SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
UM people have said all spring how improved the defense looks. Saturday’s spring game didn’t produce a lot of evidence to support that, with two big caveats:
1) Much of the damage was done against the “white team” unit that had only two defensive starters, and 2) UM was running the most basic of defenses so opposing teams wouldn’t get a handle on what they have planned.
Concerns remains about personnel: depth at defensive tackle, especially if Curtis Porter or Olsen Pierre is injured, a questionable pass rush, a penchant for giving up big plays on the ground and in the air, youth and inconsistency in the secondary, and a front-seven that’s not as big as, say, top SEC schools. (UM knows that needs to continue to get bigger, especially at linebacker.)
Prefer the glass-half-full view about the defense, so you don’t become exasperated? Here it is:
### Though UM was vanilla on defense in public settings this spring, you should fully expect this fall to see a more aggressive approach – one that will be more creative in finding ways to generate a pass rush and one that will make better use of disguising coverages. UM ran no blitz packages Saturday.
### UM had three sacks Saturday (one by Anthony Chickillo, two by Luther Robinson), but Al Golden said it would have been more if UM hadn’t stopped plays before contact.
### The defensive unit that was usually torched Saturday -- by Stephen Morris, Duke Johnson, Herb Waters and Rashawn Scott, among others -- had only two likely first-teamers (Deon Bush, Jimmy Gaines), plus No. 3 corner Tracy Howard, Tyriq McCord, and other backups.
“We won’t face an offense [next season] as good as ours,” Chickillo said.
Conversely, the “orange team” unit that featured most defensive starters was very good at times, subpar at others, against offenses led by Ryan Williams and Gray Crow. Denzel Perryman picked off two Williams passes, one of a tip.
A few more reasons for hope:
### Defensive tackles Pierre (named UM’s most improved defender), Porter and Robinson were impressive this spring, and UM believes early enrollee Alex Figueroa, the starting SAM linebacker, is the real deal, though an ankle injury slowed him Saturday.
### Coaches believe the second-year players will be better. But Rayshawn Jenkins, Howard (twice) and Nate Dortch (twice) were beaten on touchdown passes Saturday.
Before Saturday, Golden said his defense is “a lot different than a year ago. They don’t even look like the same guys. It’s time to grow up and not make excuses.”
But UM can’t give up so many explosive plays – a trend that regrettably continued Saturday.
Other spring football postscripts:
### Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio expects summer arrivals Devante Bond, Ufomba Kamula and Al Quadin Mohammad to contribute immediately as pass rushers. Going into Saturday, he said he liked the pass-rush being generated this spring by Chickillo, Dwayne Hoilett, McCord (who has made a smooth transition to linebacker) and Kelvin Cain. Starting end Shayon Green remains very limited as a pass rusher.
### D’Onofrio said Gaines leads Raphael Kirby at middle linebacker because “Jimmy is really smart and tough, and guys who are smart and tough are hard to beat out.”
Golden said last week that Perryman had been “too inconsistent” before his breakout Saturday. “Denzel has got to be a playmaker for us,” Golden said after the scrimmage. “We need that Denzel.”
### Ladarius Gunter and Antonio Crawford were UM’s top two cornerbacks in that order this spring, with Howard third and – according to D’Onofrio – Dortch fourth. Summer arrival Artie Burns should push Dortch. Coaches want Howard not to freelance, which he’s still prone to do occasionally, and follow his assignments.
Gunter made a couple of nice plays Saturday but also was badly beaten by Jontavious Carter on a 48-yard catch and run. Meantime, UM was very pleased with Crawford’s improvement this spring.
### UM loves the athleticism of a Bush-Jenkins safety pairing but does not want them to get complacent and will give more time than preferred to AJ Highsmith or Kacy Rodgers if Bush or Jenkins repeat mental errors committed in the first scrimmage. But make no mistake: UM wants Bush and Jenkins on the field together a lot, provided they hold up their end of the bargain.
### Offensive coordinator James Coley said 24 touches on offense, per game, would be ideal for Duke Johnson, who averaged 16 overall last year, including 11.5 carries. “He’s a lot stronger and in better shape,” running backs coach Hurlie Brown said. “He’s a first, second, third-down back. I tell him he’s got the limbs of a 6-foot man in a 5-10 body.”
