« New UM RB coach happy to coming home | Main | New DL coach Jethro Franklin speaks »

For D'onofrio, "it's all about player development"

The South Florida media got to meet and spend a half hour with new UM defensive coordinator Mark D'onofrio Monday. If there is really one thing you can say about D'onofrio it's that he's hungry -- and wants his players to play that way. 

Mark D'onofrio The former Penn State middle linebacker, now 41, had the opportunity to become a head coach at Temple and passed on it to follow his former Nittany Lion co-captain and close friend Al Golden to UM.

Making brash decisions is nothing new for D'onofrio. He had a chance to become the defensive coordinator at Virginia and instead decided to go with Golden to Temple to try and make the nation's 120th ranked defense better. He and Golden started out with only 53 scholarship players in 2006 and eventually made Temple relevant.

His defense his final year improved to 17th nationally in total yardage and 16th in scoring defense -- allowing only 19 points a game. Temple ranked in the Top 25 in 12 defensive categories in 2010 -- including 45th in run defense, much better than UM. Six players from his defenses in 2008 and 2009 who were two star recruits or worse are now in the NFL. He expects to have three more in the league off this last defense.

"It’s all about player development," D'onofrio said Monday. "Whoever we have here we’ll coach and we’ll coach them to be the best they can be. And I’m proud of that, because I think we’ll get our guys to play hard. I think they’ll play disciplined. I think they’ll tackle well. that will be at the core of who we will be. And we’ll put them in the right position to make plays.

"That’s finding the right guys who love the game, who want to learn, who want to work and teaching them the fundamentals. Teaching them how to get off blocks and tackle and learn how to prepare and learn situational football and all those things. I’m confident that now, stepping up and being able to recruit at a higher level will only pay off for us really as we try to go from where, you know, there’s a top-25 defense here and try to move higher."

D'onofrio wasn't in El Paso with Golden when the Hurricanes took a beating of Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl. He was with his parents and two sons up in Jupiter watching the game on TV. But what he saw between commercials turned his stomach as much as it did yours.

"Well, I’ll preface it with I know any transition is hard, and obviously this was a hard transition here," D'onofrio said trying to be nice. "Anytime there are coaches that are going out and players staying on, I think that’s a tough situation. I haven’t been in that one, but I can imagine it being tough. I think the things that stood out to me are really at the core of who we want to be defensively. If you had a pyramid built up of what our goals would be on defense, I think at the very core, it’s going to be that we’re going to play really, really hard. we’re going to finish. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to knock back piles. All 11 guys better be in the frame when we freeze it. that’s where it starts and that has nothing to do with talent. That has nothing to do with talent. We want to play harder than they played the other day.

"I think we want to be disciplined. We can’t have penalties. Obviously a lot of penalties in that game led to touchdowns. Right there we have to eliminate that. and we have to tackle well. we have to tackle better than they tackled in the game. again, those are things that you can talk about. Those can be your philosophy, but if you don’t have a plan to execute those, you’re really not going to be able to get it done. and those are things we work on everyday, those are things we teach, those are things that al makes a big emphasis on as far as penalties go. tackling. We tackle everyday. We tackle every single day. at the end of the day you can’t play defense if you don’t tackle well.

"I think sometimes people get caught up in schemes and all these other things, but at their core they have to be fundamentally sound. So I think that’s where we’re going to start. We’re going to start with that foundation, clean that up with what I saw the other day needs to be cleaned up based on how the season ended and then get into the execution phases of stopping the run and third-down defense and red zone and all those things that we feel we do a good job of teaching."


> Being a Penn State grad, you might believe D'onofrio's heart won't be in coaching The U. But he knows the program well and respects it. "Before I was a college football player and before I was a college football coach I was a fan," D'onofrio said. "I know the history here. I know the players. I was just talking with Micheal Barrow and he was talking about a recruit. I said this guy kind of reminds me of Bill Hawkins, No. 54. He looked at me said 'Yeah, Ok.' I don't know how many guys from Penn State know what number Bill Hawkins was, but I'm one of them."

> D'onofrio said he watched four bowl practices and a few UM games on tape to study the Canes defense. He feels he has a good grasp of what's missing and what is needed in terms of personnel. He said the top needs at the moment are linebacker and cornerback.

"It's really not about the players. It's about playing with passion, playing with energy, playing with discipline, tackling well, playing like you love the game, not faking it out there," D'onofrio said. "Showing passion, enthusiasm and that you really love the fact to wear that Miami jersey and be a part of this tradition. Guys need to respect that. And I think at the end of the day, they need to appreciate that and what they have here and respect that."

> D'onofrio said he likes the defensive staff that has been put together. "Paul Williams has been our secondary coach and been with us for five years at Temple and really instrumental in the success we've had there. There's no question he and I are on the same page. We work really well together and have a good feel for one another as far as game planning goes, adjustments and all those kind of things. I'm definitely fired up to have him," he said.

"Jethro Franklin, our defensive line coach, was only with us for one year. We were fortunate enough to get him last year from USC. He got caught in that whole Pete Carroll change and what not and he was available. I got his resume and said 'I'm going to call this guy up. He probably doesn't want to come.' Sure enough he did. I'm going to give this guy a shot. We were getting all kinds of resumes. Here was a guy with eight years of NFL experience, two years at SC, Fresno, played in the NFL, has an unbelievable resume. Gave him a call. He interviewed. Hired him. And now we're glad he's here.

"And obviously Mike has been tremendous. Mike is a year younger than I am. Mike was playing in that '91 game. He was the middle linebacker on the other side. You want to talk about a guy that bleeds UM. He's excited. We're here right now and we're excited to have him. But he's really bright, a football guy, he's passionate, works really, really hard. Does a great job in recruiting. I think we have a great staff -- guys I'm really excited to be working with. Again two of them I worked with. Adding Mike will make it a smooth transition. Plus, he's a UM guy, so that will be great."

> D'onofrio said he hasn't spoken with cornerback Brandon Harris about his future. Harris could opt to leave early and is currently projected as a borderline first round pick. "I tried not to get involved in that," D'onofrio said. "It’s one of those things where I just casually said hello to some of the players while this whole thing was going on. I didn’t think it was fair to the outgoing staff and those guys involved to really be a distraction. Obviously, those guys got home just the day after the game and will be home on break right now. I’ll be catching up with all the defensive guys here over the next week, trying to get in touch with all of them and talk and do all those things.”

> What's his philosophy on blitzing? "I don’t think you could ever blitz as much as the fans and you guys want," D'onofrio said. "Everybody says, ‘Why don’t you blitz? Why don’t you blitz?. A lot of it depends on personnel, first and foremost. You have to first have the guys that can be able to cover. And you have to be able to have the guys who can get them on the ground if something does pop when you’re aggressive, but we mix it up. I mean, we will pressure a bunch. We’ll mix up coverages. We’ve played a lot of zone coverage , we’ve played man coverage, we’ve had the flexibility to get in and out of an odd front. We’ll drop eight at times or we’ll max pressure and we’ll bring seven.

"I think you just have to mix it up and you have to find spots where it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t think you can be blitz happy. I think one of the things we pride ourselves on is that at the end of the day, scoring defense is the no. 1 statistic. At the end of the day. I mean you don’t want to give up points, so however you do that, whether somebody decides they’re going to blitz 70 times a game or maybe it’s, you know, a third of the game. whatever you can do to get the points down at the end of the day and not give up big plays and do those kinds of things is the way you have to play. But obviously, personnel will dictate that."