Miami has a Heisman candidate at quarterback but needs to get back to the fearsome defense that defined a once-proud program in the past.
Starters Returning: 6/11
Key Losses: DE Ufomba Kamalu, NT Calvin Heurtelou, LB Tyriq McCord, LB Raphael Kirby, CB Artie Burns, CB Tracy Howard, S Deon Bush, S Dallas Crawford
Key Returnees: DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE Trent Harris, DT Courtel Jenkins, DT Anthony Moten, LB Jermaine Grace, LB Juwan Young, CB Corn Elder, S Rayshawn Jenkins, S Jamal Carter
FEI Defense Ranking: 66
S&P Defense Ranking: 54
S&P Rush Rank: 118
S&P Pass Rank: 38
Turnovers Forced: 25 (15 INT)
Run Defense Help
New head coach Mark Richt has a lot of work to do on defense and brought in Manny Diaz to lead this unit. Diaz comes directly from a one-year stint at Mississippi State and was last in the national spotlight for 3 seasons at Texas.
The first order of business will be to shore up a run defense that was among the worst in Miami football history last fall. According to S&P only Oregon, Texas Tech, and Kansas were worse stopping the run among Power 5 teams.
The Canes played 3 ranked teams in 2015 including Florida State, Clemson, and North Carolina and gave up 958 rushing yards and 14 scores on the ground. Yikes.
Manny Diaz, like most new coordinators, is promising a new aggressive scheme that's going to allow a front seven that was below average (64th in sacks, 96th TFL) in backfield disruption last year to really get after it.
Miami feels pretty good about its defensive line led by former Notre Dame recruiting target and rising redshirt junior Al-Quadin Muhammad who was No.1 on the team with 5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last year. They are also hoping that former 5-star Chad Thomas lives up to his potential as a junior following a very slow start to his career.
There has been plenty of raving about a trio of 3 early enrollee linebackers (from a group of 12 total EE's no less) this spring, including mid-4 star Shaquille Quarterman who was receiving some starting snaps during practices. Good news is that there looks to be some good young talent but it's usually never great news when a true freshman is already playing that prominent of a role, even in the spring.
Stepping Up With Corn at Corner
Miami's secondary played pretty well last year, although it seems they had the benefit of opponents having so much success running the ball. From those 3 ranked opponents above Miami still allowed the quarterbacks to go 59 of 81 (72.8%) for 635 yards, 4 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Not a ton of production but plenty of efficiency.
However, over the full season Miami's YPA defense finished 26th and their 15 interceptions finished 23rd overall.
Now, they've lost first round pick Artie Burns at corner and safety Deon Bush who was picked in the 4th round of the NFL Draft. The Hurricanes have a couple vets returning at safety but it's at corner where there are a ton of question marks outside of senior Corn Elder who had 11 pass break ups last year.
Much of the focus outside of Coral Gables will be on the offense and the skill of quarterback Brad Kaaya. Still, much improvement is needed from a defense that gave up 5.78 yards per play (86th), 5.26 yards per rush (115th), and 29 runs of at least 20 yards (115th).
I think this effort is more of an up-hill battle than some may think and could hold Miami back from breaking through in Richt's first season.
There are a few really nice players but one thing that sticks out with the Canes is that there isn't much depth, especially quality upperclassmen who were highly recruited prospects. A lot has been made about Quarterman impressing this spring yet the reality is that there are no other 4-star linebackers vying for starting positions because they don't exist on Miami's roster.
Kaaya is going to get most of the spotlight but don't forget to watch how this Miami defense develops before coming to South Bend.