College Miami Hurricanes

UM Spring Notebook: Canes Defense Also Being Fueled By 2017’s Finish

Just two sessions into spring practice and the Miami Hurricanes are already on the same page.

Like almost all the offensive players said on Tuesday’s opening day, many of UM’s defensive players echoed the same sentiments after Thursday’s practice – losing the final three games of 2017 is fueling their fire this offseason.

Seeing a chance at the team’s first undefeated regular since 2002 fall by the wayside in an embarrassing loss to a non-bowl eligible team; being outclassed in the ACC Championship game, and losing the Orange Bowl on their home turf is really sticking in their craw.

Junior linebacker Zach McCloud said that everything that the team is doing this spring is building towards correcting something that happened in 2017.

“It’s all about mentality…that’s something that we can control,” McCloud said. “That’s why it’s so disappointing to let those kinds of games slip – it’s all about our minds.”

“It’s a painful process…but it’s one that you have to fall in love with. Every rep is for a championship. It strains the mind to think about it like that, but that’s the way it is,” McCloud said.

While it was easy for Hurricanes fans to point to a waning in Miami’s offensive production, the Canes’ defensive performances took a dip at the end of the year as well.

After holding four out of five opponents – Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame – to 19 points or less before its November 24 game at Pittsburgh, UM’s defense then surrendered a total of 96 points over the final three games and failed to manufacture turnovers (just four fumble recovers, no interceptions) the way it had in the previous weeks.

Still, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz put everything into proper perspective.

“The way that last year ended really sets the tone for all of our offseason workouts,” Diaz said Thursday. “Now we see what playing at a championship level is like. What does it take to succeed at the level? How will we be better prepared when we get back to that level? Because you’ve gotta see it to really know what your battling. And our guys have seen it now…they know what it takes to get to another level of college football.”

Senior Leadership

One thing that will help the Hurricanes climb up to esteemed levels of the college football ladder is their number of upperclassmen returners on defense.

Seven starters from this past season are returning for either their junior or senior campaigns in 2018.

Safety Jaquan Johnson, who had his best season statistical season in 2017 and is regarded as one of the top returning defensive players in the country, is the unquestioned leader of the secondary and the defense as a whole.

Senior Sheldrick Redwine, Johnson’s high school teammate, will also patrol the defensive backfield as will fourth-year cornerback Michael Jackson.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Jackson was praised by coaches for his work during the spring of 2017 and he was rewarded for his offseason work this past season with more playing time. He parlayed the consistent playing time into 43 tackles while also tying Johnson for a team-high four interceptions.

Having Johnson elect to stay was a great bonus for Miami, but Jackson’s decision to return showed itself to be a big plus for the Canes once they learned that sophomore Malek Young would no longer be able to play football because of a neck injury.

Jackson said that his decision to come back had a bit to do with Redwine persistently goading him – even in class – and that he wanted to finish his career with the group of players that he came to Coral Gables with as a freshman.

“I wanted to finish what I started with my brothers,” Jackson said.

Even though Jackson represents the most seasoned cornerback in that position room, that doesn’t mean he isn’t being pushed by the other young defensive backs – like sophomore Trajan Bandy and true freshmen early enrollees Gilbert Frierson and DJ Ivey, who have received praise from coaches this spring.

But like a true leader, Jackson said he’s still trying to give his young teammates as much sound advice as he can.

Depth And Competition

Miami’s upperclassmen are being pushed by youngsters already.

Bandy challenged for and received playing time in 2017 and is looking to build on his success while Frierson and early enrollee freshman safety Gurvan Hall have already made impression’s on Coach Diaz.

Sources have praised Bandy and Frierson for their work during the team’s “mat drills” and offseason conditioning, while Hall has made impact plays during the early spring practices.

The same thing is happening with the linebackers.

As juniors Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and McCloud – who have started for Miami since their freshman years – have become the “elder statesmen” in the linebackers room, it has been redshirt freshman Waynmon Steed and sophomore Bradley Jennings that has been flashing during the spring.

Steed missed all of 2017 recovering from a knee injury that stemmed all the way back to this final year of high school at Miami Central. Now that the 5-foot-11, 220-pound defender is back on the field, he is showing the athleticism and natural tackling instincts that made him so appealing to the Hurricanes in the first place.

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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