2017 Season Preview: Defense – Personnel 

Gerald Willis (91) celebrates with Trent Harris & Demetrius Jackson following a TFL at GT. All photos by Todd Forrest

(This entry was posted before Gerald Willis announced his leave of absence.)

The Miami Hurricanes defense grew up in front of our eyes in 2016.

The first four games proved they were legit; Florida State in prime time proved they were going to be special.

Anchored by three true freshmen linebackers, the Canes D made up for two early Brad Kaaya picks with a smothering game two performance vs Florida Atlantic that was highlighted by 13 tackles for loss.

A week later Manny Diaz’s young defense was unfazed by a hostile environment in Boone, NC as Miami routed Appalachian State 45-10.

Following an always-welcome bye week prior to a trip to Georgia Tech, Miami used back-to-back defensive scores by freshmen Shaquille Quarterman and Joe Jackson to open up an early 28-7 advantage. Later, the Yellow Jacket’s comeback bid was thwarted by another freshman when Michael Pinckney snagged Justin Thomas’ desperation heave to preserve a 35-21 victory.

Playing the role of home favorites, the defense throttled Seminole QB Deondre Francois, forcing backup Sean McGuire into the game, who was also knocked silly by a relentless pass rush. With Miami in complete control early in the second half, the momentum shifted in favor of the Garnet and Gold when junior QB Brad Kaaya’s underthrown pass into the endzone fell right into the bread basket of a FSU DB. Prior to the pick, Kaaya had the offense on the move, moments away from putting a 20-3 stranglehold on the visiting Noles. With the field goal in his back pocket – that could have opened up a 16-3 advantage – Kaaya’s toss fell 3 yards short, when a 3-yard overthrow would have likely resulted in a W.

We all remember that dubious fourth quarter. A phantom hold on Mark Walton’s highlight reel TD run, a bogus targeting call, a fourth down scoring strike to Stacey Coley, a blocked PAT, the decision NOT to onside kick, then a bootleg by Francois to make it seven-straight.

Three more losses followed as injuries plagued both Miami front lines. Kaaya’s statuesque presence in the pocket proved a liability while a battered D-line was unable to answer with any semblance of a pass rush.

With a 4-4 record, the offense put on a show at Hard Rock Stadium during a ship-righting victory over Pitt. The defense began to heal and a trip to Charlottesville, Va to face the struggling Cavaliers was the perfect elixir for a team on the mend. Despite falling behind off an early turnover, the D began to show the same tenacity that had Miami fans salivating early in the season. A 34-14 ACC road win – the first victory away from Hard Rock since Georgia Tech on Oct. 1st.

A visit to Raleigh to face an NC State defense among the best in the conference would be Richt’s toughest test since Florida State. When the dust settled at Carter-Finley Stadium, it was the Miami defense and Mark Walton that were grabbing the headlines in a 27-13 victory.

Beating Duke on Senior Day was pretty much a given, although the Blue Devils drove up and down the field during the first quarter. Adjustments were made and the Canes were able to take a slim lead into the intermission. That lead would grow throughout the third the outcome was never in doubt once the fourth quarter got underway.

The Russell Athletic Bowl would be Miami’s first ESPN night game since the Thursday loss in Blacksburg, and leading up to the showdown with former Big East foe West Virginia, the talk centered around The U’s bowl game losing streak, along with speculation regarding Kaaya and David Njoku’s draft status. In the shadows, the Miami defense quietly prepared for the highly touted Mountaineer offense, awaiting their shot to prove the old adage about good defense beating good offense.

But did Miami even deserve to be in this game? Many WVU fans felt disrespected when it was announced the 16th ranked Mountaineers would face an unranked Hurricanes squad. Meanwhile, Diaz and company were preparing to put on a defensive display that would shock even the most die hard UM homers.

On the first series of the game, the Canes recovered a WVU fumble and handed the ball to an offense that was late to the show. No first downs and rushing yards in the negative, Kaaya and the O-line played its lousiest 20 minutes football right out of the gates.

The defense, however, played as well as they could, considering they were on the field for what seemed like the entire first quarter until a short-field led to a WVU TD.

The offense would finally breakthrough thanks to Ahmmon Richards and the defense continued to stifle one of the top offenses in the nation to the tune of 229 total yards – nearly 300 yards below its season average.

That overwhelming performance in a 31-14 victory vs WVU, combined with four wins to end the regular season, plus the return of the entire front-seven for year two under Diaz, Kuligowski and company have raised expectations to a level that The U hasn’t witnessed since Randy Shannon was the defensive coordinator. Miami’s D-line is ranked fourth in Phil Steele’s positional units, while the linebackers came in seventh. Only FSU and Alabama had both DL and LB units ranked among the top seven.

The one question mark will be a secondary that must replace four seniors that played a major role in the successes of 2016. How quickly the secondary gels this season will depend heavily upon a grad-transfer, a JUCO signee, and a position change.

So without further adieu, here is a positional breakdown of the 2017 University of Miami defense.

