SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
When UM defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was asked at a Canes recruiting party what he plans to do differently next season, he had four words.
“Get after the quarterback!”
Applause naturally followed. There will be even more applause if, well, it actually happens.
UM spring practice begins next Saturday, and there will be no greater defensive priority than figuring out how to improve a pass rush that produced a meager 13 sacks in 12 games.
Also high on D’Onofrio’s list: Upgrading a run defense that improved in November, when Curtis Porter returned, but still finished 112th of 120 Bowl Subdivision schools.
D’Onofrio has the trust of Al Golden and until last year, a record of fielding generally stout defenses. But last season produced mostly angst: Miami allowed 30.5 points and 487 yards per game, and D’Onofrio faced a torrent of fan criticism.
“It’s something I have to ignore,” he said of fan backlash. “I have to put trust in my training. I’ve called over 85 games. First year I came here, we were in the top 20 in scoring defense. The year before at Temple, we were in the top 20 in scoring defense.”
Last year, he had a young group (Brandon McGee was the only senior) and had to overcome injury issues (Porter missed the first eight games), suspensions (Eddie Johnson, Gionni Paul) and the early NFL departures of Olivier Vernon and Marcus Forston.
Despite those impediments, some questioned his philosophy.
One scout said he had no issue with D’Onofrio’s approach, but another scout said he would like to have seen more blitzes, creative pressure packages, and more use of man-to-man coverage (especially bump and run) and less zone.
McGee defended D’Onofrio: “It’s a good system if it’s executed. All Coach D can do is the make the calls. We had mental breakdowns, guys not getting deep enough in coverage.”
D’Onofrio blitzed some, but not a ton, because he didn’t want to put his young secondary at risk and “you have to figure out the risk/reward. It comes down to putting guys in situations they’re ready for….
“I don’t know if the casual fan understands the depth of what we’re doing. There’s not a coverage we don’t have. We pressure a lot of different ways; I probably ran five different safety pressures last year. I’ve never been so stubborn that I say, ‘This is what we do.’ It’s about the players and what can they do well. I never get boxed in and say, ‘This is our scheme.’
“If you’ve got corners that can play press and play it well and the situation dictates it, that’s great. Press man is tremendous and we run it. [But] you can’t press every down because it doesn’t make sense. If the receivers are going to run your corners off and they have their back turned to the ball and the run pops, you’re playing with two less guys… At the end of the game, we’ve got to be able to make plays.”
One thing D’Onofrio wants to do differently: Play fewer players. He said UM used 25 to 27 a game on defense last season. “We have to get to the point where it’s not quite that many. If it’s 18 or 19, there can’t be that much of a dropoff from the first 11.”
Here’s how he plans to address other issues:
### Pass rush: UM doesn’t want to put all the pressure on Anthony Chickillo, who faced frequent double teams and saw his sacks drop from five to four. But more is obviously needed.
“Everyone wanted him to play like a senior, like he’s supposed to all of a sudden have 10 sacks as a sophomore,” D’Onofrio said. “That’s not realistic. He continued to improve.”
Equally important is getting more pass rush from the other end spot. Here’s the conundrum: Shayon Green led UM with 67 tackles but had no sacks. D’Onofrio conceded “it will be awful, awful hard to knock him out of the [lineup]” because of his “toughness, leadership, the way he plays.” But unless Green improves as a pass-rusher, that also means conceding that you're not going to get much of that from one of your starting ends.
So the pressure will again fall on the young ends: promising Tyriq McCord, who had 3.5 sacks, and Jelani Hamilton, who played sparingly in five games while rounding back into form from an ACL injury in high school.
“Jelani is getting stronger, starting to blow up,” D’Onofrio said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him in the spring.” There’s also hope that Olsen Pierre (1.5 sacks) can produce more pressure from a tackle spot.
