College football is largely known for its offenses and its offensive players, but the sport is ruled by defense. Specifically, the sport is ruled by its dominant front sevens (check the bottom of this recent Matt Hinton post on USC's loss of Devon Kennard for more), and Miami fans should know that better than just about anyone. The program has been at its best— and this includes even the Randy Shannon era— when it had a deep defensive line and athletic, fundamentally sound, smart linebackers. Miami didn't have either of those things last year, and how close it gets to having those things in 2012 will go a long way to determining if the team can scratch out at least seven wins.
Miami played at a glacial pace last season, and that depressed both their offensive and defensive yards per game and point per game numbers. The website Football Outsiders features offensive, defensive and overall rankings that spit out numbers adjusted for things like pace, and according to last year's rankings, the Hurricanes had one of the best offenses in the country (No. 23 overall) but also one of the 15 worst defenses in major conference football. The run defense wasn't terrible, but the pass defense was worse than any in recent history and a good part of that fell on a defensive line that couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback and a linebacking corps who had trouble in coverage.
So, how is Miami's defense stacking up this year? We'll have much more once we roll out our positional previews, but for now let's turn to the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, who featured a long write-up on the state of the defense heading into fall practice in his Sports Buzz column today.
If there's any position group that's going to drag this entire enterprise down, it's the defensive ends. The ends (Anthony Chickillo aside) are young and experienced, and questionably talented. Per Jackson:
"Shayon had the best spring of any defensive end," D'Onofrio said. "He hasn't played as much as we want because of injury, but we can count on him. I want Chickillo to be more physical at the point of attack, be as strong at the end of the season as the beginning, and not get worn down. He's 20 pounds heavier."
This is about what we are expecting. Chickillo is in permanent marker on one side, with the other side being offered up to two guys who aren't really defensive ends and a bunch of freshman who haven't yet competed at this level. Based on his size and Green's inability to stay healthy, it seems to me like Cain would be the better fit opposite Chickillo until (or if until) he gets unseated by a freshman. Regardless, UM is going to be relying heavily on Chickillo to get pressure on the quarterback and open up opportunities for his counterparts, and that's a pretty scary proposition. It will be a big win for Miami if the defensive ends are even average (or slightly below average) on aggregate for the season.
Al Golden and his staff have, at least for the moment, amassed some depth at defensive tackle, which is more than can be said for the past few years. But depth can only go so far, and Miami has a whole host of players looking to prove themselves in one fashion or another. Here's Jackson:
Darius Smith is the front-runner to start alongside Curtis Porter at tackle ("those two distanced themselves," D'Onofrio said)
Porter is, quite easily, the most talented defensive tackle on the team, but he's had major problems staying healthy in his career. Even if Porter can stay healthy, UM will need to play at least four tackles this year, and that's another place where things could go off the rails. Grimble and Pierre were swing linemen last year and the coaching staff attempted to move Robinson to offensive line earlier this year. My guess is that Pierre and Grimble will get every chance to make an impact early.
There is some room for optimism with the linebackers, but also room for things to go very awry. As far as the former goes, there is some talent here. Denzel Perryman was stellar as a freshman and could conceivably contend for All-Conference honors if things break right. Ramon Buchanan will be solid on the outside, with some potential to be better than that if he can put things together. Those two are locked in as starters, likely alongside Jimmy Gaines, who... wasn't so good in 2011. Nothing new there, but that group could also easily underperform or not be able to compensate if the defensive line falls apart.
Here is Jackson on the depth at linebacker:
D'Onofrio envisions potential third-down roles for Eddie Johnson (very good speed) and Tyrone Cornelius ("fast guy who can blitz or cover"). UM expects Raphael Kirby and Gionni Paul will be factors, and freshman Gabe Terry "was a great pass rusher in high school and another option on third down," D'Onofrio said. Thurston Armbrister will get a look...
Johnson didn't play much of last year, but is potentially exciting from a physical standpoint. Cornelius is a safety-linebacker tweener who will need to work to figure out his role in the defense, while Paul is short and not terribly athletic and is probably a career back-up on a good team. Kirby is the most talented of the bunch, but it's hard to expect anything from a true freshman. Terry is a likely redshirt, and Ambrister is a total mystery.
This may be the most interesting position group in camp. The Canes were a disaster in the secondary last season, but there is more talent there in 2012. Brandon McGee was quietly solid last season and will start, though the coaching staff is clearly trying to push him to be more than just a solid starter. Opposite him, at the moment, is a large patch of grass. Tracy Howard should have a chance to start but he'll really have to impress to do so as a true freshman. Ladarius Gunter has experience in junior college and as an early enrollee, but he was a low-priority recruit that UM settled on after missing out on better transfers. He is more depth fodder than starting corner. Thomas Finne will also be in the mix and seemed to impress coaches before last season, but he barely played in 2011 and may not be starting material. Here is Jackson:
Senior McGee, a likely starter, "is definitely ahead of Finnie and Gunter but not where he needs to be," defensive backs coach Paul Williams said. "I tell him he needs to be productive." Larry Hope, Vernon Davis and Nate Dortch figure to compete for the fifth and sixth jobs.
Whether Davis, Dortch or Hope are ready is absolutely unknown, and if push comes to shove I wouldn't be surprised to see Canes coaches slide someone like Kacy Rodgers to corner instead of throwing one of the less talented freshmen into the fire. My guess is that Howard's talent wins out, and he starts in Boston College.
Vaughn Telemaque, one of the most unspectacular three-year starters in Miami history, will be back at strong safety, for better or worse. Next to him will be Rodgers or A.J. Highsmith, or a rotation of the two. Jackson relays that the coaches feel comfortable with either there, but they may be the only ones:
UM isn't fretting about losing Ray-Ray Armstrong because of a growing confidence in Kacy Rodgers and AJ Highsmith, who have more speed than Armstrong. Even before Armstrong was booted, "AJ and Kacy closed the gap," D'Onofrio said.
Freshman Deon Bush is reportedly in the mix here, but he's not a safety by trade and can't be expected to produce much of anything as he transitions to a new position in his first year in college.
I'm slightly— slightly— optimistic about the defense this year because the talent there will be on the field for the entire season, injuries not withstanding. I think Miami constantly having players returning from suspension at various intervals throughout the 2011 season really messed with the defense, but we'll see if that turns out to be merely a convenient excuse.
How do you guys feel about the D heading into 2012?