CORAL GABLES — They call themselves the “86 Gang.”
Having some experience in the restaurant industry in college, my first thought upon learning this was a term scrawled on kitchen chalkboards. When the chefs are out of something, a piece of fish or other special ingredient with a limited shelf life, the item is “86’ed.” It’s done for the night. Fitting, for a defense that wants to erase its opponent.
The real reason is far less esoteric.
“The ’86 Hurricanes,” senior defensive end Chad Thomas said. “They started that. At home, they were undefeated. It kept going for years.”
Ah, yes, of course. The idea came from the mind of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who as a boy, ran around the Orange Bowl after Miami games. He now demonstrates drills with such intensity he wears cleats. His ideal defense, he told his ’16 Hurricanes, looks like the ones he grew up watching.
Miami’s 1983 team had an outstanding defense of its own, holding seven teams to a touchdown or less. It won the program’s first national title on a defensive play: Kenny Calhoun‘s 2-point pass deflection in the end zone. But Diaz chose the ’86 defense for good reason.
From 1986 to 1994, Miami gave up 1,268 points. That’s an average of 11.7 points per game, for nine years.
Miami allowed a touchdown or less 47 times, which equals 43 percent of all its games. For nine years.
In that run, Miami lost 11 games, all to ranked teams. It’s not hard to find Hurricanes fans who remember them all. Diaz does.
The lowest-ranked team to beat UM was 17th-ranked Washington, in a 1994 game that broke the Hurricanes’ NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak. The Hurricanes allowed 38 points that day. It was the highest total in that nine-year stretch. In 44 games against ranked opponents — 33 of them wins — they allowed 13.3 points per game.
This is hardly the first group of Hurricanes to pine for the old days, but it is the first that makes the old-timers raise their eyebrows.
Last year, in a vastly different, offense-first era of college football, UM allowed 18.5 points per game. That was good for 12th in the country, but hardly good enough.
“We have to be top-five , if not No. 1,” said sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who grew up a fan of Miami’s 2001 defense, which allowed 9.75 points per game and won a national title. “Every championship team, I believe, has a really good defense.”
Last year, despite starting seven freshmen and sophomores, Miami improved in nearly every defensive stat category. It produced its best tackles for loss and sacks totals since 2010 and best rush defense since at least 2008. The Canes held all but one opponent under their season scoring average. It was good for a 9-4 finish and UM’s first bowl win since 2006.
Now that record-setting quarterback Brad Kaaya left for the NFL, the defense will need to be better for Miami to achieve greater.
“We set a standard,” sophomore linebacker Michael Pinckney said. “We’ve got to get to the next level.”
The front, with 6-6 ends Thomas and Joe Jackson (8.5 sacks as a freshman) and bullish junior tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, should dominate most of the offensive lines on UM’s schedule. At linebacker, UM feels sophomore Zach McCloud could steal some of the spotlight Quarterman and Pinckney enjoyed last year. The secondary is replacing do-it-all standout Corn Elder and starting safeties Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins, but coaches are encouraged by a group of rising replacements that includes The Citadel graduate transfer Dee Delaney, a ballhawking corner.
Coach Mark Richt, who played quarterback at Miami a few years before that ’86 team set the standard, has high hopes.
“They’re very excited about playing as big as any Miami defense has ever played,” coach Mark Richt said. “That’s a huge statement. But that’s how they’re thinking. They’re embracing that.
“They want to be great — at least, as great, which is hard to do.”