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Living On The Edge: Miami Hurricanes 2021 Pass-Rush Outlook After Key Departures

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With the Loss of Greg Rousseau, Jaelan Phillips, Quincy Roche, and Jonathan Garvin, in the Past Two Years, Miami’s Pass-Rush Faces the Most Uncertainty In the Manny Diaz Era

NCAA Football: Cheez-It Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Miami Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Since Manny Diaz has been at Miami, his defense has always featured a steady presence of top tier pass rushers who can set the edge. Namely, when Diaz was Defensive Coordinator from 2016-2018, Miami saw tenacious pass rushers Joe Jackson, Chad Thomas, and Trent Harris come through the U - all of whom have had varying degrees of experience in the NFL.

When Diaz took over the head coach duties in 2019, the defensive end position was expected to feature Jonathan Garvin and Trevon Hill, but it was Redshirt Freshman, Gregory Rousseau, who ended up getting seven starts and becoming a nightmare for opposing QBs as he tallied 15.5 sacks. Rousseau’s successful 2019 stint resulted in his opt-out for 2020 to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, but paved the way for two other blue chip NFL prospects as transfers Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche turned in solid 2020 campaigns and both should be selected in the first couple days this April.

Now, left with recent turnover at the position including three key departures this year, Diaz will be tasked with leading the most uncertain edge pass rush class of his tenure. Will Jahfari Harvey continue his ascension? Will veteran LB, Zach McCloud, transition to more of an edge rusher role? Will Deandre Johnson reap the benefits of Coach David Feeley’s Strength and Conditioning program and experience Phillips/Roche-type transfer success? And/or will an unseasoned hero emerge similar to Rousseau like Cameron Williams or Chantz Williams?

2021 Preview in Cheez-It Bowl and General Outlook

In this year’s Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State, Miami had somewhat of a preview as to what they can expect this year at the defensive end position because the three 2021 draft prospects had opted out by then. In that game, the Canes utilized Harvey, Cam Williams, McCloud, and Patrick Joyner Jr. (who has since announced he will transfer to Utah State). As for Harvey, Williams, and McCloud, they combined for 9 tackles, 1 sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss. For reference, Roche and Phillips’ combined production between just the two of them in the previous ten games on the season averaged 9 tackles, 1.25 sacks, and 3.0 tackle for loss - as well as an INT.

For what it’s worth, the underwhelming production in the Cheez-It Bowl from the projected future defensive ends can be attributed to lack of sufficient repetitions and experience as starters. That is, the above grouping was generally used in rotational roles behind the lead defensive ends, Phillips and Roche, and the pass rushers essentially had a week or so to prepare after the starting duo opted out. In contrast, the 2021 group will now have an entire offseason - and hopefully normal one at that - to grow where they are well aware that they will be the individuals relied upon to succeed one of the most elite group in college football.

Projected Weapons and Depth

DE1: Deandre Johnson

After earning his stripes at Tennessee, Deandre Johnson, a Miami Killian High School grad, is back home and focused on football as well as improving his NFL draft stock for 2022.

“Once I got that fifth- through seventh-round grade last year, I said it has to be strictly football,” Johnson told Manny Navarro of The Athletic. “Last year, I started off hot, had four sacks through the first two games, had a lot of buzz. I had a chance to raise my draft stock with combines and meetings, but there’s no combines this year. I said I’m going to go back to school, put it all together and I’m going to shoot up those draft boards.”

Besides being from South Florida, the 6-3, 246 pounds Johnson has Miami ties as he is the younger cousin of former Miami defensive end, Ricardo Williams, who played for the Canes from 2011-12. As to his listed weight, Johnson also told Navarro he’s 11 pounds heavier and that’s he focused on playing bigger and faster. That should be music to the ears of Canes’ fans who just witnessed transfer defensive end, Phillips, experience a hulk-like transformation under Strength and Conditioning Coach David Feeley’s program.

