With a successful first season in Miami concluded, the "honeymoon phase" is over for University of Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. UM's defense improved in most, if not all, statistical categories (sacks and tackles for loss) significantly enough that the 43-year-old Diaz was named a Broyles Award nominee in recognition of his accomplishments as a college football assistant coach. Splitting duties as DC and linebacker coach, he shepherded a trio of freshman at linebacker to flourish in their transition from high school to college,
Once again bringing the defense back to national prominence, a feature that is sure to make fans and alums proud.
restoring order to a side of the ball that fans and alums pride in being a top unit in the country on a regular basis. So far, so good.
So, why will the pressure be on in year two for Manny Diaz?
Recently, Diaz has bounced from three different programs (La. Tech, Mississippi State, Texas) before returning home to South Florida. Trying to avoid overstaying his welcome, with the exception of his tenure at the University of Texas under head coach Mack Brown, the only other time Diaz has spent multiple seasons with a team as DC was when he first got the opportunity with Middle Tennessee back in 2006–2009. After the coming season, Miami will be added to this short list. A nomadic life is just part the reality of being a coordinator in the college ranks.
This can't be emphasized enough: With his succession of Miami's previous DC (now at Houston), Manny Diaz has accomplished a feat that has surely endeared the local coordinator to a fanbase exhausted by the mediocrity and underachievement of past regimes. Miami's 3.43 yards per carry average allowed is the lowest mark in the category in at least a decade. The 1,711 rushing yards allowed in 2016 is the lowest mark since 2009's total of 1,590. The 10 TDs allowed in the running game were also the lowest since 2011, when Miami stymied opponents to only eight total.
Improvement was not just limited to the run defense last season for the 'Canes. Miami put into practice defensive line coach Kuligowski's appropriately titled Twitter handle @meetatheqb, securing 37 QB sacks in 2016. Before then, the last UM team to meet at the QB that often was the 2010 defense that also produced the same amount of QB sacks with DE Allen Bailey, DE Olivier Vernon and DL Adewale Ojomo.
Not every stat was blessed by the “Diaz touch”. In the passing game, both touchdowns through the air (17) and interceptions (8) were high and low marks for the unit, respectively. These numbers can be directly linked to the attacking 4–3 defense that was played, the usual missed chances to turn the ball over, and opponents trying to get back into the game through the air.
There will be more pressure for Diaz to deliver in his second year in Miami than in his first. The team is going to be ranked fairly high in the preseason top 25 polls when they become available, and while preseason polls mean little once the season is underway, they do illustrate the atmospheric expectations and potential surrounding the program in the '17 season.
In fact, Diaz found himself in similar circumstances after his initial season as the Longhorns DC. After an 8–5 season in 2011, Texas was ranked 15th in the preseason AP top 25 the following season. (Coincidentally, UM is projected to fall somewhere between 15–20 when the 2017 version is released.) Entering the 2012 season, Texas had questions that are all too familiar to Hurricane fans. Who’s going to be the quarterback? Can the team replace impact players who have gone to the NFL? In UT's case, it was the loss of two key linebackers, as opposed to Miami losing three key members of the secondary entering next season. Even with these losses, the defense is still expected to be the strength of the team entering the season.
The upcoming version of Miami shares many of the same questions the 2012 Texas Longhorns had regarding the offensive side of the ball. Who’s going to start at quarterback? Will the offensive line solidify itself, and can the tight end group provide production equal to that of the season previous? Along with youth and promise, as well as Diaz orchestrating the defensive side of the ball, these questions highlight the common traits that both the 2012 Longhorns and current iteration of Miami football share at this point.
Like Miami, UT’s defenses were stacked with young talent from the front-seven to the back end of the secondary. DT Malcolm Brown, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, S Kenny Voccaro and a freshman CB Adrian Colbert were the young guns in UT's 4–3 attacking defense. DE Joseph Jackson, the linebacker triplets (Shaq Quarterman, Micheal Pickney, Zach McCloud), and Jaquon Johnson roaming the secondary ultimately give Miami the edge in the personnel department when you place the two team’s defenses side by side.