### Dallas Crawford’s emergence was encouraging this spring, though he was held to 19 yards on 9 carries Saturday, along with contributions in the passing game (three catches, 33 yards). He’s clearly the No. 2 back behind Johnson. “What a stud!” Coley said.…
Eduardo Clements (neck) is optimistic about playing this season, but even if he doesn’t, Danny Dillard, Maurice Hagens and summer arrival Gus Edwards can handle some carries behind Johnson, who had 10 carries for 120 yards Saturday. Hagens, a fullback by trade, has looked good when given carries (8 for 39 on Saturday), but Brown was non-committal about using him much as a runner.
### UM’s top five receivers entering summer will be Scott (two touchdowns Saturday; “we’ve been tough on him; he’s matured,” Golden said), Allen Hurns, Phillip Dorsett, Waters (“we’re learning he has lateral quickness and can make people miss,” Golden said) and Malcolm Lewis.
But Robert Lockhart (injured this spring), summer arrival Stacey Coley and much-improved Carter (5 catches, 113 yards on Saturday) will push them. D’Mauri Jones is behind Carter and the others.
### Tight ends coach Larry Scott said Asante Cleveland has had a “phenomenal spring” and is ahead of ballyhooed recruits Beau Sandland and Standish Dobard, behind starter Clive Walford, who sat out Saturday with an injury.
All are skilled receivers, and UM envisions using two or three together at times, with the New England Patriots’ approach in mind.
### What a huge dropoff from Morris (13 for 23, 256 yards Saturday) to Williams (10 for 25, 1223) and Crow (2 for 8, 50). UM better hope that summer arrival Kevin Olsen is as good as advertised and can beat out Williams and Crow in 2014.
### Coley said UM hasn’t decided whether to move guard Malcolm Bunche back to tackle. UM likes how he plays both… Seantrel Henderson has been so impressive that UM coaches believe he can make himself a first-round draft pick if he keeps it up.
### The Dolphins have been spending a lot of time with two of the draft’s top three defensive tackles – Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson and Utah’s Star Lotulelei, who are both projected in the range of Miami’s pick at No. 12. A Dolphins coach gave Lotulelei a private workout in Salt Lake City, and a Utah source said he will visit team headquarters Monday.
A heart condition – potentially caused by a virus - sidelined him at the Combine, but a recent MRI revealed “no evidence of dysfunction.” Though defensive tackle isn’t a need, keep in mind that Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are under contract only through 2013.
### Also visiting the Dolphins Monday: UF’s Matt Elam, considered among the draft’s top four safeties. Mel Kiper has FIU safety Jonathan Cyprien 32nd in his mock draft, with Elam going soon after.
### Amusing to hear other Eastern Conference players (Jason Terry, Raymond Felton, Brandon Jennings and others) keep saying how well their teams match up with the Heat. “They have vulnerable spots,” Boston’s Courtney Lee insisted Friday.
Where exactly are they vulnerable? “All areas,” Heat-hater Terry said. “They don’t have great size. That’s their weakness, but they make up for it with their athleticism.”
Even Nets coach PJ Carlesimo joined in last week, cushioning praise with: “I don’t think they’re unbeatable…If you have a frontline that can rebound and you take care of the ball against them, they can be vulnerable.”
What do Heat players think of all this noise? “Words are cheap, especially in the digital age,” Shane Battier said. “You have to earn it on the court.”
### With Saturday's strong outing against Philadelphia, the Marlins' Jose Fernandez became the first pitcher 20 or younger to allow one run or fewer, and three hits or fewer, in his first two starts since Rudy May for the 1965 Angels.
### A Marlins official denied a report that the team is pursuing free agent reliever Francisco Rodriguez.
### Get used to this: Former Marlins coming to town and saying, as Atlanta’s Dan Uggla did last week, something this: “I don’t understand” what the Marlins are doing.
“I can understand the [fan] anger. I’d be extremely angry if I had been one of the free agents that signed here. It will be hard to sign free agents now.”
Uggla made a good point about Giancarlo Stanton: “He’s one of those special players, but to be special, you have to surround him with legitimate guys – a Ryan Howard, a Justin Upton.”
### I’ve finally joined the 21st century and joined Twitter. Please follow me at: @flasportsbuzz.