Miami Hurricanes believe 2018 defensive line can maintain high standard

Jon Ford casts a long shadow at Miami practice. (Matt Porter/The Palm Beach Post)

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CORAL GABLES — Miami’s losses along the defensive line were significant.

Miami doesn’t much care for that assessment.

“Talent-wise we have it,” linebacker Zach McCloud said. “There is no doubt about that, and everybody who doubts it, I disagree with them.”

There will be doubters after these departures: three starters, including a pair of defensive tackles who played much of the game and a defensive end who, by all accounts, was the man in the locker room. The Hurricanes won’t have Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh bullying opposing offensive lines from the inside, and Chad Thomas drops off the edge. Experienced depth at end (Trent Harris) and tackle (Anthony Moten) are gone. And a D-end primed for a larger role (DJ Johnson) transferred out.

“We lost some good guys, but that talent’s always going to be coming in,” McCloud said. “We’ve got some good guys now. It’s all a matter of making sure we get around them and feel the pressure that’s going to be put on them. It’s a special bunch of guys. They can hold up.”

These things go in cycles. Miami’s defense in 2016 was mostly young and inexperienced everywhere. Last year, the secondary was rebuilding and the defensive front was veteran. In 2018, the Hurricanes are rebuilding up front, are more veteran on the back end and have a linebacker trio that has combined to start 74 games in three seasons.

Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, who won starting jobs in the spring of 2016 and have since been entrenched, has alleviated some of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’ concerns. They’ll help a green defensive line know what to do before the snap, and help them break things down afterward.

“They are the elder statesmen,” Diaz said. “We’ll expect a lot from them because of that.”

Expectations are high elsewhere.

Junior Joe Jackson believes sophomore Jonathan Garvin — “a freak of nature,” he called him — can follow his path at defensive end. He’s also high on Jon Ford, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound sophomore defensive tackle. “Once he learns everything, once he learns how to stay in his gaps, we’re going to be very dominant on the inside,” he said.  Coaches and teammmates expect redshirt senior tackle Gerald Willis, who sat out last year for what UM termed personal reasons, to show why he was a blue-chip recruit. Diaz said freshman end Greg Rousseau “will be a big part of our rotation.”

Miami doesn’t expect a drop-off.

“At any big-time program, you’re going to have guys leave,” Diaz said. “You recruit guys to want to take those guys’ place. I think the guys on our line are excited. They kind of sense the challenge. I look at it as the exact same situation we were in this time two years ago, when nobody really knew anybody we had on our defensive line and they were all sort of sophomores-to-be and unknown quantities. We played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder in 2016 and it turned out pretty good. If it’s happened before I know it can happen again.”

Other notes:

* Diaz likes the depth at inside linebacker (Mike and Will), where redshirt freshman Waynmon Steed and sophomore Bradley Jennings Jr. have been standouts at a position that lost upperclassmen Jamie Gordinier (retired) and Darrion Owens (transfer). “Waynmon’s been impressive,” Diaz said. “He has the instincts to make quick decisions, probably gives us a dynamic more similar to a Pinckney, which we really, other than Mike, didn’t have on our roster. And Bradley Jennings as well — those guys still make some inexperienced mistakes, but in terms of linebacker instinct and linebacker play, both those guys are  pretty advanced given their overall level of experience.”

* The strong-side linebacker position, or Sam, will at times play more in space this season, covering receivers. Miami could use a combination of McCloud and sophomore De’Andre Wilder, with the speedier Wilder coming in on third down. Safeties Derrick Smith and Romeo Finley are also training there to play on passing downs. “There’s no doubt we’re trying to increase the reaction time we have at that position out there,” Diaz said, “and some of the flexibility we can do coverage-wise with some of those guys.” (An editorial thought: it’s a shame Jermaine Grace never got a chance to be the Sam in Diaz’ defense.)

* Besides being a consistent, every-down competitor, what must Garvin do to be an All-ACC-caliber player? “Being firmer at the point of attack, and he was,” Diaz said. “The Wisconsin game, Garvin’s in there and he’s strong against their power-running offense. It’s the idea of, you can’t be that guy who plays good every now and then.”

* Jackson on new defensive line coach Jess Simpson: “He’s got a lot of different drills than coach [Craig Kuligowski], but it all helps us add more to our technique. Running-wise, he wants everything fast, 100 percent. He’s helping us get a lot better technique.” Jackson said Simpson is helping them “turn our hips more” and “get a better punch.”

* McCloud on new outside linebackers coach Jonathan Patke: “He’s loud. He’s a funny guy. He’s not one of the ones that’s super-serious all the time.”

* Miami will practice in shoulder pads for the first time Saturday, spring session No. 3. That prompted this line from Diaz: “Everyone kind of has a vague sense of what to do. Now we’ll see who enjoys running into other people.”


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