Last year, it was Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson who made big splashes on UM's defense as true freshmen. This year, look for defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Brandon McGee to be those guys.
Both arrived early in the spring from high school and both have continued to show maturity and growth throughout the first week of practice. Wednesday, McGee recorded his first pick of the fall -- a huge confidence booster for a guy defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff told me was a bit unsure of himself. Thursday, Vernon recorded two sacks, with one coming in third down drills and the other in red zone work.
But it's more than big plays that McGee and Vernon are making. It's personal growth. Vernon took his promotion to the first team a few days ago on the left side -- ahead of redshirt sophomore Adewale Ojomo -- not as an ego boost, but as a reward for his hard work. "I always knew I could rush the passer," Vernon said. "But I feel like I'm not there all the way. I'm not 100 percent yet. I want to take it a step further."
When I asked Vernon (6-3, 250) if he had a streak of sacks going (we hear he's had at least one a day since practice began) he told me flatly "I'm not counting my sacks, I'm trying to make plays."
Vernon, who said Ojomo and Eric Moncur have been 'great leaders for him', said defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has been helping him improve his hands. "He's helping me with my hand placement, shooting my hands and keeping my stamina up," Vernon said.
McGee, meanwhile, said his confidence is rising. "I was struggling at first when I first came out for summer practice, coming off that surgery," said McGee, who had a broken bone in his ring finger worked on in the spring. "The upper classmen told me don't get down myself. I came around [Wednesday] and got my first interception of the summer. I had a couple pass breakups. I'm definitely feeling confident."
> Tight end Dedrick Epps said after Thursday's first two-a-day and two days of full contact drills that he's "the same old, Dedrick Epps" and isn't experiencing any pain or discomfort from his previous knee injury. The 6-4, 253-pound senior had knee surgery in December after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament before the Emerald Bowl.
> Sophomore receiver Aldarius Johnson said he feels he's improved on finishing at the top of his routes, coming and out of breaks, and blocking since the end of the spring.
> QUOTE OF THE DAY: Defensive end Marcus Robinson on the talent at defensive end: "We're all like wild dogs in a meat house."
THURSDAY'S PRACTICE HIGHLIGHTS (Provided by UM's sports information staff)
> BUCHANON, VERNON STAR FOR DEFENSE: Ramon Buchanan recorded an interception in red zone drills and made several big stops, including a sack, in 11-on-11 action... the defense held the offense three straight plays on a 1st-and-goal from the three-yard line... Linebacker Kylan Robinson intercepted a tipped pass for the defense... Safety Vaughn Telemaque had a fumble recovery.
> JACORY HOOKS UP WITH RECEIVERS FOR BIG PLAYS: Jacory Harris hooked up with Jimmy Graham (60-65 yards) and Travis Benjamin (35-40 yards) in 11-on-11 play... Tommy Streeter made two long receptions in team passing situations and had another nice grab in 7-on-7 drills... Running back Mike James had a handful of plays of 10+ yards, including a few catch and runs in third down situations... running back Lee Chambers had a nice long run to convert a third down... The defense held the offense to one TD in red zone drills. Aldarius Johnson had the touchdown catch.