It’s been a couple days since the Miami Hurricanes lost the season opener to the LSU Tigers 33-17 in a game that looked much worse than the score indicates.
Now that I’ve had a chance to think back on the game for a bit there’s one thing that stood out as needing to be changed (beyond the QB, but I wrote about that in February so here’s talk on that point) and it’s Miami’s substitution pattern on defense.
It’s widely known that the Canes lack optimal depth across the roster at this time. Yes, the top end talent is up there with the best teams in America, but once the starters come out, things can get out of whack VERY quickly.
In the opener against LSU, Miami went with wholesale substitution packages — something akin to a line change in hockey: a whole unit on, a whole unit off. And, with Miami’s backup unit on defense lacking the talent of the starting unit, that became a problem.
When facing a team running an uptempo offense, I could see how that would make sense, but LSU was running their plays at a very deliberate pace all day long. The Tigers ended the game with just 65 offensive plays. That’s tied for 98th in CFB (although, some teams have played 2 games which skews that stat slightly). Even in the season opener, there’s no reason to be pulling starters wholesale in the first quarter of that game, with that very-average number of plays being run.
And, this wholesale line change substitution paradigm had tangibly negative results for the Canes. Simply look at the play that, for all intents and purposes, ended the game in LSU’s favor: Nick Brosette’s 50 yard TD run.
A simple stretch play run from the right hash to the offense’s left (middle of the field), gashed Miami and put the Tigers up for good a little over halfway into the quarter. And, you can’t tell from the sideline video angle, but from my vantage point in the press box, that hole was ENORMOUS, and opened like Moses parting The Red Sea. It was GIGANTIC. Sure, Brosette is a scholarship player and was once a 4-star recruit, but he shouldn’t be running through Miami’s #1 defense untouched for 50 yards.
And here’s the thing: he didn’t.
Brosette’s run came with more than half the Miami defense being made up of substitutes on the field. Jhavonte Dean was replacing Trajan Bandy, who had already been ejected for targeting (which was the right call on a bad rule). DJ Ivey then moved up to the #3 CB slot for that play. Derrick Smith was replacing Romeo Finley at STRIKER on this play. Robert Knowles was replacing Sheldrick Redwine, and took a bad angle once again that opened the lane for Brosette to score. Bradley Jennings Jr. and Mike Smith were in at ILB, meaning Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney were both on the bench. And, when the LBs weren’t able to avoid getting put on the ground by chop blocks, that opened the lane that Knowles couldn’t close on Brosette’s TD scamper.
Even with Miami’s starting DL — Joe Jackson, Gerald Willis III, Pat Bethel, and Jonathan Garvin — on the field, having 6 of the other 7 positions manned by backups is not something Miami should be doing. The stretch play effectively negated Willis III (who was DOMINANT in the game) by running away from him, the 2nd level of defense LBs were both taken out by chop blocks, Johnson was blocked on the backside of the play, Knowles whiffed and was completely out of the play, and that left Ivey, Smith, and Dean to try and chase after Brosette, to no avail.
Over half of Miami’s defense on the gamebreaking play were backups. And, that’s just one play, but that wasn’t the only play that were affected by Diaz enacting “line change” substitutions.
LSU wasn’t even good on offense, but after Bandy was ejected, they threw almost exclusively at Dean, who has all the physical gifts in the world (size, length, speed) but isn’t actually good at covering people. His man was open all game long, no matter the route.
Manny Diaz said corner Jhavonte Dean has to improve. "[LSU] only completed like three passes of over 10 yards and three of them, were in essence his responsibility, but most of it, the more disappointing part of it was, two of them were coverage checks."— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) September 5, 2018
Miami finally pulled Dean in favor of true freshman Ivey, who played 23 of the last 25 snaps as the #2 CB, but the damage had already been done. Knowles, who has a penchant for being on the field when the other team scores going back to last season, reprised that role on Sunday, but didn’t see the field again after Brosette’s TD run. Again, the damage had already been done by that point.
Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz was asked about his wholesale substitutions at practice on Wednesday, and instead of going away from the issue, steered into the skid. Here’s what I mean:
Manny Diaz was asked about shortening the rotation citing many backups on field on 50-yard TD run, but he said it's the opposite...and said they need to have more competition.— Christopher Stock (@InsideTheU) September 5, 2018
Having more competition, i.e. game-ready players, is something to aspire to. But, to try to force the issue by continuing to give playing time to guys who have proven repeatedly over the course of time that they’re not to the caliber needed is ridiculous.
Furthermore, and this isn’t necessarily a direct commentary on the rotation used in against LSU, but there are other talented players who aren’t seeing the field. Robert Knowles continuing to play over Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall? Why? This is like when Al Golden continued to play Nantambu-Akil Fentress at Safety when the Canes had 3 NFL players — Jamal Carter, Deon Bush, and Rayshawn Jenkins — all on the roster, but chillin’ on the bench. That’s just not smart roster management.
But, back to the lecture at hand: Miami simply cannot, at this point of the season, roll with so many backups in the game at the same time. 6/11 is too many. Not having EITHER Quarterman or Pinckney on the field is a recipe for disaster. And so on.
Moving forward, I’d like to see something more akin to normal football substitutions or basketball substitutions: leaving at least 1 “star” player from each level of the defense on the field at the same time, so the replacements aren’t shouldering the entire load, something that was obviously not up to Miami’s standard for performance in the opener.
Miami has great top-end talent. The starting unit on both sides of the ball is very high caliber, with a few exceptions.
What Miami DOESN’T have is elite depth. So, relying so heavily on backups in key situations is not advisable.
Don’t believe me? Go back and watch that TD run by Brosette, or any of the multitude of catches completed by throwing exclusively at Dean.
The solution in my opinion is rotate guys in a smarter, less wholesale way, or bypassing more senior players who can’t do the job needed and giving chances to younger, more talented, players to show what they can do. Or maybe both.
I mean, after what we saw on Sunday, it’s not like the different substitution pattern I just detailed could make things any worse, right?