2011 Miami Preview - Defense
Miami LB Sean Spence
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Miami Hurricane Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: After taking his time to name a coordinator, Al Golden is confident about his choice, former Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch. Just 34 years old, Fisch plans to attack from a pro-style formation, while leaving his mark on Miami's inconsistent quarterbacks. His first starter? That remains to be seen, though either senior Jacory Harris or sophomore Stephen Morris is going to get the ball in September. As always, the ‘Canes have no shortage of exciting skill players, like running back Lamar Miller and receivers Travis Benjamin and LaRon Byrd. Of greater importance, last year's productive line, led by all-star G Brandon Washington, returns virtually intact. The lone departure is Orlando Franklin, whose old haunt at left tackle will be filled by an underclassman, either Malcolm Bunche or Seantrel Henderson. Above all else, the ‘Canes need to get a better grip on the ball after ranking 119th nationally in turnovers lost.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Sean Spence
Tackles: Sean Spence, 111
Sacks: Olivier Vernon, 6
Interceptions: Vaughn Telemaque, Ray-Ray Armstrong, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB JoJo Nicolas
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Olivier Vernon
Best pro prospect: Junior SS Ray-Ray Armstrong
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Spence, 2) Armstrong, 3) Junior DT Marcus Forston
Strength of the defense: Depth and talent up front, backfield pressure, outside linebackers, safeties, third down D, red zone D
Weakness of the defense: Uncertainty at cornerback, middle linebacker, stuffing the run
State of the Unit: Although the ‘Canes lose just one regular from a year ago, it's a big one, All-ACC DE Allen Bailey. Yeah, he'll be missed, but this is Miami, a program that never has much trouble attracting gifted defensive linemen to Coral Gables. Last year's ensemble was outstanding at generating backfield pressure, but need to stiffen at the point of attack and provide better support in run defense.
The staff is quietly rooting for 6-4, 265-pound junior Olivier Vernon to offset the loss of Bailey on the outside. After playing as a true freshman, he started taking off last year, starting 11 games and making 39 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks. Unfortunately, more than half of those sacks came in the opener, so he needs to bring it on a more consistent basis this fall.
On the inside, the program has a bona fide penetrator in 6-3, 300-pound junior Marcus Forston, the former blue-chipper who's just now hitting his stride. Somewhat stunted by injuries, including an MCL injury that'll keep him out until July, he managed to make 37 tackles, a dozen stops for loss, and three sacks in 2010. Explosive out of his stance, he has the quickness and strength to command two blockers.
Oddly, Vernon is the youngest of the defensive ends expected to fill out the two-deep. Among the trio of seniors surrounding him, 6-4, 270-pound Adewale Ojomo is the slight favorite to earn the start. A streaky player, who has yet to put it all together, he had 38 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, and five sacks in 2010. Pushing Ojomo is 6-1, 255-pound Marcus Robinson, a linebacker-sized end with outstanding speed and burst. More of a situational edge rusher, he posted 18 tackles, four for loss, and 1.5 sacks a year ago.
Backing up Vernon will be 6-3, 250-pound Andrew Smith, a luxury on the second team. Yet another veteran, with natural pass-rushing skills, he chipped in a dozen stops, four tackles for loss, and three sacks.
At tackle, there's minimal drop-off from Forston to 6-3, 305-pound senior Micanor Regis, a starter in 10 games last season. A quality run-stuffer, with excellent lateral quickness, he was second among linemen with 42 tackles, adding eight stops for loss, and three sacks. He was pushed in the offseason by 6-1, 300-pound junior Curtis Porter, a former blue-chipper who suffered a season-ending knee injury trying to chase Terrelle Pryor last September. A classic run-stuffer, he plays with good drive and pad level.
Watch Out For … a deep and constantly turning rotation. Miami is loaded with seasoned veterans and enough competition to keep everyone fresh and motivated. Regardless of the weather in South Florida, this unit will not run out of gas, instead wearing down other teams late in games.
Strength: Penetration. In general, the tackles move like ends and the ends have the quickness of some outside linebackers. The Hurricanes get off the snap in a hurry and will pressure the pocket relentlessly. Even without Bailey, they have the parts to once again be among the nation's top 10 sack units.
Weakness: Stuffing the run. The line flat out did not do its job last season, too often getting held up at the line of scrimmage and allowing backs to reach the second level. There's much talent here for the ‘Canes to rank 84th against the run and yielded over four yards a carry, as was the case in 2010.
Outlook: After stumbling in 2009, Miami turned the corner last fall and lived up to its considerable depth and talent in the trenches. There's absolutely no reason why that won't continue in 2011. This is a veteran ensemble of next-level players, who'll frequently meet in the backfield throughout the year.
Unit Rating: 8.5
State of the Unit: The Hurricanes could be starting three seniors in 2011, yet still feel a little shorthanded at the position. Linebacker doesn't figure to be one of this year's strongest areas, a situation exacerbated by the graduation of Colin McCarthy, last season's man in the middle and leading tackler. While the starters will be experienced, building depth and a little more cohesion will be offseason priorities on D.
The headliner of the group is 6-0, 224-pound senior Sean Spence, a reigning second team all-star and the starter at strongside. Showing what he can do when fully healthy, he had 110 tackles, a team-high 16 stops for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Roaming the field like a guided missile, he possesses the speed, pop, and explosiveness in tight spaces to light up opposing players. A candidate for national awards, he's one of the most exciting defensive playmakers in the country.
Provided he stays out of trouble, 6-1, 222-pound senior Ramon Buchanan
is slated to start at weakside. Playing with desired range and intensity, he had 55 tackles and eight stops for loss a year ago. However, he was charged with three misdemeanors and two felonies in March before being reinstated.
