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Canes Camp: Then & Now - Defense

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2014 was supposed to be the year for the Canes defense to make the proverbial "jump." While the numbers improved, a 6-7 record didn't justify any of those improvements. With a handful of defensive leaders now playing on Sundays, let's see how the 2015 Canes compare to last season's team.

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In 2014, the Canes came into camp with a good amount of hype from both sides of the football. Like the offense, the defense had most of the defensive positions locked in. If not locked in, the position rotations were as good as set going into this point in camp.

Defensive Line

2014: Teams win and lose games in the trenches. I good/great defensive line can make the average secondary or linebacking corps look phenomenal. But, unfortunately, we haven't seen a good Miami defensive line in a very, very long time. Last season, Miami had some pieces, they had some players who could make a few plays throughout the game, but there was never that player that stole the show. Miami didn't have that game-changer. In camp, the Canes were expecting big things from DE Anthony Chickillo, as usual, but things never fully came together with his game. Other than Chick, there was no one that was ready to play AND had playmaker ability. Yes, I know Chad Thomas came in, but playing in the trenches as a true freshman is a very tall task. However, it was evident that Golden & Co. was finally bringing in some talent and depth along the defensive front for the first time since 2011. The freshman class last year was a good, deep and talented group. But there is only so much you can throw at a freshman. Also, it was announced that DE and pass-rushing specialist Quan Muhammad would be suspended for the semester after an altercation with a former roommate. The defensive line was looking like it was becoming a very solid group of talent and depth, but still lacked a superstar player along the front.

2015: I'm going to start this the same way; teams win and lose games in the trenches. Defensive line play will be pivotal this season, as Miami is counting on a less experienced linebacker until this year. The good news is the Canes are finally looking like they have the size, strength, speed and athleticism up front to compete and stand out against their competition. In the Canes' 3-4 multiple scheme, they will use a different looks and formations to confuse the offense, as well as use a hybrid player used primarily as a pass rusher (e.i. Quan Muhammad, Trent Harris and Demetrius Jackson). Out of this group, I'd love to see Muhammad assert himself as the leader for that position. He is a phenomenal athlete and football player, but word is Trent Harris is the smarter of the two in terms of the playbook and always being in the right position. While that is a necessity in football, sometimes you just need the best player to play...but that's another topic for a later discussion. On the interior, Miami will look for someone to become a dominant force, preferably sophomore DE Chad Thomas. Thomas is entering his second season after being the highest rated Miami recruit in 2014. The Canes will also look in the direction of senior DT/DE Ufomba Kamalu, who is coming off of a solid junior campaign where he tallied 34 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Something to keep an eye on from this defensive line group is the battle at nose tackle. The battle was presumably a two-headed race between senior Michael Wyche and sophomore Courtel Jenkins, however, it is true freshman Kendrick Norton who is stealing the show. The 6'3" 315 lbs. Jacksonville native is quickly making his way up the depth chart (THAT WE HAVEN'T SEEN, SMH) and earning respect from his teammates. As the eternal optimist that I am, this group will be something to really keep an eye on...next season. This group should get the job done, as the talent and depth is there. But this is a very youthful group of talented defensive lineman, and Miami will also have transfer Gerald Willis eligible for 2016. Stay tuned, Canes fans. Hate this word, but this group definitely has the potential to be a very good line, but they do have room to grow.

Linebacker

2014: Miami wasn't the deepest at the linebacker position, but they did have arguably the best linebacker in the conference in Denzel Perryman. Perryman was the heart and soul of this position group, and the entire defense at that. Outside of Denzel, the Canes were counting on first year starter Raphael Kirby and the decent, but not great, Thurston Armbrister. Armbrister was one of those players mentioned earlier who seemed to be around the ball and at the right place at all times, but didn't 'wow' you. Kirby had/has all of the physical tools, but he hadn't put it all together before 2014. Jermaine Grace, who is a straight baller, was underweight and was dealing with a little bit of a shoulder injury, so while he was going to contribute, he was not counted on initially to be a leader. 2014 was also the year Miami switched positions of former pass rush specialist Tyriq McCord to linebacker. While McCord can, and did, succeed at the position, his strength is him with his hand in the ground and getting after the QB. The idea of him covering still makes me a little queasy.

2015: Weird, I'm starting this one the same way; Miami is not the deepest at this position, but the talent is there. What hurts is that Miami needs to replace 110 tackles, 9.5 TFL, two sacks, and an interception. This production came from a first team All-ACC player and a Butkus Award Finalist. You guessed it, it was the President...or Denzel Perryman. The Canes will need senior Raphael Kirby to help fill the void that was left by Perryman and build on a good junior campaign where he totaled 54 tackles and 4.5 TFL. Remember that baller I told you about earlier, Jermaine Grace? Well he's starting, and he will be a forced that will be well known by opponents on game day. Although he is undersized, he is fast, physical and a smart football player. Last season he finished the year with 60 tackles, 6.5 TFL and 3 sacks...not bad for a second string player. The third member of the of this starting corps is sophomore Darrion Owens. As a freshman last season, Owens played sparingly in reserve duty and tallied 23 tackles. Look for Owens to have an impact similar to Kirby and Grace did in 2014. Other notables to keep tabs on are senior Tyriq McCord, and sophomore Marques Gayot and Juwon Young. Young and Gayot came in during mop up duty and played mostly special teams. They will be key reserves for the Canes this season. The group has some big shoes to fill, but they can do it. They will certainly benefit from a deep and strong D-line.

