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Analyzing future of UM defense, with views from evaluators; Dolphins, Heat, Marlins

WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN

Much of the UM fan focus has centered squarely on defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who isn’t going anywhere barring a surprising change of heart by Al Golden. The biggest concern is not coaching but personnel, with worrisome issues already arising on next year’s projected depth chart.

On a defense that’s already deficient, UM will lose three of its top four defensive tackles, end Shayon Green (who was very productive until recently) and might lose junior linebacker Denzel Perryman, who said Tuesday he hasn’t made a decision about turning pro.

One recruit was quoted as saying UM coaches have said they expect to lose a junior linebacker to the pros, presumably Perryman.

Junior end Anthony Chickillo hasn’t made a final decision about his future, but his father believes he’s likely going to return for his senior year.

Those expecting a significant defensive improvement next season are likely to be disappointed, recruiting analyst Larry Blustein said.

“The defense could struggle again next season and give up chunks of yardage,” Blustein said. “Linebacker is not deep. They need to add junior college tackles that can come in immediately and play [California-based Michael Wyche will be one]. They’re teetering on basically the same situation next season. In two years, they will be in the BCS mix, a 10-11 win team.”

As one UM insider said, UM’s defense has nobody who does anything extraordinary, nobody who’s a consistent game-changer.

“Their biggest talent void is up front; they’re getting controlled on the line,” former UM assistant coach Don Soldinger said. But “they also need a guy in the secondary that’s a big-time guy like Antrel Rolle, that will lay the wood. They need a big-time linebacker.

“They have one guy at each position, but they don’t have two or three. It bothers me, because it doesn’t look like they’re in the right spots. They need guys that can run better. Their linebackers can’t make plays downhill; they’re too much east and west.”

Besides speed, UM also covets more size. The UM staff aspires for this unit to look more like a top-caliber SEC defense.

Buzz on where UM stands defensively beyond 2013:

### Defensive line: Tackle is a huge concern, with Curtis Porter, Luther Robinson and Justin Renfrow leaving. Olsen Pierre is the only proven player returning.

That’s problematic, because Earl Moore and Corey King “aren’t guys that can play at Miami,” said Elite Scouting’s Charles Fishbein, a local recruiting expert who’s close to the UM program. UM people tell us Jelani Hamilton also has been a disappointment, needs to get mentally tougher and apply what he’s being taught.

If the 277-pound Chickillo returns, “he either has to lose weight and stay at end or bulk up and move inside,” Fishbein said. UM is using him at both spots but he seldom gets a chance to rush on third down.  

Golden and D’Onofrio raved about junior Ufomba Kamalu on Tuesday, and Golden said he projects as an end next season. He’s big (6-6, 285), “has a great skill set,” and can rush the passer, D’Onofrio said.

Fishbein believes a trio of four-star UM oral commitments --- defensive linemen Travonte Valentine, Anthony Moten and Chad Thomas --- can be big contributors immediately, though Soldinger said that’s an awful lot to expect from freshmen defensive linemen.

And this is worrisome: The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Tuesday that “the Tigers appear to be in very good position” to lure Valentine away from UM. (The writer of that piece also reportedly predicted LSU would land Artie Burns last season, which didn't happen.)

Valentine's coach at Hialeah Champagnat, Mike Tunsil, told me Valentine will visit LSU, Alabama and then Miami in January and that “right now he’s committed to UM,” but wouldn’t speculate on where he believes Valentine will end up. He did say that Valentine threw up the U sign at a game last week. He said Valentine is focused on his playoff game this week and “getting qualified” academically.

If Valentine comes to UM --– and he previously de-committed from Louisville and UF –-- then “these guys [Valentine, Moten, Thomas] are going to be better than what they have or anyone they’re losing,” Fishbein said. “There is not a guy on Miami’s defensive line who will play in the NFL except Chickillo. Valentine and Thomas have first-round talent. Valentine at 6-4, 320, is more physically impressive than anyone Miami has, and he moves like a running back.

“Moten has an NFL sized body, too, physically very imposing. Athletically, what he can do is scary. He’s the perfect 3-4 defensive end, and you won’t need as many d-linemen in a 3-4. That’s why I think next year they will be better defensively. And in two years, it will be very good.”

But Blustein disagrees. He said Valentine needs to get in better shape, and “next year, you would never compete with those [freshmen] kids. They’ll be manhandled.” Blustein does believe, however, that Miami Northwestern end Mike Smith, another UM oral commitment, will help the pass rush next year if used in measured doses; he could get some snaps at outside linebacker.