Johnson has gradually progressed during his time at Tennessee as he has started seven or more games the past three years, after starting just two his freshman season. Notably, this past season, Johnson strung together 17 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles, all of which was accomplished against stout SEC competition. Still don’t believe the hype of defensive end transfers to the U? See the embedded video for more evidence where he proved to not only be a pass rush specialist, but also a tenacious run stopper - a woe that haunted Miami in 2020.

DE2: Jahfari Harvey

Going into the 2020 season, and prior to Rousseau’s opt out, Harvey was expected to be the second guy off the bench behind the stout trio. However, with Rousseau’s opt out, Harvey was then to be relied upon as the next man up. The Redshirt Freshman delivered as he appeared in eight games where he gathered 16 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, and 1 forced fumble.

In the Cheez-It Bowl, Harvey led the Canes defensive end cohort with 64 snaps, in which he gathered 3 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and the lone sack and forced fumble from his 2020 campaign. As to the player, the 6-4, 245-pound Harvey fits the script. He has explosiveness with athleticism to match, which makes for a very twitchy pass rusher.

A starting tandem of Johnson and Harvey should be more than serviceable in causing disruption in the backfield for opposing QBs.

DE3: Chantz Williams

Chantz was assimilated into the 2020 fold very slowly as a true freshman as he played just four games and tallied 4 total tackles in a situational role. However, as far as someone who can make a meteoric leap in 2021 to assist with the frontline facelift, Chantz could be as suitable as anyone.

The 6-4, 255-pound has put in work in the weight room as he was listed at 214-pound in February 2019 at the Opening Regional in Orlando. Not only is his frame ideal for an EDGE pass rusher, but his measurables are off the chart as he registered high school bests of 4.56-seconds in the 40-yard dash, short shuttle in 4.49-seconds, and the vertical jump at 35.9 inches. Also, his wingspan measured at 6-feet-8, a key trait for an EDGE defender.

As is evident from the above highlight tape, Williams boasts his prowess most off of the EDGE and shows a tenacious pursuit in pass rush. That strong ability to get to the QB through a lethal combination of quickness and speed will be highlighted at the college level, especially against spread offenses. He exhibits a good field awareness to flank out to the flats when needed and is relentless in getting after QBs/RBs with his long frame. As he gets bigger at the college level, he will continue to be even more electric and disruptive as a downright problem for opposing offenses, and could be the next big thing on a team that just had huge breakouts from Phillips and Rousseau in the past two seasons.

DE4: Cameron Williams

After taking a medical redshirt in 2019, Cameron WIlliams was also utilized as a situational defensive end where he saw action in ten games. However, he saved his best for last in the Cheez-It Bowl on his way to a career high 4 tackles, and one tackle for loss - a game where he saw 50 snaps.

Cameron also has the prototypical frame to cause problems as a pass rusher. It will be interesting to see how Diaz employs the depth, and it will hopefully be clarified who stands out as spring practices and the offseason progresses.

DE5: Zach McCloud

I threw this in because the Canes experimented with McCloud at defensive end in the Cheez-It Bowl where he played 47 snaps at the position that game. However, I anticipate McCloud remains in the mix as a linebacker, and is only used on the line during blitz packages, an occasional rotational role, or if any of the four players above miss time.

Depth:

Overall, there is some depth after this, but the group has had limited experience to date. Sophomore Quentin Williams and Elijah Roberts saw limited action during their freshmen campaigns and incoming Freshmen, Jabari Ishmael and Thomas Davis, will likely handle low leverage roles or redshirt. Davis, who is built like a Linebacker, is one to monitor as he could in the mix in a relatively weak linebacking room.

Conclusion

As Miami experiences a tripartite departure of three key pieces, Diaz is left with the most uncertainty at a position that has a long lineage of pass rushers. Regardless, there is plenty of talent, some of which has already been assimilated into big game action at this year’s Cheez-It Bowl. And even though the potential is there, Diaz and the pass-rushing cohort needs to rise to the occasion as they have some of the biggest shoes to fill as far as one year turnover goes. With that being said, the pass rush game could still be stout if they put in the work this offseason.