The most dominant UM defenses were run-stuffing, ball-hawking machines, with a knack for forcing turnovers. Coach Al Golden and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio want to construct that type of unit, but it’s going to take time, considering UM lost Sean Spence and four key linemen and now must break in a talented freshman class.
Here’s the good news: Only 17 of 120 teams allowed fewer points per game than UM’s 20.1 last season. UM was a respectable 45th in average yards allowed (359).
But here’s the problem: Not enough game-changing plays. UM’s six interceptions were the nation’s 10th-fewest and tied with Duke for worst in the conference, well behind North Carolina State’s 27. This has been a problem much of the past five years here, and it must change.
Also, 70 teams recovered more fumbles than UM’s nine. And UM recovered 40.9 percent of the opponent’s 22 fumbles -- 91st in the country.
“This spring, we were stripping balls better, making interceptions better, than any point since I’ve been here,” D’Onofrio said. Before 2011, “the defenses I’ve coached had takeaways in high numbers.” Assessing UM’s defense, with practice starting Friday:
### Defensive line: Darius Smith is the front-runner to start alongside Curtis Porter at tackle (“those two distanced themselves,” D’Onofrio said), and Shayon Green and former linebacker Kelvin Cain will compete for the end spot opposite Anthony Chickillo.
“Shayon had the best spring of any defensive end,” D’Onofrio said. “He hasn’t played as much as we want because of injury, but we can count on him. I want Chickillo to be more physical at the point of attack, be as strong at the end of the season as the beginning, and not get worn down. He’s 20 pounds heavier.”
UM finished 68th with 24 sacks but lost Olivier Vernon and Marcus Robinson. So the Canes need immediate pass rush help from at least two of four freshmen ends, with Tyriq McCord and Jelani Hamilton the most likely. Among four freshmen and redshirt freshman Ricardo Williams, “we’ll have to get two of those five to play now,” D’Onofrio said.
Jalen Grimble, Olsen Pierre, Luther Robinson, Corey King and well-regarded newcomers Earl Moore, Jacoby Briscoe and Dequan Ivery give UM the defensive tackle depth it lacked in 2011. “That’s nine guys, so it’s some pretty stiff competition,” D’Onofrio said.
### Linebacker: UM feels good about how Denzel Perryman has seized the middle linebacker spot. “He’s got great instincts, tremendous burst,” D’Onofrio said. But “Sean Spence knew where it was going before it went. That’s the challenge for Denzel. He’s got all the tools to be a great one. But talent isn’t enough.”
Ramon Buchanan (who missed the last eight games after a season-ending knee injury last year) also will start, likely opposite Jimmy Gaines, who blamed a lull in his play for losing his starting job last November.
D’Onofrio envisions potential third-down roles for Eddie Johnson (very good speed) and Tyrone Cornelius (“fast guy who can blitz or cover”). UM expects Raphael Kirby and Gionni Paul will be factors, and freshman Gabe Terry “was a great pass rusher in high school and another option on third down,” D’Onofrio said. Thurston Armbrister will get a look; Josh Witt has quit football because of concussions.
### Safety: UM isn’t fretting about losing Ray-Ray Armstrong because of a growing confidence in Kacy Rodgers and AJ Highsmith, who have more speed than Armstrong. Even before Armstrong was booted, “AJ and Kacy closed the gap,” D’Onofrio said.
Starter Vaughn Telemaque’s inconsistent spring concerned coaches, but they say he finished strong. Though UM said it originally planned to use highly-regarded freshman Deon Bush at cornerback, his father said he has been moved to safety.
### Cornerback: D’Onofrio said he expects Brandon McGee, Thomas Finnie and Ladarius Gunter “to be three of the six who will play, with the young guys fighting it out for the other three.” Elite recruit Tracy Howard assuredly will be one: “A great player who understands the game as well as any kid I’ve been around,” D’Onofrio said.
Senior McGee, a likely starter, “is definitely ahead of Finnie and Gunter but not where he needs to be,” defensive backs coach Paul Williams said. “I tell him he needs to be productive.” Larry Hope, Vernon Davis and Nate Dortch figure to compete for the fifth and sixth jobs.
### Former Hurricanes Lamar Miller and Olivier Vernon have made strong early impressions on Dolphins teammates. “Lamar’s burst is unreal,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “Every day he’s had at least one 15, 20 yard-run. The guy has great vision.”
Vernon has had at least two sacks in training camp, and Cam Wake said there’s no dropoff when he replaces a veteran: “I’m really excited [about him]. He has a lot of spunk.”
Said defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers (father of the UM safety): “Oliver has a long way to go technique-wise, but he plays with the right temperament.”… The Dolphins auditioned former UM guard Joel Figueroa on Monday but opted not to sign him.
#### If David Garrard wins the starting quarterback job – and he has a slight lead through four days – the hope internally is he can do what Chad Pennington did for them in 2008. “David is a little bit like Chad,” tight end Anthony Fasano said. “They’re both very smart and savvy.”… Count receiver Jeff Fuller (Texas A&M) and defensive ends Jarrell Root (Boise State) and Derrick Shelby (Utah) among undrafted rookies that have made an early impression in camp... Rookie safety Kelcie McCray, who was in the mix for a roster spot, tweeted that he broke his foot and will undergo surgery.
### Among the Marlins’ many problems is they back-loaded so many contracts. Jose Reyes, due $10 million in 2012 and 2013, will pocket $16 million in 2014 and $22 million each of the following three years, when his deal becomes an albatross. Ricky Nolasco jumps from $9 million to $11.5 million next year; Heath Bell from $6 million to $9 million each of the next two; and Mark Buehrle from $6 million to $11 million in 2013 and then $18 million and $19 million.
### Unless they decide Justin Ruggiano is a full-time player, the Marlins will enter the off-season needing at least three reasonably-priced starting position players to join Jose Reyes, Giancarlo Stanton, Emilio Bonifacio, Logan Morrison (Marlins want him to play first base next year) and a potential Rob Brantly/John Buck catcher platoon.
The Marlins love the offensive potential of Zack Cox, acquired in Tuesday's Edward Mujica trade with St. Louis, but it may be a stretch to envision him as Miami's starting third baseman to start next year. Cox, a first-round pick in 2010, was hitting .254 with nine homers, 30 RBI for the Cardinals' Triple A team.
### Though his agent said nothing has been decided, Heat assistant coach and summer league coach David Fizdale said “all things point toward [free agent] Terrel Harris being back. He has some gifts we really like. You can’t teach that speed and tenacity.”… The Heat has put a decision on Darko Milicic on hold while evaluating developmental centers such as rookie Justin Hamilton, who has been working with Heat coaches this week.
### Marc Hochman and Jonathan Zaslow are expected to be named 790 The Ticket's new morning team, barring something unforseen.