Defensive Tackle: returning starters – RJ McIntosh (Jr), Kendrick Norton (Jr); others to watch – Gerald Willis (Jr), Patrick Bethel (So), Anthony Moten (Sr), Ryan Fines (So), Tyreic Martin (R-Fr), Jonathan Ford (Fr); losses – Courtel Jenkins (dismissed/transfer)

With the 315-lb Norton playing the role of the prototypical two-gap, run stuffing nose tackle, the leaner, quicker McIntosh as the one-gap penetrator, and Willis as a hybrid of the two, Miami’s defensive tackles are as skilled as they are deep.

As sophomores Norton and McIntosh combined for 19.5 TFL (4.5 sacks) in 2016 while Willis added 5.5 TFL (1.5 sacks) in first season in South Florida after transferring from that school up in Gainesville.

Bethel, a converted DE is in the process of bulking up after arriving in Coral Gables as a 250-lb strongside defensive end. Back in the spring Bethel was already listed at 272-lbs and his experience as a strongside DE should help ease the transition to the interior. And let’s not forget, he’s under the tutelage of the best DL coach in college football.

Rounding out the DT position is Moten, a 315-lb senior and 300-lb sophomore Fines, who both saw significant action last year at Virginia Tech due to injuries. Martin was undersized when he stepped on campus and as a result, drew a redshirt in 2016. Rounding out the position is Miami’s lone DT commit Jonathan Ford, who was listed at 6-5, 275, but some reports have him up to 6-7, 300. However, as of this writing, Ford has yet to arrive on campus.

Defensive End: returning starters – Chad Thomas (Sr), Trent Harris (Sr); others to watch – Joe Jackson (So), Demetrius Jackson (Jr), Scott Patchan (So), Jonathan Garvin (Fr), DJ Johnson (Fr); losses – NONE

Outside of South Florida, Miami’s sack leader in 2016 was a relative unknown at the start of the season. But that all changed when Jackson burst onto the scene with his scoop-and-score at Georgia Tech. From there, he continued his stellar play before capping off his freshman campaign with a sack in the Russell Athletic Bowl – giving him 8.5 on the year. Bigger, stronger and faster in 2017, look for double-digit sack totals in year two for Jackson.

Thomas (37 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks in 2016) was a 5-star phenom out of high school, and while solid during his three seasons at The U, he has yet to live up to all five stars. Almost a guarantee to be drafted, 2017 will provide one last opportunity to move into day one of the draft. Although, if the football thing doesn’t workout, Thomas has his career in the music industry (along with a degree from the University of Miami) to fall back on.

A converted linebacker, the reliable Harris has been nicknamed “Toolbox Trent” due to his work ethic and the plethora of skills in his arsenal. Harris finished 2016 with 25 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries and 2 PBUs. He also recovered a fumble and forced a fumble at GT that led to a Shaq Quarterman scoop-and-score.

Demetrius Jackson was the front-seven’s leader in pass breakups with 4 to go with 3.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. He’s also been vocal this offseason regarding the improvement he and his DL mates have undergone thanks to Coach Kool.

Patchan saw limited action in 2016 and while not many non-Miami football fans have heard of the second generation Hurricane, you can be certain Francois up in Tallahassee is well aware of No. 19. Returning from an ACL injury, Patchan entered during the first half and popped Francois during the game that has been painfully dubbed, “The Block at the Rock.” That same game he reinjured his right knee and would miss the remainder of the season.

Meanwhile, Garvin and Johnson are two freshman to watch this season. An early enrollee, Garvin impressed during the spring, and Johnson, while not arriving until the summer, is the more highly touted of the two, receiving more Power 5 scholarship offers than anyone in the nation. With plenty of depth at DE, how much of an immediate impact they’ll make remains in question, but as for the future of the Canes’ D-Line: the sky’s the limit.

Mike (Middle) Linebacker: returning starter – Shaquille Quarterman (So); others to watch – Mike Smith (Jr), Terry McCray (Jr), Bradley Jennings (Fr); losses – NONE

Quarterman, Miami’s top returning tackler with 84 is back for year two after being thrust into a starting job when LBs Jermaine Grace and Juwon Young left the program following their suspension for rules violations.

While you hate to see anyone kicked off the team, the dismissal of Grace and Young turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Quarterman went on to be named a Captain as a true freshman, then picked up freshman All American honors. Quarterman has the potential to be the next great Miami MLB, following in the footsteps of Vilma, Morgan, Lewis, Barrow, etc.

Smith was used primarily as Quarterman’s backup in 2016, tallying 11 tackles and 1 interception. However, the improvement of “Rasta Mike” during the spring has drawn praise from Diaz, but Smith also made news recently when he changed his number to 35 and saw his position altered to “LB/FB” on the official Miami website.

If Smith does make the switch to offense, McCray, who saw limited action in 2016, or even Jennings could crack the two-deep. OLBs Jamie Gordinier and Darrion Owens could also see action at MLB. Jennings was an early enrollee, but barring an injury, will likely be limited to special teams in 2017.

Sam Linebacker: returning starter – Zach McCloud (So); others to watch – CJ Perry (Jr), De’Andre Wilder (Fr); losses – NONE

McCloud might have the greatest NFL potential of the three sophomore linebackers despite finishing third among Miami LBs in tackles (37) and TFL (3.5). He started 11 games in 2016 but took the longest to adjust to the college game before coming on strong late in the season, when he began to show flashes of the greatness that is to come.