### Linebacker: Golden said he wants to play mostly a 3-4 defense “because it allows you to get more speed on the field at linebacker and attack more.”

A lot that happens with this unit next season hinges on whether Perryman returns; Golden made clear he needs another year of development.

Though freshman Al-Quadin Muhammad is listed as a defensive end, Golden said Tuesday he also envisions him as a natural 3-4 outside linebacker, along with Tyriq McCord.

But one reason Muhammad hasn’t had as much impact the past month is that he needs to expand his pass-rush moves, a UM official said. Both he and McCord also need to bulk up and develop against the run. Muhammad, who weights 240 pounds, “can be 252 next year,” Golden said.

Senior Jimmy Gaines, whose physical limitations have been painfully obvious the past three games, will be replaced in 2014 by Raphael Kirby, a gifted athlete who finds himself out of position at times and has just five tackles all season. “I like Kirby – he will have to take over for Jimmy [in 2014],” Golden said.

Four-star freshman Jermaine Grace has been limited almost entirely to special teams, and at less than 210 pounds, doesn’t project as a starter next year. “He can help us on third down,” D’Onofrio said. “We’ve asked him to put on weight.” But he's not ready to be the high-impact player some expected.

The hope is that Alex Figueroa emerges over the more limited Thurston Armbrister for another starting linebacker job next year. But Figueroa is injured, and Golden said Armbrister and senior Tyrone Cornelius have outplayed him.

There’s no four- or five-star linebackers in this 2014 UM class. Three-star Juwon Young and Terry McCray are pretty good prospects; LSU is making a serious push for McCray.

### Safety: UM expected more from Deon Bush (not running as well since hernia surgery in June) and Rayshawn Jenkins (three picks, but only 31 tackles).

The concern, especially with Jenkins, is that he’s “not affecting anyone going across the middle,” a UM insider said. “Receivers feel comfortable going across the middle against our safeties. There’s no violence in the secondary.”

Bush made two highlight-reel tackles in last year’s Virginia Tech game and has done nothing like that this season.

Jamal Carter and perhaps incoming Trayone Gray will replace departing AJ Highsmith and Kacy Rodgers, who have struggled.

### Cornerback: Should be UM’s deepest and best defensive position in 2014 with Tracy Howard, Artie Burns (coaches love him; see first-round type talent), Ladarius Gunter (serviceable), Corn Elder (earning more playing time) and Antonio Crawford (had a bunch of deflections during August practices but not during the season).

Note: We don't touch on every single one of UM's defensive oral commitment in this piece but will in columns this offseason.

Bottom line: UM needs more of its four- and five-star recruits to become high-impact game changers. Too many --- Ray-Ray Armstrong, Vaughn Telemaque, Marcus Forston and others --- have not, at least not consistently.

CHATTER

### One Dolphins player said Tuesday that players were told they could be called out of practice or meetings to meet with BullyGate investigator Ted Wells, but the player said Wells so far has met with a few players without being disruptive or interrupting meetings or practices.

“No time has been carved out of the schedule special for this,” one player said.

### One lineman met with Wells for 90 minutes, a teammate said, adding: “I’m hoping mine will be a lot shorter.”

### Another player, who appeared conflicted, said he was still deciding what he will say to Wells if asked. Players haven’t been told of any consequences if they’re not forthright with Wells.

### Some Dolphins were dumbfounded that Jonathan Martin, still being paid by the Dolphins, was on the sideline for the USC-Stanford game Saturday.

### Amazingly, the six players with the best plus/minus ratios on the Heat (per 48 minutes) entering Tuesday are backups, led by Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis. And the lineups that have outscored opponents the most are Dwyane Wade and four reserves, and LeBron James and four reserves.

### By the way, James' 13 points (in 31 minutes) against Atlanta tonight tied for the second-lowest regular season total of his Heat career, but it hardly mattered in a 104-88 win. (James had 12 in a February 2011 game against the Clippers.)

### The Marlins have inquired about free agent third baseman Yuniesky Betancourt, 33, a .261 career hitter who hit .212 with 13 homers and 46 RBI for Milwaukee last season.

Betancourt can play every infield position but the Marlins are considering him –-- and several others –-- primarily for third base. His agent, Miami Sports Management’s Alex Esteban, wouldn’t comment on the Marlins’ interest but said Betancourt would have interest in Miami.

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