Miami Hurricanes defensive promotions: Michael Jackson, Mike Smith are first-teamers

Manny Diaz speaks after Friday’s practice. (Matt Porter/The Palm Beach Post)

CORAL GABLES — Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said two pleasant surprises, both redshirt juniors, have emerged as first-teamers.

Cornerback Michael Jackson will start against Bethune-Cookman, next to Dee Delaney.

Will linebacker Mike Smith will start next to Mike linebacker Shaq Quarterman and Sam linebacker Zach McCloud.

Both were rewarded for their consistency in camp.

Smith’s starting role comes in part because expected starter Michael Pinckney has been dealing with a hamstring injury, and further, he’s unavailable for the first half of next Saturday’s season-opener because of the carryover targeting penalty he incurred in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. He can play in the second half.

“If Pinckney was available, I’m not sure what the first three (linebackers) would be,” Diaz said. Smith, however, “has done an outstanding job.” The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Miami Northwestern grad has struggled with knee injuries, but teammates have noted his increased mobility. In the spring, Diaz called him one of Miami’s most improved defenders. He also got a look at fullback, but UM needs him more at linebacker.

Other linebackers who will play: Darrion Owenswho will play both Mike and Will; freshman Mike Bradley Jennings, junior Sam Charles Perry and rangy freshman Sam De’Andre Wilder, the latter of whom Diaz said “had a good camp. We’re impressed with him.” Freshman Waynmon Steed (knee) appears likely to redshirt.

At corner, Jackson, Diaz said, “has had the best camp of anybody outside of Delaney. We track everything they do in terms of assignments and plays given up and Mike’s a guy that’s really improved over the past 12 months.” Jackson (6-2, 195) has played in 25 games the last two years as a reserve. His highlight play last year was an end-zone fumble recovery on special teams at Notre Dame.

Diaz said sophomore Malek Young, who started five games last year opposite Corn Elder, will “be right behind him. … We like Malik on the outside. We  like the skillset he brings out there.” Young is also in the  mix to play an inside role in nickel and dime packages. In camp, Jackson, more so than Young, “brought it on a consistent level every day.”

Overall, Diaz said, he’s very pleased with the defense.

“I like the attitude of our guys,” he said. “We’re ready to go play somebody.”

* Diaz said he doesn’t know how much nickel/dime he’ll play this fall. “We’re in the midst of that discussion now,” he said, about who Miami’s best linebackers and defensive backs are. In Diaz’ defense, the Sam linebacker should be able to cover, and McCloud is a hard hitter who has improved in that regard. He won’t be able to cover like Jackson, or Young, or freshman Trajan Bandy, all of whom have impressed in the extra-DB role. How much UM plays five or six DBs also depends on the other teams on the schedule. FSU is likely to be a game where all DBs are needed (and LBs, given the anticipated strength of the Seminoles’ running game).

* Delaney “has really solidified himself as one of our corners,” Diaz said.  Jhavonte Dean, who has plenty of speed, is still gaining confidence.

Robert Knowles has emerged as one of the top three safeties, with expected starters Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. “A little bit behind the  first three,” Diaz said, are sophomore Romeo Finley and freshman Amari Carter. All five will play against Bethune. Freshman Derrick Smith is likely to play special teams.

* Diaz said all  defensive ends will play, including DJ Johnson and Jon Garvin. “Let the doors out and let ’em go,” Diaz said.

Jon Ford update: Still conditioning, still large. “I think everybody’s getting neck pain from turning to look at him when he walked on the field,” Diaz said of the freshman defensive tackle, who is listed at 6-5 and 275 pounds. “Who is this guy? … He’s got a great attitude and he’s working well.”

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