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Rank the Roster: Defensive Tackle

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Will the “next man up” mentality continue at defensive tackle or will attrition finally take effect?

Pat Bethel (93) is the only returning defensive lineman with significant starting experience
Ryan M. Kelly / Getty Images

In the trenches of every great Hurricanes’ defense is an elite defensive tackle unleashing chaos in the opposition’s backfield. And if ACC titles and playoff appearances are to become anything more than a pipe dream for “The New Miami,” then it must look to the old Miami, who built its championship defenses around disruptive interior linemen with a mean streak and a win-at-all-costs mentality.

It began during the 1980s when guys like Jerome Brown and Cortez Kennedy were breaking and reshaping the mold of your prototypical defensive tackle in Jimmy Johnson’s 4-3 attack. During the 90s, Russell Maryland and Warren Sapp made history when the former claimed Miami’s first Outland Trophy in 1990, and the latter was awarded the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, the program’s first Lombardi Award and finished sixth in the Heisman voting.

Nearly a decade later, the massive Vince Wilfork anchored the Canes’ front four from 2001-2003, winning the ‘01 National Championship while recording 41 tackles and 11 TFL as a true freshman.

Fast-forward to 2016 when current head coach Manny Diaz made it apparent upon his arrival as defensive coordinator that Miami’s defense would, once again, look like a Miami defense. In year one under Diaz, the Canes jumped from 105th to fifth nationally in tackles for loss. Two years later, in 2018, they would lead the nation with 10.5 TFL per game.

In 2015, Miami’s defensive tackles combined for just 12.5 TFL on the season. The following year, the unit’s TFL numbers jumped to 30.5 before eventually topping out at 34 in 2018. Unfortunately, seniors Gerald Willis and Tito Odenigbo took 24.5 TFL (Willis accounted for 18) with them to the next level, leaving a pair of vacancies on the Canes’ two-deep.

Despite the loss of its top-two tacklers, depth remains a potential strength for the unit with the addition of UCLA graduate-transfer Chigozie Nnoruka and three true-freshman signees from the Storm 19 recruiting class. And by the way, the Canes still have a pair of highly-touted local guys on the roster in junior Jonathan Ford and sophomore Nesta Silvera.

THE COACH

The Canes added defensive coordinator Blake Baker and will welcome the program’s third D-line coach in as many years. Former defensive line coaches Craig Kuligowski and Jess Simpson were as good as gets at the college level, but their departures open the door for 33-year coaching veteran Todd Stroud, whose most recent gig was the defensive coordinator position at Akron.

In the six previous seasons he was the D-line coach for the Zips with his 2015 unit anchoring the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense. The year before, Akron finished among the top 40 nationally in eight defensive categories. Stroud made a stop at Colorado State, where he coached fullbacks and tight ends in 2010 before shifting to the defensive line in 2011. Prior to arriving at CSU, he served as strength and conditioning coach at Florida State and N.C. State, along with stints at Auburn, Memphis, Samford and UCF.

Baker, meanwhile, was on Diaz’s defensive staff at Louisiana Tech when Diaz departed for Mississippi State in 2014. Baker served as Tech’s defensive coordinator through 2018 before rejoining Diaz in Miami. Baker began his coaching career in 2011 as a graduate assistant under Diaz at Texas.

In 2018, Louisiana Tech’s defense was fourth nationally in sacks at 3.5 per game, 12th in tackles for loss at 7.8 a game and 33rd in turnovers gained with 22.

RANKING THE ROSTER

Here are the nine tackles vying for playing time in 2019. We will rank them beginning with the projected starters, followed by backups and the potential redshirt candidates. How does your unit stack up with mine? Let us know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter at @hotrodtodd25.

THE STARTERS

Pat Bethel (Sr) – The elder statesman and only proven commodity on the interior of the D-line, Bethel started 12 games as a junior in 2018, recording 23 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. The legacy Cane (Randy Bethel) recorded a career-best six tackles at Boston College, while his 1.5 TFL vs UNC was also a career-high. The Vero Beach grad was moved inside to tackle prior to his sophomore season and has appeared in 37 games at Miami.

Bethel was the fourth-ranked strong-side defensive end in the state by Scout and 10th nationally according to 247. The four-star lineman chose Miami over offers from Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State, among others. Entering 2019, Bethel is the only safe-bet at the position, however, with loads of talent behind him, he could easily finish the season as the third or fourth tackle. But only time will tell who takes advantage from the additional reps and makes their ascent up the depth chart.

Nesta Silvera (Soph) – The most likely candidate to follow in the tradition of Brown, Maryland and Sapp, the sophomore tackle is poised for a breakout season in 2019 and has the highest ceiling at his position. Silvera became an instant fan-favorite when he uttered his now-famous, “make the crib great” line on National Signing Day. Unfortunately, the former American Heritage standout struggled to crack the two-deep as a true freshman, finishing with 13 tackles, 1.5 TFL and a blocked punt. Arriving in Coral Gables at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, Silvera admitted to weighing as much as 323 at the end of his freshman season, but after working with new strength coach David Feeley, he was at 302 in June.

