It's not often that the focal point of a defense begins with the men in the middle. As we preview players before the Russell Athletic Bowl, it's the guys playing in upfront and center that have flown under the radar. One of those someones is 6'4 290 lbs. sophomore defensive tackle RJ McIntosh. It's only fitting that McIntosh was one of three recipients of U of Miami Sports Hall of Fame award for Unsung Hero this season.
His tag-team partner, fellow defensive tackle, standing at 6'3 and 305 lbs. Kendrick Norton. The duo have combined for 18.5 tackles for loss with 4 sacks between them in 2016. While the freshmen trio of linebackers and edge-rushers basque in the glory of an improved defense from a season ago, the guys in in the middle also deserves their due.
Heading into RAB, if Miami is going to leave Orlando with a W they'll need a solid game upfront against an offense that will look to establish a run game that seen WVU RB Russell Shell get 500+ yards in an injury-filled season. Shell's understudy, RB Justin Crawford, rushed for 1,168 yards before injuries hampered his season as well, paving the way for freshman backs Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway.
What can the starting defensive tackles do to make to leave Orlando with the rare bowl victory?
Conditioning is going to be huge as the Mountaineers tend to run an up-tempo offense. One that would pride itself on seeing the big tackles sucking wind, hands on the hips or tapping the side of the helmet for a switch. With one less body in the rotation as DT Gerald Willis will miss the game due an MCL injury as well as being suspended to provide an exclamation, the pressure to get off the field sooner will be felt by our tackles. Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins should round out the rotation.
Getting in QB Sklyer Howard's line of sight is the first step to a great day for Miami. Lined up in Pistol or Shotgun formation, he's not too concerned because he has time to scan the field with little concern regarding his drop. Getting a good push in the middle will flush Howard off of his spot, and while it's likely that another player will rally to get the sack or QB hit, it will be the unsung heroes in the middle that will deserve a fair amount of credit. RJ has been credited with 2 passes defended in his career. He'll only add more to that category if he can get a decent rush and remember to stick those paws in the passing lane. If you're not able to get home to the QB then any disruption to his line of vision or set-up would be greatly appreciated.
Where the law firm of Norton and McIntosh will see the most importance is in the ground game. The Mountaineers have not played a defensive front as talented as Miami's. Howard tends to keep the ball when the Mountaineers enter the red-zone. It would be great to see #80 or #7 wrap him up around the line of scrimmage to stop him for a loss. Inopportune fumbles have plagued the Mountaineers at various points this season, let's see that continue with a conscious effort at the line of scrimmage. Norton is the only member of the firm to have forced a fumble in 2016, but there is no limit to when you can add to the stat for either guy. It's common sense to come out and say that the Norton and McIntosh need to be sound in their assignment, avoiding the mistakes that Oklahoma mounted up as Crawford ran for 331 yards on 24 carries.
Miami has seen a tremendous improvement when it comes to their play on the defensive side of the ball. Credit will be given to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. There will be much love to the freshman trio at LB and who can't smile at the talent the Canes have coming off the edge. Let's not forget the contributions of the big men in the middle that allow those line backers to chase and make an impact. The guys who draw the double team to create favourable matches for those edge defenders.
Do not forget about your middle men.