If Darryl Sharpton's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown last Saturday against Duke felt like a rarity for a defensive player in a Canes uniform, you weren't alone and you weren't wrong.
Sharpton's play was the second defensive score of the season (Marcus Robinson had a fumble return against Clemson) for the Hurricanes, who have become less and less associated with big plays since Randy Shannon put down the headset as defensive coordinator. Miami's defenses simply haven't been the same. Not only are the days of having elite statistics in run defense, pass defense and scoring defense long past us, but so are the memories of a pass rush, big hit and fumble recovery, or that game-changing interception.
After picking off just four interceptions a year ago, UM has upped its total to seven this year. But the fumble recoveries (9) are still shy of the 11 from a year ago. Worse yet? Sacks. Miami has just 19 -- 12 fewer than it did last year when it tied for the seventh fewest in program history.
So where exactly can you find where the Hurricanes have improved under John Lovett, the program's third coordinator since Shannon moved on? Stopping the run and preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
"I guess if you had to characterize us, we'd be a bend and don't break defense," UM cornerback Brandon harris said. "Big play, create turnovers and sacks and dominate? That's what we want to be, but that's not kind of defense we are right now. The defense right now is based around getting that big play to get momentum on our side, getting off the field on third down and trying to make teams one dimensional, trying not to let them do two things against you."
"You look at our numbers in the red zone. We haven't given up many touchdowns in the red zone. Teams may drive the ball on us, but when it's time to buckle down, we know how to buckle down."
Harris is on the money. A year ago, UM was among the worst in the country in red zone defense (114th total). Of the 43 drives inside UM's 20, opponents scored 18 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns and hit 12 field goals. This year's Canes? Much better. Through 11 games, opponents have made 33 drives in the UM red zone. 26 have resulted in scores, but only 6 were rushing TDs and 5 were passing TDs. UM held opponents to 15 field goals, a much better percentage than a year ago (45th total).
"We struggle a little bit as far as getting pressure, getting sacks, and turnovers," linebacker Colin McCarthy said. "But we do a great job of getting off the field in terms of third downs and limiting big plays. We do a good job in terms of moving onto the next play. The bad stuff that happens, we put it behind us. In the Duke game, we gave up the big pass. Then, we forced them to go three and out and held them to a field goal. It just shows the maturity of the team, where we've come."
The Hurricanes are actually on par with what they did a year ago on third down. Opponents are converting 36.17 percent of the time (38th overall). Last year, it was 36.26 percent (36th overall). But where UM is also clearly better on defense is against the run.
Last year, the Canes capped their season by getting scorched on the ground. Georgia Tech, N.C. State and California ran for 908 yards against Miami over the final three games. This season, the Hurricanes -- despite losing Sean Spence and Jordan Futch to injury -- have improved their overall run defense from 75th (151.85 ypg) to 30th (116.09 ypg).
You can credit a healthy Colin McCarthy for having a big hand in that. But while your at it, give some love to Shaprton, who has obviously improved his senior year.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves," McCarthy said. "I think the chemistry between players, the confidence with the guy next to you. I think that's good enough. I think at times last year we were trying to do too much. Guys were out of place. Now, guys are doing what they have to do and we're successful. Coach Lovett deserves a lot of credit for that.
"Turnovers would be nice. You saw with Darryl getting the pick, getting the touchdown. We're doing everything we can to get turnovers. I think as long as we bend, don't break. We may give up some big plays, but as long as we force them to field goals, three-and-outs with the offense we have they'll put up enough points so we don't have to worry about it."
MORE THOUGHTS AND NOTES...
> Got word at tonight's basketball game that left tackle Jason Fox was held out of Wednesday practice for an undisclosed reason. I was told Fox went to the hospital to get checked out, but was released and that he told folks at practice he was "fine." When I asked Shannon about injuries, he said we'd have to wait until the injury report comes out. I guess we'll have to see if Fox shows up on the injury report Thursday night.
> UM quarterback Jacory Harris admitted Tuesday he was "messing with reporters" when he showed up to his postgame press conference wearing a sling. But he was joking about the pain in his thumb. Wednesday, I saw him walking off the field with the thumb still heavily taped.
> If you wondering why Leonard Hankerson is leading UM with 42 catches for 752 yards and why guys like Aldarius Johnson (15 catches, 257 yards) and LaRon Byrd (29 catches, 420 yards) have fallen behind, Harris told us Tuesday Hankerson is the only receiver in on every passing formation. Harris said AJ has taken a good attitude even though he's seen fewer passes come his way. "One thing about Aldarius is he's not a selfish guy," Harris said. "He understands how offenses work, who's going to get what balls on certain plays depending on the read. He's not that type of guy to say why am I not getting the ball. He doesn't point his finger."
> Enjoy your Thanksgiving Turkey tonight and while you're at it think of old Onion (Shannon). He told us Tuesday his plan was to "sleep, hibernate a little bit." When asked if he'd eat Turkey, Shannon said, "Nah, turkey makes me sleepy."