Former coaches Kuligowski and Mark Richt referred to Silvera as the top 3-tech lineman in Florida; Diaz said the four-star tackle has the potential to become “the heart of the 4-3 defense.” He flashed some of that potential in the spring game when he recorded a tackle-for-loss on the game’s opening play. With the athleticism to penetrate the A and B gaps and cause disruption in the backfield, he is primed to become a vital cog in Diaz’s 4-3 scheme.

Silvera also plays with a tenacity that you can’t teach, drawing comparisons to some all-time Miami greats at the position.

THE BACKUPS

Chigozie Nnoruka (Rs-Sr) – A grad-transfer from UCLA, Nnoruka arrived at UCLA in 2017 following a year of junior college. Starting 10 games that season, he amassed 46 tackles, 8.5 TFL and a pair of sacks. With two years remaining in Los Angeles, the future looked promising for the native-Nigerian. The self-proclaimed “film junkie” was dealt the first major hurdle of his collegiate career when the Bruins changed to a 3-4 system in 2018 and the junior was lost in the shuffle, finishing the season with just seven tackles. At 22 years old, the 6-foot-1, 295-pound tackle will bring some much-needed experience to the defensive tackle position while challenging for a starting job. The best case scenario is he wins a starting spot and rejuvenates his career. At worst, he provides the Canes with additional depth as a 3-tech and sets a positive example for the younger guys with his film study.

Jonathan Ford (Jr) – Coming off a pair of ho-hum seasons, 2019 could be a make-or-break year for the Fort Lauderdale product. A consensus three-star tackle out of Dillard High, Ford has appeared in 17 games at Miami, recording nine tackles and two TFL.

As a freshman in 2017, he appeared in seven games, and with the loss of three D-tackles at the conclusion of the season, Ford was expected to challenge for a starting spot in 2018. Instead, he spent most of his sophomore campaign as the backup to Bethel on the Canes’ two-deep, recording eight tackles and two TFL on the year. With Willis and Odenigbo in the NFL and a bevy of young talent behind him, the time is now for the 6-5, 300-pounder to break out of the pack.

The Class of 2017’s Jonathan Ford should finally get his chance to shine in 2019.
Todd Forrest / SOTU

Jordan Miller (Rs-Fr) – A rare 1-technique at the University of Miami, the Jacksonville-Sandalwood grad arrived on campus at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds and was deemed a “project” by many. Currently listed at 325 pounds, Miller appeared in the home opener vs Savannah State before taking a redshirt and serving the rest of the year on the practice squad. A late-bloomer, Miller transferred to Sandalwood from Palatka and began drawing the attention of Power-5 schools. At the conclusion of his senior season, Miami, Tennessee and Virginia all made scholarship offers, with Miller eventually choosing the Canes over Georgia Tech.

Miami hasn’t featured a true nose-tackle since Kendrick Norton and Miller could provide that, but probably not this year. The second-year freshman impressed in the spring scrimmage, recording 2.5 tackles and a pair of sacks, drawing praise from Baker. However, he’s not yet polished enough to be an every-down option and will likely serve as the fifth defensive tackle to open 2019.

Tyreic Martin (Rs-Jr) – Another converted strong-side defensive end, the Lanett, Alabama native has seen limited action during his three seasons at Miami. In 2018, the 295-pound tackle made his only appearance of the season in the home opener vs Savannah State. A member of the practice squad all three years, Martin should finally see the field in 2019.

THE REDSHIRTS

Jason Blissett (Fr) – Should an injury occur and attrition become a factor on the defensive front in 2019, Blissett would likely be the first option to have his redshirt burned. At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, the Brooklyn, New York native was an unknown until he put on a show at last summer’s Paradise Camp and earned an offer from Simpson. An athletic four-star, Blissett has plenty of potential but will likely need a year to hone his skills and add some strength after arriving on campus earlier this month. Recruiting Notebook

Jared Harrison-Hunte (Fr) – Another product of the Empire State and a former basketball star, Harrison-Hunte didn’t take a liking to football until high school. But when he did, the 6-4, 286-pounder rocketed up the recruiting rankings, peaking as the 38th ranked defensive tackle in the nation. Size, athleticism and a high motor are tools he already possesses, but now it’s time to learn the nuances of the position and spend a year in the weight room. Recruiting Notebook

Jalar Holley (Fr) – Hailing from Buford, Georgia (Coach Simpson’s former high school), Holley shunned 20 other offers and committed to the Canes at the 2018 Paradise Camp. The 59th ranked DT in the class, Holley will likely need a year in the weight room before seeing the field. A versatile run-stuffer, the 6-2, 280-pounder could play at nose tackle or as a 3-tech, but his strength is playing over the center or in the A-gap. Recruiting Notebook

How do you think the defensive tackle position will shake out for the Canes this year? Will it continue to be a strength under Diaz and Baker, or will heavy losses finally take their toll? Tell us in the comments below. For a look at the defensive end and linebacker positions, you can check out KappaCane’s pieces right here.

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