Last season was special in many ways for Manny Diaz’s defense. They broke the Hurricanes single-season record for tackles for loss with 136, finished as the best third down defense in the country, finished ninth nationally in sacks, and finished with the nations best pass defense. Of those mentioned, most can be maintained at least to a certain capacity. The one area where Miami could take a hit is the latter: the pass defense.
The Hurricanes are losing Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine, Michael Jackson Sr., and Jhavonte Dean in the secondary. That means they are down two starting safety’s with years of starting experience, a corner with 23 career starts, and a primary backup who tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
There are big shoes to fill. Do we have the guys to re-create the best passing defense in the country? I would confidently say no at this point. Trajan Bandy has been fantastic in his two years at Miami and I am certain he could be our number one corner tomorrow. Behind him are just flat-out inexperienced guys.
And that isn't a knock on them. They’re young and, other than DJ Ivey, haven't played very much, or at all. As I mentioned, Ivey played the most out the freshman corners last year and finished with just three tackles.
He is a prototypical corner physically at 6-1 194 pounds, according to the Hurricanes official website. Ivey could easily slide right into that number two spot and play extremely well for us. The problem is that we simply don’t know for sure.
Gilbert Frierson was and is a guy I have been extremely excited about for a long time. He’s another one that looks the part at corner that absolutely needs to step up and be ready to contribute on this defense right now. If I were to make an early prediction on the Hurricanes “Most Improved Player” for the 2019 season right now, my money is on Frierson.
Then there is Al Blades Jr., who was twice named a special teams captain during his freshman year. When you think of a leader, you don't need to look further than Blades. His name speaks for itself, and the selflessness and pride he took in embracing his role on the team last year speaks volumes about his character and his potential.
I’m certain that he would have liked to see more snaps at corner last year, but, instead of dogging it, he made a name for himself and consistently made plays on special teams. Blades is a guy I want on my team every single time.
In 2019, he is going to have that opportunity to step into an important role in this defense that is going to desperately need leadership and guidance at the corner position.
Now, when you think about what the safety position requires, you can’t ask for much more than what Johnson and Redwine have given throughout their careers. Johnson, who will go down as an all-time Hurricane, and Redwine combined for 59 starts and 13 interceptions.
But it’s time to move on. Bubba Bolden, a prized USC transfer, should ease the transition for this new generation of Canes safeties, along with once highly-touted recruits Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall.
Carter has played in 25 games throughout the two seasons of his career in which he's made 38 tackles, five being for a loss. Hall is a guy who many believe has the potentially to be a plug and play guy at the safety spot aside of Bolden. This is someone who Nick Saban famously landed his helicopter for on his high schools field. He appeared in 12 games a year ago, but will get a real opportunity to be an instant impact player in the secondary.
As a safety net, Miami has redshirt senior Robert Knowles, Nigel Bethel Jr., and strikers Derrick Smith and Romeo Finley who could play safety if need be. Knowles has proven to be fairly ineffective, while Finley and Smith would be better served in their roles at striker where they have found success.
Freshman Keontra Smith and Te’Cory Couch will also be making their way onto campus this summer and could provide depth at either position, although many envision Smith to be more college ready at the moment. Couch has great ball skills but, at 161 pounds, needs to put on a decent amount of weight before he gets onto the field.
The success and development of this group by Blake Baker, Ephraim Banda, and Mike Rumph is going to be a storyline to watch throughout spring and fall camp. There are plenty of questions that need answers and a plethora of guys who will have opportunities to step up and play for the Hurricanes come August 31st.
It is going to be a matter of who is going to take that next step and help a defense that is set up to be successful once again in 2019.