Through two years at Miami, Defensive Coordinator and Linebacker Coach Manny Diaz has proven to be the right fit after the demoralizing tenure of Mark D’Onofrio. Diaz has breathed fresh life into the Miami defense, employing the traditional attacking 4-3 defense of old, moving away from D’Onofrio’s frustratingly conservative read-and-react 3-4 scheme.
The results of this scheme shift have been overwhelmingly in Diaz’ favor. After finishing 77th in points allowed in 2015, Diaz has coached up a defense that finished 12th and 28th in the last two years respectively.
The statistical accolades don’t stop there either. Miami finished 4th in the nation in takeaways and tackles for loss last season. Diaz’ aggressive style has allowed for more plays to be made and, with his players buying-in, has led to a night and day difference in the quality of defense for the Canes. It’d be a mistake not to mention the Turnover Chain at least once as well, a symbol of Diaz and the defense’s commitment to making plays and keeping offenses off-balance at all times. Not only is it a fun and uniquely Miami thing, but it gives further incentive to play well to both the players and recruits.
Diaz has also done a much better job of developing talent at each position, something that should only become more apparent as more and more of the players are hand-picked from the current staff instead of the former. It’s no coincidence that three freshmen linebackers entered with Diaz in 2016 and have become about as cohesive a group as there is in the nation. The defensive line has seen a journey back to the days of Jerome Brown and Warren Sapp as well. And the secondary hasn’t been bad either, with Michael Jackson and Jaquan Johnson developing as stars on this defense. A lot of credit should go to the positional coaches as well as Coach Diaz, but at the end of the day, he is the one overseeing how this defense learns and executes.
Like any scheme, there are positives to it and there are negatives. While Diaz’ ultra-aggressive, attacking style has created turnovers and game-changing plays, it has also led to big plays being made against it. In Miami’s losses against Clemson and Wisconsin, that assailing style was taken advantage of to the tune of 38 and 34 points respectively.
A lot of the issues have been apparent in the secondary. When Diaz blitzes on passing downs, he often leaves his defense in man-coverage, usually meaning there is little to no safety support for his defenders. If the blitz doesn’t get to the QB fast enough, it leaves him with plenty of opportunities to throw to an open receiver. Diaz may need to adjust and mix more zone coverage into his blitz plays.
The final issue that has plagued Diaz’ defense has been third down. Miami was 75th in the nation in third down defense last season, with offense converting on nearly 40% of opportunities. Part of this issue is the inherent weakness with the defensive scheme discussed previously but also, Diaz’ reliance on four man rushes on third down. Diaz seems to play two extremes on third down- send everyone or send just four. As a result, the latter will leave QBs with a lot of time to survey the field and throw for first downs. As more Mark Richt and Manny Diaz players are added to the system, the issue should improve, but players like Chad Thomas, who had so much unvarnished talent, were behind the eight ball after spending their formative playing years under D’Onofrio.
Manny Diaz has been a very good defensive coordinator for Miami. End of story. This season however, he will have to overcome the loss of Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski while replacing three of his starting defensive lineman. Diaz will also have to prove that his defense can make stops and be effective if turnovers, a notoriously fluky stat, don’t start piling up.
While there are things Diaz will need to improve on and overcome, he is not in a bad position to succeed and continue proving himself as one of the better defensive coordinators in the nation. The leaders at linebacker and secondary return this season and Diaz has talent with Gerald Willis, Joe Jackson and Jon Garvin along the d-line. He should be able to sculpt a suffocating, playmaking defense this season as he has in the past two years. If he can take this defense up another level, it might just make the Canes a legit natty contender.