted is proof of their individual talent and skill, and that’s a worthy goal. When defenders get put on the fence as All-Americans, usually that means you’re part of a championship team. That’s how we’re measured on defense. On offense you can get measured with stats, and you can have great stats and not be on a great team. Defensively, if you win championships, normally defensive players from that team make All-American, or all-conference. That’s just the way that it works. You’re constantly pushing those guys to leave their legacy.
“I want those guys to redefine how recruits look at a defender who plays for Miami. I want recruits to come here and say, ‘Wow, that’s him. I want to be like that guy.’ They visually see the way we play and they want to be a part of it. They want to play defense like the way this guy plays defense, or that guy plays defense. That’s a part of how they leave their legacy. And then you want them to give back to UM in the ways great guys like Jon Beason and guys that you mentioned, that continue to be invested in the Miami Hurricanes succeeding the way that they should.”