Cornerback

2014: Last season, THIS was Miami's deepest position. In camp, the Canes had a myriad of options. They could turn to then-senior Ladarius Gunter, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers, juniors Tracy Howard and Antonio Crawford, and sophomores Artie Burns and Corn Elder. Teams pray they can assemble three corners who could make an impact in a game, Miami had FIVE. This position was no doubt the strength of the team heading into the 2014 season. Ladarius Gunter was drawing NFL looks as his 6'2" 200 lbs. size is trending in the league right now, and Tracy Howard was looking to make the jump to becoming a shutdown corner after having a very promising sophomore campaign. Antonio Crawford and Corn Elder were mainly fighting for the nickel position(s), and Artie Burns was looking to have a sophomore year similar to Howard's. Going into 2014, this secondary was going to be the unit that led the defense and won Miami games, they were going to be the difference makers.

2015: The Canes still have a strength in the secondary, but this time in the back end. While the corners are still strong, they are a bit thinner this year. Gunter is gone due to graduation, and Antonio Crawford transferred to West Virginia. So, again, Miami certainly has the talent, they just are not as deep. Artie Burns is looking to become more consistent in his coverage, and Tracy Howard is definitely looking to have a bounce back year after struggling much of junior year. And while Howard was the most hype recruit, and Burns may be the best NFL prospect, the best corner on the team RIGHT NOW is Corn Elder...hell of a name, too. Last season, Elder was the most consistent corner on the team. He was always around the ball, and although he might be the smallest corner on the team, he can tackle. And he does it well. There's certain players who have a toughness about them, and he is one of them. With this crop of talent coming back, as well as an improved defensive line, I do expect big things from this group.

Safety

2014: This unit was supposed to do big things along with the corners in 2014. Unfortunately, the safeties took a hit when rising junior Rayshawn Jenkins was sidelined for the entire season due to a back injury. The three major players for safety at that point was junior Deon Bush, redshirt junior Dallas Crawford and sophomore Jamal Carter. OH! AND CAM'S BOY NANTAMBU-AKIL FENTRESS! Fentress was one of those aforementioned players...the ones that were "smart" and "always in the right position." Even with the loss of Jenkins, this position group had good enough talent to succeed, but outside of a healthy Bush and an injured Jenkins, Miami still  had to see what they were going to get out of Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford. Carter was beginning to see his first real playing time, and Crawford switched positions from running back to safety after Duke Johnson came back healthy. The safeties and corners were going to be the force and the glue of the defense last year, and wanted to reclaim what Miami has always been...#DBU.

2015: While the corner position got thinner in 2015, the safety position became loaded. The Canes are five deep at the position, as they bring back Bush, Jenkins, Crawford and Carter from last season. Miami also brought in The Franchise..also known as Jaquan Johnson. The freshman from Miami will definitely see the field this year, count on it. Bush is the best safety on the team and has All-American type talent written all over him. When healthy, he is a forced to be reckoned with in the back end. The others are plug and play, put them in and they will produce, this is the group I've been most confident in for the past two seasons. It is also rumored that Bush will play a little bit of corner this season out of necessity. While I'm not opposed to it, I'm not really in favor of it, either. Bush can be is an All-American at safety, so keep him there. On the other hand, if this is a ploy (which it is) to get the best players on the field, then by all means, DO IT. This group is way too talented and deep to not be a force in the ACC. They may not have to lead the conference in ever statistical category, but that position group can be among the best, and it's about time they become the best.

Comparison

Honestly, it doesn't seem too close. This 2015 defense seems a lot deeper and talented than in 2014. The problem is, the Canes don't have Denzel Perryman anymore. Look at the game tape, Perryman just took over games last season. So the linebackers need to step up to fill his shoes. However, the defensive line is much deeper this season and looks to take that next step to become difference makers this season. Good defensive line play can make an entire defense look a lot better than they are, but if this D-line can live up to their potential (there's that word), then the entire defense can live up to theirs. Anything to get the ball into Kaaya's hands, I'm for it. It is about time for this ENTIRE unit to step up. No more individual efforts and spotty play. 60 minutes of solid football is what this time needs, and what the fans have been crying for. So, my choice is for this article is the 2015 defense. Too much talent and improved unity should have this defense looking anew. But expectations...we all know how that ended up last season...