clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Miami Hurricanes 2021 Position Preview: Defensive Ends

New, 6 comments

The Canes Pass Rush Adds Zach McCloud (Transitioning from LB) and Deandre Johnson (Transfer Portal) After the Departure of Phillips, Rousseau, and Roche. But How Does the Unit Look as a Whole?

Even though the Linebacker and Cornerback situation have seemed like more precarious units on the Miami Hurricanes’ defense this offseason, the area that has experienced the most notable turnover is the Defensive End position. And even though Miami’s roster as a whole returns nearly everyone from 2020, they lose serious contributors in the pass rush area.

Most notably, Miami had three key defensive ends drafted this past April. The turnover and steady presence of top tier pass rushers has been even more pronounced since HC, Manny Diaz, joined the Canes’ staff.

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 became 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 good enough 2020 campaigns to get drafted in April.

The million dollar question after five straight years of decent NFL placement is: Who will step it up in 2021? The opportunity is there for the taking.

Snapshot of Roster and Personnel:

Key Returnees: Zach McCloud, Jahfari Harvey, Chantz Williams, Cameron Williams, Quentin Williams

Newcomers: Deandre Johnson (Transfer), Thomas Davis, Jabari Ishmael, Elijah Roberts

Key Departures: Jaelan Phillips (NFL - 18th Overall Pick), Gregory Rousseau (NFL - 30th Overall Pick), Quincy Roche (NFL - Sixth Round Pick)

Coaching Additions: Jess Simpson (DL Coach); Ishmael Aristide (OLB Coach)

Other Coaching Changes: Todd Stroud (DL Coach to Advisory Role); Bob Shoop (Defensive Quality Control Coach); Blake Baker (DC left for LSU); Manny Diaz (Announced to Call Defensive Plays)

Factors Surrounding the Defensive Ends and Departures:

Even though Miami returns a slew of talent at defensive end, one big factor the Canes will need to adjust to generally is changes in the coaching staff, especially across the defense.

Namely, Miami’s defensive line coach for the last two years, Todd Stroud, has been moved into an advisory role, while former Miami defensive line coach, Jess Simpson, returns after two seasons as a DL coach for the Atlanta Falcons. Last year’s defensive coordinator, Blake Baker, opted to leave the U for an opportunity to join LSU as LBs coach. Baker’s decision came on the heels of his quasi-demotion where the program announced HC, Manny Diaz, would take over the in-game defensive play-calling duties, a role Baker patrolled in 2020. Other moves affecting Miami’s defensive presence include the hiring of Bob Shoop as Defensive Quality Control Coach and Ishmael Aristide as OLB Coach.

Similar to the last couple years with long defensive ends like Phillips and Rousseau, Simpson recently emphasized that he and Diaz’s philosophy is to get guys who play “vertical, athletic, three-technique bodies to play inside...and I’m looking for length and speed on the edges, guys that are strong enough to set edges, but guys that are athletic enough to win and bend on edges.” He added that he wants guys to “play with great fundamentals,” which is similar to Roche.

Hurricanes’ fans were able to get a preview of the projected 2021 Defensive End unit in the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl. That is, the Phillips-Rousseau-Roche trio that was drafted in April had opted out by then. In that game, the Canes utilized Jahfari Harvey, Cameron Williams, Zach McCloud (who transitioned from LB), and Patrick Joyner Jr. (who has transferred to Utah State). The fill-in trio of Harvey, Williams, and McCloud combined for 9 tackles, 1 sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss in the Cheez-It Bowl. For reference, the duo 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. In particular, the above grouping was generally used in rotational roles behind the star defensive ends during the 2020 season, and the substities 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 to grow where they are well aware that they will be the individuals relied upon to succeed one of the most elite groups in college football.

Regardless, the Canes will indubitably feel the simultaneous departure of Rousseau (54 tackles, 19.5 for loss, and 15.5 sacks in 2019), Phillips (45 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 8.0 sacks, and 1 INT in 2020), and Roche (45 tackles, 14.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks).

Along with McCloud moving from LB to the DE position, Miami adds Tennessee’s Deandre Johnson through the NCAA Transfer Portal to diffuse the affects of losing key components.

Meet the 2020 DE Class:

Key Returnees:

Zach McCloud: (2020 Stats - 27 Tackles, 2.0 Tackles for Loss, 2.0 Sacks, 1 PD, 1 FR, 1 FF) The most senior returnee at DE, McCloud, enters his sixth season with Miami, but it will be his first season entering as DE. As mentioned above, he transitions from LB to DE. McCloud has played 52 and started 40 games so far in his Miami tenure.

