Manny Diaz at GT. Photo/Todd Forrest
July is upon us, the final month of the year we’re forced to do without our favorite sport.
The preseason magazines have hit the newsstands and the anticipation for 2017 rises with each passing day. Especially in South Florida where Head Coach Mark Richt prepares for season two at his Alma mater.
As for my preseason coverage, I’ll begin with the up-and-coming Miami defense. Originally I was going to begin my preview with a paragraph or two on Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers Coach Manny Diaz, but as you can see, the Diaz segment took on a life of its own. So I’ll kickoff my 2017 preview with the man who brought respectability back to the defensive side of the ball in Coral Gables.
This is part one. Part two will feature the players that helped turn their defensive coordinator into Dade County’s second most popular Manny Diaz, right behind his father, Manny Diaz Sr, the mayor of Miami from 2001 – 2009.
Welcome Home Mark and Manny
For the first time in more than a decade, the University of Miami fielded a defense that resembled a University of Miami defense.
Richt and Diaz brought with them the attacking style of play that fans fell in love with while Jerome Brown was bullying quarterbacks, Ray Lewis was punishing ball carriers, and Ed Reed was injecting words like “ballhawk” and “pick-6” into our autumn vernacular.
There was finally some truth to the phrase “flying around” instead of the meaningless coach-speak that the term had come to signify under the previous staff. In 2015, the Canes defense surrendered 5.3 yards per carry — the worst in 20 years — and although there was a new sheriff in town for 2016, fans were skeptical of Diaz early on. Then the doubters only seemed to multiply when returning starters Al-Quadin Muhammad and Jermaine Grace were dismissed from the team.
Success Begins at the Top
Much of the criticism directed at Diaz was due to mixed results at his previous two gigs – Texas and Mississippi State. Upon taking a closer look, however, much of the blame was misplaced. While at Texas, Diaz suffered through the final years of the Mack Brown era where the talent level was on the decline ever since Vince Young’s 2005 National Championship season.
From 2001 – 2007, Texas produced 12 first round draft picks. From 2008 – 2014 only three Longhorns went in the first round.
If you look at defensive players drafted during Diaz’s three years in Austin: that number is five. During the three years prior to Diaz, the Texas defense produced 11 draft picks – including two first-rounders, Brian Orakpo and Earl Thomas.
At Mississippi State, Diaz’s defensive units were guilty of giving up large chunks of yardage on the ground, and the Cane message boards were abuzz that Miami was in for more of the same. “From Coach ‘(D)’Nofrio’ to Coach ‘(D)iaz.’ We hired another Coach ‘No D,'” they feared.
Yet, upon further review, the MSU offense deserves some of the criticism for the defense’s struggles. In 2015, he Bulldogs ranked near the bottom nationally in time of possession (123 of 128 to be exact), and when you’re lining up against Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette, along with run-heavy teams like Arkansas (34th in rushing) and Auburn (35th in rushing), a winded defense is not a recipe for stopping the run . Yet when you look at tackles-for-loss, Mississippi State was 13th nationally while current Miami Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski’s Missouri Tigers’ ranked sixth.
I realize it’s taken me a while to mention Coach Kool, but he’s earned as much credit as Diaz for the turnaround with the Hurricane defense. The D-line is as deep as it’s been in recent history while finally getting unleashed to wreak havoc in the backfield — instead of being taught to slap fight with the offensive line. Thank you for taking care of that, Coach Kuligowski.
Rounding out the defensive staff is Cornerbacks Coach Mike Rumph and Safeties Coach Ephraim Banda, who have both proved their worth on the recruiting trail, as well. Although, they’ll be tested this year as the secondary in the process of replacing four senior starters.
Rumph, a starter on the 2001 National Championship team is a proven winner. While in Coral Gables he shared a defensive backfield with Al Blades, Ed Reed and Sean Taylor. Is there a better recipe for achieving greatness at The U than that?
As for Banda, his story is an inspirational one that goes from bartending in San Antonio to pay for college to coaching at The University of Miami. No one has ever been able to question Banda’s heart or work ethic and there is no doubt he will give everything he has to Richt, Diaz, and The U.
Prognosis: The defense is in very capable hands and Richt and the BOT should do everything in their power to keep Diaz from taking a head coaching job elsewhere or prevent Kool from departing for the NFL.
What a Difference a Year (and a coach) Makes
Here is a look at the improvements in the Miami defense from 2015 to 2016 whe replacing 8 starters. (No, these are not typos)
Total Defense: From 69th in 2015 to 20th in 2016.
Yards Per Play: 86th to 9th
Scoring: 77th to 12th
Tackles For Loss: 105th to 8th
Sacks: 70th to 22nd
Completion Percentage Allowed: 59.9% in 2015 to 58.7% in 2016.
Just in case you were curious about Mississippi State without Diaz. Here’s how much the Bulldogs regressed in 2016.
Scoring Defense: 23.2 in 2015 to 31.8 in 2016.
Yards Per Carry: 4.3 to 4.8
Completion Percentage Allowed: 60.6% to 61.7%
Sacks: 30 to 25
Yards Per Play: 5.3 to 6.2
Oh, and by the way, if there are any MSU fans that want to mention how they lost 6 starters between 2015 and 2016, please remember this: Diaz took over a defense that lost 8 starters in 2015.
That concludes this look at Coach Diaz and the defensive brain trusts at the University of Miami. Next, we’ll focus on the guys that will be responsible for making their coaches look like geniuses. And so far, they’ve done a fine job. Let’s hope it stays that way and Hard Rock Stadium remains banner-free from now until Judgement Day.
Have a happy Independence Day and happy birthday, America!