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Season Preview: The Defense that Manny Built

Five Seasons with the Miami Hurricanes Has Manny Diaz’s Defensive Vision On Full Display

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This word is the worst enemy of most if not all sports fans. In most sports leagues, whether its Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NFL, when we see instant, one-year turn arounds, we assume that these outliers can be normalized and beg for the same thing with our favorite teams. The thing we don’t realize is, usually the coaches of outlying teams either benefit from the work of the previous coach or fall into a very fortunate turn of events that perpetuate the idea that this is and should be commonly possible.

The reality? Most coaches will have the roster they prefer best to implement their will after about 5-6 years.

Unsurprisingly, nooooooooooobody wants to hear that. Unfortunately for the microwave generation, or any Canes generation for that matter, that’s way to long. When we can order from Amazon and get it the same day, we may or may not have a warped perception of time. But I digress.

Coach Manny Diaz is entering his 5th season building his defensive roster at the University of Miami. The level of skill at each position that he feels best suits what the scheme should be most successful should either be on the roster or very close. Looking back at the previous few years of rosters and primary contributors, it’s pretty interesting to see the progression from Mark D’Onofrio’s 3-4 optimized roster to Manny’s 4-3 hybrid.

As it stands now, the Hurricanes have excellent depth on the defensive line, linebacker and safety, with only cornerback left to establish strong depth. This seems to be by design, as Diaz likes to feature pass rushers and the middle of the field, building inside out, which often can leave the cornerback recruiting last to catch on.

If we look at the depth charts from 2015, the last year before Diaz, 2016, Diaz’ first season, and this seasons chart, you can quickly see Diaz’ focus.

Two things that are immediately noticeable:

Mark D’Onofrio bet the house on holding the point of attack, and nothing else. Manny Diaz makes his money letting his players run to light and getting to the ballcarrier FAST. The focus at the ends was to get faster and more athletic. Through Diaz’ time in Miami, the Canes have gone from run stuffers like Ufomba Kamalu, to a more athletic end in Chad Thomas, and then fast forward to an elite athlete at end, about 30 pounds lighter than Kamalu in Jaelan Phillips.

While Kamalu was a solid run defender he trended much more to an undersized defensive tackle that could hold blocks while the linebackers either did the pass rushing or tackling.

With Diaz taking over, Chad Thomas was asked to be feature more within Manny’s defenses a pass rusher. With Diaz frequently using fire zones, sending 5 in front of two coverage layers of three defenders each, its paramount that the ends are at least above average at penetrating the offensive line.

The absolute best case scenario for this defense at this more traditional defensive end spot is an athletic Adonis, big enough to make his money both in run defense and pass rushing. Jaelan Phillips is that guy. Amazing speed and short area ability, to go along with a 6’5, 270 frame should eat often in this defense as the viper will get more pre-snap looks as the speed rusher.

On the Viper side its a similar pace, though coming from Al Golden’s pass rushers, less of a stark contrast. Al’Quadin Muhammad at 275 was similar to Chad Thomas but looking at where we are now with Jahfari Harvey and Quincy Roche on that side nearly 25-35 pounds lighter it has essentially become an OLB position with hands and training to shed offensive tackles.

Muhammad was similar to what can be expected of Phillips, if not with less twitch. Muhammad show very good bend and excellent strength, seen often in the favorite bull rush he used while with Miami.

The bridge Viper before reaching warp speed last season was Trusty Trent Harris. A linebacker put on the line, saw plenty of activity with his ability to pass rush using agility and lateral movement to use more sudden stunts and overall athleticism to make plays.

The ULTIMATE VIPER in Manny’s history?

Gregory Rousseau.

I’ll just shut up and let you watch the highlights.

The Linebackers in Diaz’ first four years have been a similar breed to the D’Onofrio group with one, albeit, MASSIVE difference. The Striker position.

The PROMISE of what D’Onofrio had at linebacker was real.

Darrien Owens was a sought after beast of a linebacker that had safety athleticism and could hit like a truck. Every superlative that seems to be put on Avery Huff was used towards Jermaine Grace at one point. We all know what Denzel Perryman was and still is in the NFL (arguably the most successful linebacker out of the big 3 Florida schools in the last decade). When you look at What Manny Diaz has had in the last 4 years, its very similar. Shaquille Quarterman made good as a leader and produced well on the field on his way to the Jacksonville Jaguars, much like Perryman. Michael Pinckney provided spark after spark during his time at Miami. Zach McCloud is the 2020 room leader.

Only Zach McCloud Remains with a connection to the Dark Times of the Golden Era.

What Manny has built now with that crop is a much deeper, more athletic group. While Grace, Owens and even Quarterman exhibited above average speed for linebackers, this will be the first time in years that the 3 deep for the Sam, Mike and now Striker feature above average to excellent athletes from each member. Waynmon Steed, Bradley Jennings, McCloud, Huff, Sam Brooks and Tirek-Austin Cave all feature 4.6 or better 40’s, with Huff and Brooks leading as the prime athletes of the bunch.

The striker position takes that athleticism to a different level. The hybrid spot, formerly home to current San Diego Charger Romeo Finley, is a spot that is tailor made for oversized safety types to go from tweener to specialist. If Troy Polamalu was a position this would be it. Safety range while hitting like a backer. I feel the likes of Jamal Carter or to a lesser extent Rayshawn Jenkins would have fallen into this spot. Players like Keontra Smith, Gilbert Frierson and Jalen Harrell fit this role. This spot essentially takes much of the traditional coverage responsibilities of 4-3 Sam and Will linebackers to a third safety to help combat the growing trend to more receivers on offenses.

Zach McCloud is the last remaining Miami Hurricane with any meaningful ties to the Al Golden and Mark D’Onofrio regime. For those that keep track to the Blue Chip Ratio, the starting defense features 8 blue chip starters. The 3? Quincy Roche, Sam Brooks and Jon Ford. Even its backups feature 7 blue chippers.

That’s SOLID.

This defense is Manny’s top to bottom. As detailed, the depth chart features players that fit exactly what Diaz wants from each position.

Havoc and penetration along the line.

Speed and playmaking from the Linebackers.

Lengthy, man to man cover corners.

Center fielders at safety that can bring the lumber.

Every position has trustworthy, experienced skill sets throughout the depth chart that allows for minimal drop off when we rotate throughout the game. Rather than seeing a Scott Patchan or a Robert Knowles come in and slow down how the defense wants to play overall, players like Jahfari Harvey, Cameron Williams, Amari Carter and Avery Huff are batting cleanup.

That creates a fresher, more complete defense that won’t fade late in games or seasons. That creates a smaller window for athletically charged gaffes to destroy an other wise well crafted play.

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Imagining Roche and Harvey closing the edges of the pocket while Silvera or Harrison-Hunte crashes the middle should engage excitement. Linebackers that can go sideline to sideline to take the edge away from running backs, and a secondary that can take advantage of errant throws caused by a powerful pass rush illicit attention from EVERY offense facing Miami this year. There will be NO plays off for anyone.

How does this defense get even better?

Hold on to its juniors, and hold on to this recruiting class of 2021.

What Miami has done to restock the defensive cabinets has fans excited, but the combination of what there is now with what is to come has fans and pundits dreaming of a swift upward change of direction for the Miami Hurricanes. Names like Leonard Taylor, James Williams, and others create a dream like state for the 2021 season. Any given play could look like this in 2021:

But first things first, let’s win in 2020.

Go Canes.