For the optimists, the Longhorns tallied more sacks in year two under Diaz (up to 34 from 29 in 2011). There was also a marked improvement in interceptions, with 15 in 2012 (up from 12 in 2011). Numbers never lie, but they can be deceiving. Aside from the shutout of a porous New Mexico program, the next lowest number of points allowed for the defense that season was seven against Iowa State. The 'Horns gave up 30+ points seven different times that season, yet produced a winning record of 4–3 in those games.
Comparing that with last year's Hurricanes squad, Miami's 37 sacks last season were a massive jump from 26 the previous season. Only in losses to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame did the defense give up 30+ points. The VT game coincidentally was a game in which the defense gave up a season-high 14 first downs through the air, with three first downs freebies because of penalties. It speaks to the strength and weakness of Diaz's defense in that if the pressure doesn't get home, the secondary will be vulnerable on the back end.
Riding off the high of a 2011 Holiday Bowl win, Texas felt that their stock future was promising. Instead, it regressed.
As Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation put it,
“After a dominant performance over Cal in the 2011 Holiday Bowl, in which the Texas defense held the Golden Bears to just 195 total yards at a rate of 2.8 yards per play, right from the beginning of the 2012 season, there were signs that things were amiss with Diaz's defense. An average Wyoming team managed nearly 6.0 yards per play, and there were clear signs of trouble in Oxford in the Longhorns' 66-31 rout at Ole Miss, where the outcome was not in doubt but the defense ceded an uncomfortable 6.2 yards per play.
The numbers improved a bit as the quality of the offenses declined down the back end of the schedule, but they were far from heartening, and when it was all said and done, the 2012 defense sported the worst statistical profile of any Longhorns defense in program history: nearly 2,500 yards allowed on the ground, more than 2,750 ceded through the air, for a staggeringly high 5,244 total yards allowed, at an unfathomable 5.9 yards per play.”
Texas's defense took plenty of the blame during the '12 season, but it was not the sole reason the team took a tumble past the line of mediocrity into ineptitude. The tail end of the Mack Brown era was an utter disaster that the program is still trying to get over. And before any of you start thinking it, this is not a comparison between Mark Richt and Mack Brown, so don't even go there.
However, heading into his second complete cycle at Miami with a defensive unit that gushes with talent at every level, brings back more experience, and has been projected to equal and surpass marks set last season, the pressure will be on the man who's known to bring it against offenses.
Like it or not, there are aspects that nobody is quite sure of from now until kickoff of week one on Saturday, September, 2nd against Bethune-Cookman: Who’s gonna QB this team? Will the offense be able to do enough to either (a) get points or (b) at the very least not force Diaz to defend a short field?
I'm probably the last one who will be talking about this, but Miami is going to have a new punter after losing Justin Vogel to graduation. Will the new "leg" be able to flip the field well enough so that the defense is put into an advantageous situation more often than not? That only matters if the offense is unable to score points, which is a necessary factor in winning games, or so I've heard. These all have a significant impact, albeit indirectly on the success of the defense. Damn football for being a team sport.
What could Diaz have on the call sheet for 2017?
Although Miami lost out on key defensive starters a season ago, there remains plenty of holdovers from Diaz’s first season and a quality infusion of freshman that give him the best overall defense he's ever had (personnel wise) at his disposal. For a man used to bringing the pressure to offenses, this upcoming season will see Diaz receive the same amount of heat in terms of expectations.
While it's not as bad as the '05, '06 and '09 season starts against our most despised rival, if the season does not start out well in the first three games, you can imagine that any leeway Diaz has will evaporate rather hastily. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that Diaz and the defense will need to deliver in year two of the Richt era, where questions remain about offensive play calling, QBs, and quality of play from the offensive line.
In his second year in Miami, Manny Diaz will be looking to continue on his road to redemption since his time in Austin. With fertile recruiting grounds, an endless wave of pass-rushers, and a second-level defense that should improve given the amount of snaps seen a season ago, he's in a prime position to take advantage of the talent at his fingertips. It would be a fitting story for a man of Miami to return home and raise the football program back to where it belongs, while at the same time illustrating how far he's come in his career.