And D’Onofrio expects immediate pass rush contributions from newcomers Al-Quadin Muhammed (12 sacks last season) and junior college transfers Devante Bond (17 sacks) and Ufomba Kamalu (7.5 sacks). “Those guys can get to the quarterback – that’s their expertise,” D’Onofrio said.
### Stopping the run: It all starts with Porter, who must stay healthy. He and Pierre formed a capable tackle duo in November, and having “Jimmy Gaines healthy at mike linebacker helped a lot, too,” D’Onofrio said.
But behind Porter and Pierre, UM needs growth from Luther Robinson (“he really played well for us the second half of the year,” D’Onofrio said), Jalen Grimble, DeQuan Ivery, Earl Moore and Corey King. D’Onofrio said Kamalu may end up playing tackle, too.
Besides needing to get stronger physically, “the group has to hold each other accountable that it’s not OK for a guy to be out of their gap and freelance,” D’Onofrio said. “It’s not just the coach out there going crazy, but a teammate that gets himself angry at another teammate.”
### With UM adding three recruits since Signing Day – including highly regarded running back Cornelius Elder and tight end Derrick Griffin – ESPN raised UM’s final recruiting class ranking from 21st to 15th, past Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech, among others.
“The snapshot of their class is a lot better than it was two weeks ago,” ESPN’s Jeremy Crabtree said. “Griffin reminds me of Jermaine Gresham and he ends up being the best player in their class. They now have one of the most memorable tight end classes we’ve seen in 15 years.”
### UM basketball coaches like the upside of Elder (a point guard) and especially Griffin (a small forward, rated 83rd among all prospects by rivals.com). Al Golden said Jim Larranaga was thrilled to get Griffin, and Larranaga told WFTL-640's Sid Rosenberg: "The first time I saw him, I thought he was incredible. Picture Shane Larkin at 6-7, 225. Speed, quickness, jumping ability. This kid is super gifted." Larranaga said several times, Griffin would "take a bad lob pass and turn it into an incredible dunk."
### Though the luxury tax is a concern for the Heat, Miami never considered trading Joel Anthony (due $3.8 million each of the next two years) or Mike Miller (due $6.2 million next season and likely to be amnestied this summer) before Thursday's deadline, contrary to speculation. But the Anthony issue might be revisited this summer.
Heat officials want to keep Miller around this season in case there's an injury to a shooter. And they like Anthony in certain defensive matchups, including on Kevin Garnett. Miami, which is happy with Chris Andersen as its primary backup center, simply wasn't willing to give up anything of value for centers rumored to be available, such as DeJuan Blair or Tim Mozgov, because it "didn't want to add a center just to add a center."
### The Dolphins' Jared Odrick (five sacks) bemoans that “the media is always worried we need another pass rusher, but just look at the numbers!” Miami was 10th in sacks per pass play, and Odrick said he will lose about 20 pounds to gain quickness if he stays at defensive end. He would move to defensive tackle if Randy Starks bolts in free agency, but Miami is working hard to try to keep Starks.
### Jonathan Martin admits his ideal scenario would be to play left tackle this season (which will happen if Jake Long leaves) and Richie Incognito says “we’re trying to toughen up” the scholarly Stanford grad, whom teammates good-naturedly call Big Weirdo. (Artis Hicks, who had half a cup of coffee with the Dolphins, gave him that nickname.)
### The Dolphins had more contract talks with Sean Smith's representation the past couple days, and the situation is fluid. The sides began the week far apart, with vastly different views of his value, and they still have plenty of distance to bridge to do a deal. Smith has said he very much wants to stay, but other teams might place a higher value on him.
### One respected 2012 Marlins player with no ax to grind said the one improvement the team made (besides dumping Heath Bell) was replacing Ozzie Guillen with Mike Redmond because “Ozzie just didn’t care. All he cared about was his money. And he wasn’t good in game situations, either.”
### Please see our last post for more Canes, Heat and Marlins notes from earlier in the weekend.