WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Much of the focus at UM on Tuesday, and rightfully so, was Kevin Olsen taking over for injured Ryan Williams. (See the last post about that.) But the other big question that lingers over this program like thick smog is whether the defense --- generally deficient last season, especially late in the year --- is appreciably better.
Not even coaches know for sure, not only because it’s impossible to make sweeping conclusions off spring ball, but also because several key pieces missed practices (Anthony Chickillo, Olsen Pierre) and because two important additions (defensive tackle Michael Wyche and five-star end/linebacker Chad Thomas) haven’t arrived yet. And a few other newcomers (tackles Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins, end Demetrius Jackson, among others) also could factor in immediately.
A few developments, on defense, that emerged during spring ball, which wraps up Saturday:
### Ask coordinator Mark D’Onofrio why he’s optimistic his group will be better, and he immediately points to one position: Linebacker.
“The linebacking group has got me excited,” he said. “Raphael Kirby has had a great spring. Jermaine Grace is putting it all together. His playmaking ability is showing up. JaWand Blue has been a really big surprise…. You couple that with our rush linebackers who are our hybrid guys --- Al Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Trent Harris. It’s a young, athletic group.”
What’s more, Denzel Perryman has capably handled his move to inside linebacker, Alex Figueroa shows flashes, early enrollee Darion Owens displayed pass rush potential “and Juwon Young has talent; he just has to learn the schemes.”
After last season, D’Onofrio spoke of Grace playing on third downs in 2014. But expectations have grown after a spring in which he batted down passes and played the run stoutly.
“He’s on his way to being a guy who will be hard not to want on the field on first and second down because of his instincts and playmaking ability,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s got a knack for finding the football. Good blitzer, good in pass coverage and has got good run instincts.”
### Less clear is whether this group of defensive tackles, beyond Olsen Pierre, will be better than average. UM believes summer arrival Wyche, from East Los Angeles Community College, will be a big upgrade. He’s a favorite to start opposite Pierre.
The good news about early arrival Calvin Heurtelou: He’s powerful and difficult to dislodge. The bad news: He hasn’t surpassed Moore on the depth chart. “We’ll have Calvin, Earl Moore and Wyche competing at nose tackle,” D’Onofrio said.
UM needs to upgrade over Moore, Jelani Hamilton and Corey King, unless two of those three improve considerably. Moore made the most strides of the three, but we need to see it in September.
### What most pleases Al Golden is the improved safety play, which coincided with the spring absence of injured former starter Rayshawn Jenkins, whose inconsistent play frustrated coaches last season. Deon Bush has regained his freshman form (“He’s breaking on the ball better, seeing it better,” Golden said. “He never was quite healthy last year. He looks fast.").
Jamal Carter has “been great –-- you can see a real jump,” Bush said. And Dallas Crawford’s transition from running back to safety has been “remarkable,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s got tremendous instincts. You feel him when he’s on the field…. You want people to fear your safeties.”
Overall, “we're getting more production out of our safeties,” D”Onofrio said. “That will lead to more picks.”
### Golden said the “biggest thing” about his defense is “Ufomba Kamalu is growing up. He gives us a 6-5, 283-pound [tackle/end]. We can use him in multiple ways.”
Kamalu is battling Chickillo for one starting end job, with UM opting to keep them on the same side so that Muhammad and McCord can compete at the opposite end spot. (Muhammad and McCord line up as stand-up linebackers when Miami is in a 3-4 scheme.)
### Because of Thomas’ dynamic skills, “we’ve got to find things that Chad can do well for us immediately,” D’Onofrio said. “His playmaking ability is too good, his football IQ is too high [not to play].”
### Artie Burns, hoping to unseat projected starters Tracy Howard or Ladarius Gunter at cornerback, said UM coaches will allow the defensive backs to play more man-to-man defense this season. But Perryman said he doesn’t expect any significant changes in D’Onofrio’s system.
“The majority of the fronts we play are 4-3,” D’Onofrio said. “That doesn’t mean we might not play more 3-4 defense in certain situations in games.”
### Am I convinced the defense is better? It might be, but I want to see proof in September (and against Louisville and Nebraska, not the Florida A&M and Arkansas State games in between). But the improvement of a few young players and influx of several quality recruits is reason for cautious (and I mean cautious) optimism. But defensive tackle still worries me.
### Duke Johnson, who was 196 pounds last August, is up to 210, which could make him more effective on short-yardage runs.... UM hopes Justin Vogel will be the answer at punter, a position of great concern. Canesport.com reported that he's transferring from UF (where he hasn't punted in a game) and will be a walk-on at UM, with the chance to earn a scholarship if he becomes the Hurricanes' punter. Several other prominent programs also had interest in Vogel. He averaged 45 yards a punt in high school in Tampa.
### A few postscripts from the Nets' 88-87 win in Miami tonight: New Jersey becomes the first team in the Big Three era to go 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season. And this was the first LeBron James team ever swept 4-0 in a regular season series.... Erik Spoelstra said Mason Plumlee's last-second block of James "was a foul from my vantage point, but what can you do?" LeBron agreed: "It was a foul. That's my thought. I should have been at the line. He grabbed my right hand. It wasn't on purpose." He said the ball would have gone straight down if Plumlee had gotten only ball....
Plumlee had firm contact with James' hand at the end of the play, but as Sun Sports' Tony Fiorentino said, "The officials consider the hand part of the ball" --- unlike the wrist. "We got lucky," Nets coach Jason Kidd said.
This was indisputable: Plumlee should have been called for goaltending on a block of a Chris Bosh shot with two minutes left.... ESPN noted LeBron was 128 for 130 on dunk attempts this season before that Plumlee block... TNT's Craig Sager asked LeBron if the Nets are the Heat's biggest challenger in the East. "Get out of here, Craig. Next question," LeBron responded.
Without Dwyane Wade, the Heat needed more from Bosh than his 12-point, 6-rebound game on 5 for 13 shooting.... Spoelstra again bypassed Michael Beasley, as well as James Jones despite his good work last week.
### If Miami beats Indiana on Friday to split the season series and if the teams finish the season tied, conference record would be the tiebreaker and the Pacers are 36-13, compared to 33-15 for Miami after tonight. The Heat leads the Pacers by half a game, but Indiana could regain the lead if it beats Milwaukee Wednesday and if the Heat loses at Memphis.
### Despite all of Indiana’s struggles and the Heat’s erratic play at times, Brooklyn’s Kevin Garnett wanted to make one thing clear when we spoke Monday: “Miami and Indiana are the two best teams in the East. So you should assume they are going to make [the Eastern Conference Finals]. No ego here. I’m calling it like I see it.”
### Though the Dolphins hope to find their starting right tackle in the draft, they will give Jason Fox a chance to compete for the job. Fox has played only 281 snaps on offense in four years for Detroit, allowing one sack on 130 passing plays.
### The Dolphins are using some of their 30 permitted non-local visits on players they like who weren’t invited to the NFL Combine, with Marshall offensive tackle Garrett Scott the latest to come to team headquarters this week. He figures to be a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent.
### The Marlins shut down ace Jose Fernandez on Sept. 11 last season, not wanting him to pitch much more than 170 innings. (He pitched 172 2/3.) General manager Dan Jennings told The Ticket’s Josh Friedman that while Fernandez won’t be on an innings count this season, “there may be times during the season we skip him a start so we can pitch him deeper into September and hopefully October.”
### Marlins right-hander Jacob Turner will miss his scheduled start Wednesday at Washington because he strained his shoulder during batting practice. (No kidding.) Brad Hand will start in his place.