Does UM have enough defensive talent to be much better than this? Evaluators disagree; Dolphins, Heat
SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
When UM visits Virginia Tech on Thursday, it will do so against the backdrop of this jarring reality:
The Hurricanes, in three-plus years under Al Golden, have never played a genuinely dominant defensive game on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 14 ACC road games, UM has never allowed fewer than 23 points. In 10 of those games, the opponent has scored at least 30.
UM has won just six of those 14 games while relinquishing 33.7 points on average. Ugh.
Among those outside UM’s staff --- commentators, former players and others --- many would agree that coordinator Mark D’Onofrio could help matters by changing his strategy and playing a more attacking style. As Clinton Portis said on The Ticket last week: “The defensive alignment stinks. Why put safeties 12 yards away from plays? There are no adjustments made.”
But what’s more likely to generate mixed opinion from smart football people is whether UM has enough talent, defensively, to be a top-20 caliber team.
Two veteran NFL scouts that I respect offered different views on that, one asserting the Hurricanes’ defensive talent --- combined with their high skill level on offense --- is good enough now to be a top 20 team, is much better than what they’ve shown and that the defensive players aren’t being coached or developed properly.
An NFC scout who has evaluated ACC and SEC schools this season disagreed, telling me there’s still a sizable gap in quality between UM’s front seven and the linebackers/defensive linemen he sees at the top programs.
“They haven’t had the quality of defensive linemen and linebackers with size, speed, playmaking ability you need to contend,” that second scout said. “They don’t have the dominating defensive player.”
A college coach at a major program who has seen UM this season said UM's defensive problems are a talent issue, asserting that UM isn’t stout enough on the defensive line; lacks playmakers at outside linebacker and has no ball-hawking safeties.
“They have a couple of frontline kids but they don’t have the overall defensive talent to compete,” longtime recruiting analyst Larry Blustein said.
“They didn’t get elite kids defensively until this past year. They don’t have the talent or depth to do better this, don’t have what teams have that are playing for a national title or remotely near one. Even their best defensive player, Denzel Perryman, is undersized. That defensive line is average.”
So beyond the issues with D'Onofrio's schemes, how much is talent contributing to UM’s defensive struggles? A few points to consider:
### From 2010 through 2014, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked 16th, 36th, 9th, 20th and 12th, according to rivals.com. Averaging those five classes, Miami’s ranking of 15th is well behind FSU (10th, second, sixth, 10th and fourth) and narrowly behind Clemson, whose classes were 19th, 8th, 14th, 14th and 13th.
Among some of the schools that have beaten UM in the past two years, Virginia Tech’s classes were ranked 23rd, 33rd, 22nd, 23rd and 25th. Louisville’s were 48th, 29th, 42nd, 52nd and 40th.
Even more upsetting from a UM perspective, Georgia Tech’s were 43rd, 41st, 57th, 85th and 47th. And this will especially anger fans: Duke --- which beat UM by 18 points last season but lost to the Hurricanes by 12 this season --- had classes ranked 72nd, 77th, 52nd, 68th and 58th.
So if you base it on those numbers, the conclusion is that UM should beat Virginia Tech, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Duke and would do it with better coaching.
But it’s not quite as simple as that when you consider this: In their loss to Georgia Tech, the Hurricanes started, on defense, two players with no stars in the rivals.com grading system, one player with two stars (Ufomba Kamalu), four with three-stars, four with four-stars and no (elite) five-star recruits.
UM’s starting lineup included a linebacker whose only other offer was from Northern Colorado (Thurston Armbrister), a defensive tackle whose only other offer was from Temple (Olsen Pierre), another defensive tackle whose only other offers were from Houston, North Texas, Toledo and West Virginia (Kamalu), a cornerback whose only offers out of high school were Indiana and North Texas (Ladarius Gunter) and a walk-on (Nantambu-Akil Fentress) who had no offers.
So does UM have enough defensive talent to make the case that the Hurricanes should be much better than this, certainly better than 61st in the country in scoring defense (24.4 per game)?
Those who say yes and those who say no can each point to the state of Mississippi to make their case. Here’s why:
Look at the Mississippi defense that entered the weekend second in points allowed per game (11.8). The third-ranked Rebels start two elite five-star players that virtually everyone in the country wanted: defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and linebacker CJ Johnson and no player with less than three stars.
So if you agree with Blustein and those who say D’Onofrio doesn’t have the type of talent that he needs to win big, you can point to Mississippi, which has two elite, experienced five-star front seven studs.
But if you agree with the scout that says UM’s defense is capable of more if it were better coached, here’s your best evidence:
Look at the Mississippi State team that entered Saturday ranked No. 1 in the country. The Bulldogs’ defense, which ranks 25th in points allowed per game, starts nine three-star recruits (three of whom received no other big-school offers) and two four-star recruits.
But players have developed well there, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who had no other major offers when he enrolled and could leave as a first-round pick. And they field a more experienced defense than UM, which shouldn’t be glossed over.
So if Mississippi State is used as the measuring stick, UM fans have every right to ask why their defense --- with more highly-regarded recruits --- isn't performing better.
### And then there’s this valid argument, as articulated by ex-Cane Joaquin Gonzalez on Twitter and by phone: In the past, some Canes greats blossomed despite not being heavily recruited.
Santana Moss was a walk-on at UM. Though the traditional rating system wasn't in place at the time, Ed Reed was essentially a two-star recruit based on interest generated in him, according to Bleacher Report.
“One thing blatantly different,” Gonzalez said, “is development of players from the Butch Davis era to now. Talent coming in better but [there’s] poor development.”
