Manny Diaz has lofty standards for the Miami Hurricanes pass rush and, before Miami took the field for its annual spring game Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, the coach wanted to make sure his edge rushers knew it.
While the Hurricanes prepared to hold their final spring practice of the year in Miami Gardens, Diaz collected his defensive ends to tell them about the Hurricanes’ recent history. In every season since Diaz took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, Miami has had at least one player with 7 1/2 sacks. Just because the Hurricanes lost both starting ends and 12 1/2 combined sacks, the plan won’t change.
“That’s our expectation,” Diaz said, “and I’m confident because that’s our expectation.”
Miami’s final spring scrimmage presented the first real opportunity to see how the Hurricanes’ efforts at replacing Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche are going, and it yielded mixed results. The front seven accounted for four sacks, all against freshman Jake Garcia, but mostly couldn’t slow down the offense.
Defensive lineman Deandre Johnson and striker Gilbert Frierson, both frontrunners to start in the fall, each got to Garcia once, while reserve defensive linemen Elijah Roberts and Jalar Holley each added a sack, too.
Johnson, who had 4 1/2 sacks last season for the Tennessee Volunteers before transferring to Miami in January, finished with 2 1/2 tackles for loss and his sack yielded a safety. Fellow defensive lineman Jahfari Harvey and Cameron Williams, however, didn’t produce much of a pass rush and Williams left the game with an undisclosed injury, spending most of the second half on the sidelines with crutches tucked beneath his armpits.
The defensive ends remain a question mark with the spring over. After years of the Hurricanes’ defensive line dominating the offense in intrasquad matchups, the balance of power has shifted this year, with Miami bringing back its entire starting offensive line and trying to replace two NFL-bound defensive ends.
“It’s a chip on our shoulder,” Johnson said. “We know that the elephant’s in the room.”
Johnson’s play was encouraging and his sack was the clear defensive bright spot in a game dominated by offense. After punter Lou Hedley pinned the Hurricanes at their own 2-yard line with a perfectly executed coffin corner kick, Johnson beat the left tackle and darted around the edge to reach Garcia for a safety before the quarterback could get a pass off.
Johnson “flashed,” Diaz said, and his performance came after he missed nearly half of the spring season because of COVID-19 protocols. After a slow start to camp, he heads into the summer as the clear frontrunner at his position.
“I had to work back in shape and get my football legs back,” the senior said. “Now I feel great.”
Harvey and Williams will both face important summers, Diaz said, to take the next step going into their redshirt freshman seasons. Fellow freshman defensive lineman Chantz Williams still needs more reps, Diaz said. Zach McCloud, who’s transitioning from linebacker to defensive line, is trustworthy because “with his effort alone, we know he’ll make plays,” Diaz said. Only Johnson, however, has a real track record at defensive end.
When the scheme works according to plan, the position has been a factory.
In Diaz’s system, the top priority is stopping the run, which theoretically sets up obvious passing situations on second or third down, letting the pass rushers tee off on quarterbacks. Miami moved on from Trent Harris, Joe Jackson, Jonathan Garvin and Gregory Rousseau, and each time replaced its top defensive end with another NFL-caliber player.
First, the Hurricanes need to figure out how to stop the run, though. In the regular-season finale last year, Miami gave up a record-setting rushing performance to the North Carolina Tar Heels, prompting Diaz to strip former defensive coordinator Blake Baker of playcalling duties in the offseason.
Miami’s front seven remains littered with uncertainties at the end of the spring. The defensive ends, at least, are a group Diaz still has faith in. He always does.
“We told them today, it’s a similar refrain every year: How are we going to replace Chad Thomas and Trent Harris? How will we replace Joe Jackson? How will we replace Jonathan Garvin?” Diaz said. “Now how will we replace Jaelan and Quincy? It’s what we do here at the University of Miami.”