The experiment of 6-2, 235-pound McCloud at DE was first deployed in the Cheez-It Bowl where he played 47 snaps at the position. While I initially anticipated McCloud would still be in the mix at linebacker and only occasionally used during blitz packages/rotational role on the line, it sounds like the Canes’ staff is full speed ahead with McCloud lining up with his hand in the dirt.

“In each practice … he’s just connecting the dots as a defensive end,” defensive line coach Jess Simpson said. “I really think it suits his skill set.”

“Zach has exceeded my expectations,” coach Diaz added. “Not that I didn’t think he would do well there. I didn’t think he would look so natural, so soon.”

Jahfari Harvey: (2020 Stats - 8 Games Played, 16 Tackles, 4.5 Tackles for Loss, 1.0 Sack, 1 FF) 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.

Initially after Rousseau, Phillips, and Roche’s departures, Harvey was expected to be a starter. However, McCloud’s transition and addition of Johnson now lead to Harvey being in a similar role to 2020 as the first guy off the bench. This grouping should be more than serviceable in causing disruption in the backfield for opposing QBs.

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 his physical traits, the 6-4, 245-pound Harvey fits the script. He has explosiveness with athleticism to match, which makes for a very twitchy pass rusher.

Chantz Williams: (2020 Stats - 4 Games Played, 4 Tackles) 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.

Cameron Williams: (2020 Stats - 4 Games Played, 7 Tackles, 1.5 Tackles for Loss, 1 PD) 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 the offseason progresses.

Quentin Williams: (2020 Stats - 2 Games Played, 3 Tackles, 0.5 Tackles for Loss) The third Williams has experience at both defensive tackle and defensive. Entering his second year, Quentin was a three-star prospect out of high school and will be a developmental project.

Elijah Roberts: (2020 Stats - 2 Games Played, 4 Tackles) Hailing from Christopher Columbus High, Roberts shows immense promise as a four-star prospect. However, similar to Quentin, he may develop as a defensive tackle under Jess Simpson.

Additions:

Deandre Johnson (Tennessee): (2020 Stats - 8 Games Played, 28 Tackles, 6.0 Tackles for Loss, 4.5 Sacks, 2 FF) 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 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.

Thomas Davis: Davis, who is built like a Linebacker, is one to monitor as he could in the mix in the relatively weak linebacking room. However, according to Andrew Ivins of 247Sports, he has an explosive first step that makes him a dangerous pass rusher. Thus, he is most likely to carve out a role at DE, but may be limited to low leverage roles in 2021.

Jabari Ishmael: Jabari is an an effective edge rusher out of Columbus High School in Miami. He chose Miami over Florida and other SEC schools. Listed at 6-5, 210-pounds, Ishmael has the chance to develop into a lengthy edge rusher similar to Phillips and Rousseau. Even though he should already feel right at home in Miami, Jabari’s father, Victor, has ties to the U as he is a longtime assistant strength coach with the Canes’ Athletic Department.

Predictions:

Depth Chart:
DE1: McCloud, Chantz Williams, Quentin Williams
DE2: Johnson, Harvey, Cameron Williams

Projected Stats:

McCloud: 50 Tackles, 10 TFL, 6.0 Sacks
Johnson: 45 Tackles, 8 TFL, 6.0 Sacks
Harvey: 25 Tackles, 8 TFL, 6.0 Sacks
Chantz Williams: 30 Tackles, 6 TFL, 4.0 Sacks
Cameron Williams: 25 Tackles, 5 TFL, 3.0 Sacks
Q. Williams: 10 Tackles
Roberts: 4 Games Played
Davis: Redshirt
Ishmael: Redshirt

Conclusion

After the departure of two starters from last year, Phillips and Roche, it will be two newcomers taking over the starting duties (McCloud, transition from linebacker and Johnson, transfer). For depth, their is very limited experience. Harvey, Chantz, and Cameron Williams all fit in with Simpson and Diaz’s theory of long pass rushers and could take the next step.

Regardless, 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 need to rise to the occasion as they have some of the biggest shoes to fill as far as year-over-year turnover goes. With that being said, the pass rush game could still be stout if they put in the work this offseason.

The biggest questions that address the above these last couple months of the offseason: Will Jahfari Harvey continue his ascension? Will veteran LB, Zach McCloud, thrive in his 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?

Go Canes.