In the spring, Diaz praised McCloud’s work ethic, professionalism and demeanor. Something else that has drawn praise, is the depth of Miami’s linebacker corps. While the 2016 unit featured legitimate depth, the 2017 edition features depth, plus experience.

Backing up McCloud is his former Palm Beach County rival, CJ Perry. Perry (12 tackles in 2016) filled in nicely for McCloud during the second half at Georgia Tech last October and will remain a solid reserve for McCloud in 2017.

Wilder was a 4-star OLB from Miami’s Carol City High School and has drawn comparisons to McCloud. He has the speed and aggressiveness to make an early impact on special teams but is still a bit undersized to be a significant contributor at LB.

Will Linebacker: returning starter – Michael Pinckney; others to watch – Darrion Owens, Jamie Gordinier; losses – NONE

Pinckney, McCloud and Quarterman have drawn comparisons to the early 90s Miami LB trio of Barrow, Darrin Smith and Jessie Armstead. While the original trio (aka “Bermuda Triangle”) didn’t start as freshman, they did contribute to Miami’s 1989 National Championship.

The current LB trio recently received the moniker of Bermuda Triangle 2.0, and if Quarterman is known as the captain of the defense, Pinckney could be called the “vocal leader” of the Miami D.

Never afraid to voice his opinion and motivate his teammates, No. 56 backed up his talk on the field as a true freshman, totaling 61 tackles – second most among returning players – 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and an interception.

Finally playing at 100%, Owens, a likely starter on half the teams in the ACC, was Miami’s most versatile linebacker, seeing action at all three positions last season and recording 17 tackles and 2 TFL while recovering from an injury. Gordinier was thrown into the mix early last year but suffered a season ending injury before we were able to get a good look at his potential. Both Owens and Gordinier provide Diaz with a viable option to spell any one of the starting LBs.

Cornerback: returning starters – NONE; others to watch – Malek Young (So), Dee Delaney (Sr), Jhavonte Dean (Jr), Michael Jackson (Jr), Trajan Bandy (Fr); losses – Corn Elder, Adrian Colbert

Cornerback will be one of the thinnest units on the defensive side of the ball, but that doesn’t equal a lack of talent at the position. Young started four games as a true freshman in 2016 and appeared to separate himself as a starter in the spring. Delaney, an FCS grad-transfer, was an All American at The Citadel and passed up the NFL for a shot at improving his draft stock at the school they call “NFLU.”

Dean was a JUCO signee and possesses all of the tools to be a great CB for the Hurricanes. Standing 6-2 and running a 4.3 forty, Dean chose Miami after decommitting from Alabama and is expected to make an immediate impact in Coral Gables.

Jackson is the elder statesman at the cornerback position, recording 5 tackles in 13 games in 2016 and 7 tackles in 12 games in 2012. Bandy (5-9, 180) is another local product and was Rivals’ 10th rated CB out of high school. A bit undersized, Bandy would have been a 5-star talent if he were taller, some analysts have said. Bandy could easily see the field this year in nickel or dime packages.

Free Safety: returning starter – NONE; others to watch – Sheldrick Redwine (Jr), Romeo Finley (So); losses – Rayshawn Jenkins, Jeff James Jr (transfer)

For the better part of four years, Jenkins (76 tackles, 2 INTs in 2016) was responsible for patrolling the defense’s deep middle. Now a member of the Los Angeles Chargers, the Canes will be looking to replace him with a converted cornerback. This offseason saw Redwine move from corner to safety after making 28 tackles and breaking up 2 passes in five starts last season. At 6-1, 195, Redwine was always an oversized, hard hitting cornerback that didn’t quite have the speed to be an elite corner, but enough to excel at safety – the position he played in high school. With an entire spring under his belt, coaches have praised his transition, and willingness to play wherever he is needed with no questions asked.

Finley appeared in 12 games last year but his impact on defense was minimal (12 tackles) but 2017 should see an increase in reps for the Fort Walton Beach native.

Strong Safety: returning starter – NONE; others to watch – Jaquan Johnson (Jr), Amari Carter (Fr), Robert Knowles (So); losses – Jamal Carter, Cedric Wright (transfer)

Jamal Carter was the Canes’ leading tackler in 2016 but stepping in to replace him will be Jaquan Johnson, the most experienced safety on the roster. Following a freshman campaign that saw him start five games and record 38 stops, Johnson saw action in all 13 games last season, tallying 26 tackles and a pick. Entering 2017, the starting job is all his.

There is virtually no experience behind Johnson in Knowles and freshman Amari Carter. Knowles made 6 tackles in 11 games last year while Amari Carter was an early enrollee, taking part in spring practice. Not one to shy away from contact, Carter should see the field as a freshman and will crack the two-deep sooner, rather than later.

Up next I’ll preview the offense but that could be a few days away. Over the next few days I’ll be writing for my day job and covering the sports that pay my bills. If all goes as planned, I hope to begin writing the offensive previews on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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