The big question mark is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to supplant McCarthy. The veteran is 6-3, 235-pound senior Jordan Futch, a high-profile recruit who's been a bust so far. He has had a nice offseason, and gives the ‘Canes a much-needed physical presence at the position. Heading into summer, he's in a dogfight with 6-3, 220-pound sophomore James Gaines . He flew beneath the radar coming out of high school, but has turned heads with his athleticism and motor.
Watch Out For … Futch. He has an opportunity to pen a storybook ending to an otherwise forgettable career in Miami. Unlike the past, the program really needs him to deliver. And while he won't be the player everyone expected coming out of high school, he still has a chance to become productive and valuable.
Strength: Spence. The coveted and rare difference-maker on defense, he simply makes good things happen for his program. Frenetic and athletic, he'll survey the entire field, looking for someone to hit and some way to get his hands on the ball. He's a special defender, the kind other teams are forced to avoid at all costs.
Weakness: Depth. Spence and Buchanan are fine, a pair of ‘Canes with starting experience. After those two linebackers, though, Miami is brimming with question marks and uncertainty. Is Futch finally ready to play like a former elite recruit? How much can be expected of Gaines so early in his career? There's little room for error on the second level of defense.
Outlook: Basically, there's Spence and then everyone else. Miami enters 2011 thin at linebacker, needing more support for its leading man. The Hurricanes could struggle at the position in both run and pass defense, forcing the D-line and secondary to pick up more of the slack.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty in the secondary depends on the specific position in question; the Hurricanes are loaded at safety, but must regroup at corner after losing three of last season's most important players. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Ryan Hill exhausted their eligibility and all-star Brandon Harris took off to the NFL. Duplicating last year's air-tight performance in pass defense is going to require some answers before the opener with Maryland in September.
Junior SS Ray-Ray Armstrong has lived up to the hype that had him listed as one of the banner recruits of the 2009 class. A starter for the first time, he was third on the team with 79 tackles, adding 4.5 stops for loss, and three interceptions. A ferocious hitter, who prowls the defensive backfield with an attitude, he has the range and agility in a 6-4, 215-pound frame to blossom into an All-American by the end of the year.
The new staff likes what it inherited at free safety as well, 6-2, 200-pound junior Vaughn Telemaque. Another blue-chipper from across the country in California, he's already a two-year starter, making 58 stops and three picks in 2010. He'll defend the run like a linebacker, yet also has good instincts and coverage skills on passing downs. He's the total package, with two years of eligibility still left. As good as the starters are at safety, depth is a concern and one of the reasons 6-0, 195-pound junior A.J. Highsmith has been shifted over from quarterback.
The race at cornerback will be interesting and closely watched over the next few months. For the time being 6-1, 200-pound senior JoJo Nicolas and 5-10, 185-pound senior Lee Chambers are the frontrunners. How precarious is the situation? At this time last year, Nicolas was a strong safety and Chambers was playing running back. Both possess the necessary athleticism, but that alone doesn't make a good cover corner. Stay tuned. In the meantime, 6-0, 190-pound junior Brandon McGee and 5-10, 170-pound true freshman Thomas Finnie are breathing down their necks. McGee played in all but one game last year, making 15 tackles. Finnie has already taken part in spring drills, and while raw and in need of more eight, he has impressed the coaches.
Watch Out For … the outcomes at cornerback. At this point, the coaching staff is open to all options, as evidenced by the fact that a rookie and two position-switchers currently comprise the two-deep. Anything is possible in August as the ‘Canes attempt to sort out one of their big need areas heading into 2011.
Strength: The safeties. It's sort of an obvious choice considering the career trajectories of Armstrong and Telemaque. Not only do both players have the talent to continue playing on Sundays, but they're only halfway through their college careers and poised to get even better in 2011 and beyond.
Weakness: The cornerbacks. Unless there's a surprise or two, which is possible, Miami could spend the better part of the year trying to find the right combination here. The corners will get plenty of help from the supporting cast, but could be exploited in man coverage.
Outlook: While a decline from last year's stellar performance seems inevitable, the safeties are determined to ensure that it won't be precipitous. The Hurricanes will survive against average passing games, pulling together for a collaborative effort. Fortunately for the program, there's a dearth of really good passers lurking on the schedule.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The graduation of Matt Bosher, a perennial all-star and valuable dual-threat, leaves the ‘Canes scrambling for a viable replacement at punter and placekicker. His likely successor—at both positions—is junior Jake Wieclaw , who has bided his time and patently waited for this opportunity. Idle for years, he needs to deliver or else get jumped in the summer by either Moorpark (Calif.) College transfer Dalton Botts or true freshman Matt Goudis .
Miami's primary return man will be senior Travis Benjamin, and why not? He's one of the fastest and most explosive playmakers in the country, needing the smallest of cracks of daylight to change the tempo of a game.
Watch Out For … how well Wieclaw handles the spotlight. He's not Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris, but he'll still be rather important to Miami's fortunes this fall. Having grown accustomed to the multi-dimensional excellence of Bosher, the ‘Canes won't be quick to accept mediocrity at punter or kicker.
Strength: The return game. Forget the numbers from last season, which don't quite do justice to the playmaking ability of Benjamin. So dynamic and incendiary, he forces opposing coaching staffs to rethink whether to kick in his direction.
Weakness: Uncertainty of the kickers. What can the Hurricanes expect from Wieclaw or Botts and Goudis for that matter? No one is quite certain, an unsettling feeling that the locals haven't experienced since before Bosher signed on to play for Miami.
Outlook: For years, Miami was on cruise control in this area. This season, however, the new staff will have to roll up its sleeves and break a sweat. With Bosher gone, the ‘Canes not only need a new punter and placekicker, but the coverage teams are going to be impacted as well.
Unit Rating: 7.5
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