College Miami Hurricanes

UM Notebook: Refreshed After Break, UM Defense Ready For Orange Bowl

One could make the case that the Miami Hurricanes had to “burn the candle at both ends” the past couple of months.

After Hurricane Irma wiped away Miami’s away game at Arkansas State (Sept. 9) and moved its game with rival Florida State from its original date (Sept. 16) to October 7, UM went on to play 11 games in 11 weeks.

While the Canes held up well enough to string nine consecutive victories together – they succumbed to the physical and mental attrition, stumbling in the final two weeks with a disappointing loss at Pittsburgh in the regular season finale followed by a 35-point drubbing at the hands Clemson in the ACC Championship game.

After falling in the ACC title game on December 2, Miami all but knew its fate would be an invite to the Capital One Orange Bowl.

With that came a much-needed 28-day layoff, giving the weary No. 10 ranked Canes a chance to recuperate physically and refresh mentally before taking on No. 6 Wisconsin Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.

Taking A Break

While Miami was enjoying its winning streak earlier this season, a deeper look at those games showed that the Canes were in a handful of intense battles surely taxed its frontline players.

Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the pre-bowl game respite was just what the doctor ordered for the Hurricanes.

“Well, I know it helped us physically for sure because we were sort of limping to the finish line at the end of the year,” Diaz told reporters Wednesday.

“Just the way our year went with Irma and losing the bye and then playing, there’s no doubt that we paid the price for not putting teams away in October, so the fact that every week was an emotional game that came down to the end, very physical game, I think that took something out of us as we came down the stretch.”

“Just to be able to get away for a little bit…finally have that ability to take a breath meant a lot. Even this past weekend, Coach [Mark] Richt gave them a weekend to be home with their family. When they came back, you could see a different spring in their step yesterday at practice from what it was last week,” Diaz said.

UM (10-2) had a three-week stretch (Oct. 14-Oct. 28) where it had to either rally back from a deficit or narrowly hold off an opponent’s comeback attempt – winning those three games (against Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina) by a combined 14 points.

Miami’s depth was tested, too.

The injury bug had already chomped down on the team early in the year with the loss of junior running back Mark Walton, who has declared for the 2018 NFL Draft, but UM also ended up losing defensive lineman Demetrius Jackson, linebacker Charles Perry, senior tight end Christopher Herndon and sophomore receiver Ahmmon Richards.

Freshman athlete DeeJay Dallas ended up being moved to running back full time, freshman cornerback Trajan Bandy saw his role increased as did freshman defensive lineman Jonathan Garvin and receivers Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley.

Sophomore linebacker Shaquille Quarterman said not having the bye week took its toll on Miami.

“Playing this game with a bye week is still strenuous, just having one week off, but we played, I think, 11 straight games,” Quarterman said “And you’re playing against some of the top competition in the country, so of course it wears on the body. It wears on everybody on the team, and it got to the point where we had a lot of young guys playing, and that’s just how football works. I think the layoff was definitely needed.”

Preparing For The Test

An added benefit from the long layoff is the added preparation time.

Instead of the typical four or five days coaches have to prepare for the next opponent, Richt and staff will have essentially three weeks to break down and get ready for the 12-1 Badgers.

Diaz, who was snubbed in not even being named a finalist for the Broyles Award – given to college football’s top assistant coach – can focus all his attention on stopping Wisconsin’s top 20 rushing attack (229 yards per game) and top 20 scoring offense (37.2 points per game).

Diaz said the extra prep time should lead to a solid defensive performance.

“This is our last opportunity for this group to play together and to go out and have a great performance and to play for one another and kind of show everybody what this version of the Miami defense is all about,” Diaz said.

Diaz stayed diplomatic in his response, but players have seen same – if not more – fire from their defensive leader through practice this month.

“He’s got a short tolerance for us making mistakes because he’s given us all the answers to the test,” defensive end Trent Harris said. “He’s studied it way more than us. We feel like we study it a lot, but it’s not compared to how our coaches study. He’s just telling us what we need to look for, telling us everything we need to do, so we just go out there on the field and do it.”

One could draw parallels between Wisconsin’s big, powerful offense to that of Notre Dame’s. When the Fighting Irish came to Hard Rock Stadium, it was completely stonewalled by an emotionally charged up and prepared Miami defense.

Diaz can nitpick the Badgers’ offense – finding ways to add to UM’s 105 tackles for loss this season.

Junior defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said the Canes defense already feels it knows Wisconsin’s weaknesses.

“It’s scary. We know their weaknesses. We know things that we have to do, be better at,” McIntosh said.

“We’re fresh right now, so it’s going to be scary.”

Jaquan Johnson Staying

Inevitably, this is the time of year that speculation surrounds draft-eligible players (those three or more years removed from their high school graduation).

The new trend is for players that know that they will be leaving school to sit out their college team’s bowl game.

But Miami junior safety Jaquan Johnson took all the guesswork out of it.

The Miami Killian alum and the Hurricanes’ leading tackler this season confirmed that he will be returning to school for his senior season.

“I could sort of sense it in people’s voice that they wanted me to just leave, but you know, I make my own decisions,” Johnson said Wednesday. “My dad taught me that. My mom taught me that. And they tell me, make my decisions and live with it. I knew I would do four years, assuming I came to Miami, and that was the plan. I want to get my degree and play for a National Championship.”

Johnson was a second-team All-ACC performer this season, totaling 85 tackles, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

“Jaquan loves Miami. I think he loves our program, and he loves where it’s going and wants to be a part of it,” Diaz said.

J.T. Wilcox
J.T. Wilcox is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked in South Florida for more than a decade. He authors "The Bald Predictions" blog and "The Baldcast" podcast.

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