### It must be noted that UM has two five-star players on the bench: freshman Chad Thomas (who should become a difference-maker with more experience) and junior Tracy Howard, who has five career picks and simply hasn’t been as productive as --- to use an example --- Mississippi senior cornerback Senquez Golson, who has 11 career picks (five this season) but was just a three-star prospect. UM people say Howard’s speed was overestimated by some coming out of high school.
### From Golden’s recruiting classes from 2011 through 2013, UM has one five-star defensive player (Howard) and 10 four-star players. But whereas some of them have become decent to good starters (Anthony Chickillo, Tyriq McCord, Deon Bush, part-time starters Corn Elder and Artie Burns), none have become truly great players, though Burns is among a few with a chance. That, according to one of the scouts, reflects poorly on the staff’s player development.
Among the other four-star prospects, Al Quadin Muhammad is suspended for the semester for punching a student; Jelani Hamilton hasn’t met expectations and likely will redshirt; Raphael Kirby “is just a guy,” Blustein said, though he has played better recently; Jamal Carter --- who former assistant coach Don Soldinger says has the talent to be another Sean Taylor --- hasn’t even been able beat out walk-on Fentress --- and Jermaine Grace has impressed as a backup. If you wondered, rivals.com rated Denzel Perryman a three-star prospect.
“They’ve hit and missed on defensive recruits, but Miami wasn’t in a position to pass on guys like Jelani Hamilton,” recruiting analyst Charles Fishbein said.
Also costly: UM whiffed on four-star defensive tackle Jalen Grimble (now at Oregon State) and lost two three-star linebackers (Gionni Paul and Eddie Johnson) to off-field issues and a potential starter (Alex Figueroa) to an arrest.
Recruiting analyst Chris Nee, from 247sports.com, said UM’s defensive deficiencies are a byproduct of a combination of UM over-rating some recruits, insufficient depth and poor scheme. For example, one evaluator said McCord shouldn’t be asked to play defensive end part of the time because he’s not stout enough against the run.
“They need to get bigger at linebacker and more physical in the front seven,” Nee said.
UM already has lost one of its top defensive recruits from its 2014 class, with four-year safety Kiy Hester leaving because of a family health issue in New Jersey. But UM has high hopes for a bunch of these freshmen defenders --- Thomas, four-star tackle Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins, end Trent Harris, linebacker Darrion Owens and two who are redshirting: ends Mike Smith and Demetrius Jackson.
### This is discouraging: UM’s 2015 recruiting class on defense (consisting of six oral commitments) is merely “mediocre,” Nee said.
There are two four-star prospects already orally committed: Killian safety Jaquan Johnson (“a playmaker who can become a leader in their secondary like Perryman is at linebacker,” Nee said) and Bradenton-based defensive end Scott Patchan (sidelined by a torn ACL). The others are three-stars prospects, including Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons end Richard McIntosh.
But UM hasn’t been able to find elite players at defensive tackle throughout Golden’s tenure and its only 2015 oral commitment at the position is three-star Bradenton-based prospect Ryan Fines, whose only other reported offer is from USF. "He's not a super athletic kid and more of a backup,” Fishbein said.
So at this point, there’s no difference-maker set to arrive at defensive tackle. That means the Canes must hope Courtel Jenkins, Calvin Heurtelou, Michael Wyche and Moten, among others, take major steps in the next year. And they better hope an elite linebacker emerges to replace Perryman; the staff really likes Grace and Owens, but it’s too soon to tell how good they will become.
Bottom line? Besides questionable strategy at times, talent clearly remains an issue on the defensive side, as one of the scouts, the coach and the three recruiting analysts told us.
Either way, the staff is culpable because they’re either not recruiting well enough (the NCAA investigation was unquestionably hurtful) or they’re not developing players or maximizing their skills effectively enough, as one of the NFL scouts noted. It's likely a case of both.
### Though Dolphins coaches publicly defended some of their decisions in the Green Bay game, it was telling that coaches told the team last week that they could have done some things differently against Green Bay if they had it to do over, according to multiple players.
“If they feel like they did a bad job or made a mistake, they will tell us,” Mike Wallace said, adding players appreciate that. “I know they did [last week].” An associate of Kevin Coyle said he realizes he could have called a better defensive scheme to end the game and admitted as much.
### Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has told people he needs to do a better job finding ways to involve Charles Clay, who rank ninth among tight ends with 759 receiving yards last season, but is just 23rd this season (146). He’s on pace to be thrown 86 passes, down from 102 last season.
Curiously, Joe Philbin insists Clay’s diminished involvement isn’t an issue, but Wallace said: “He definitely needs to get the ball [more]. He’s a playmaker.”
This clearly isn’t helping Clay’s bargaining position in free agency next spring, but he said he’s not sweating that.
“I’m still getting open," he said. "But we have a lot of weapons and only one ball. I try to stay out of coach Lazor’s hair. Calling plays isn’t easy.”
### Oddest comment of the week, courtesy of new Dolphins practice squad quarterback McLeod Bethel Thompson, Minnesota’s third-stringer the past two years: “I can throw the ball as well as anybody in the NFL.”
### With Shabazz Napier continuing to improve and James Ennis flashing considerable potential, Dwyane Wade said the infusion of youth on this roster excites him.
"Our front office did a great job of finding these young guys at the right time," Wade said. "If they came before they wouldn’t have developed like they can now. Couple of these guys can really help us this year. We haven’t had that a lot since I’ve been here."
Napier had a team-high 25 points, four assists and just one turnover in 32 minutes in Saturday's win against San Antonio.
"He has figured out how to be successful within his limits of height," Wade said. "He’s a tough kid. I’ve seen that early in training camp. He’s only getting better every time he steps on the floor."
Khem Birch (13 rebounds), Tyler Johnson (17 points) and Andre Dawkins (16 points) all made a case for the 15th roster spot on Saturday.
### Twitter: @flasportsbuzz