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Canes pass defense -- from safeties to corners -- not getting the job done

The Miami Hurricanes haven't been very good on run defense this season (they rank 82nd nationally).

But the pass defense hasn’t been any better. Here are some sobering, eye-opening stats on UM’s struggles:

Ray Ray Armstrong> The Hurricanes' pass efficiency defense has dropped from fifth nationally a year ago (99.12 rating) to 102nd (144.37) heading into Saturday's 3 p.m. kickoff against Duke (3-5, 1-3 ACC) at Sun Life Stadium.

> UM has surrendered 12 touchdown passes on defense (they gave up nine last season) and is on pace to give up 18. The most passing TDs UM defense has surrendered since 2000 is 15, set in 2008 and 2007.

> Opposing quarterbacks are completing 65.28 percent of their attempts against UM (in 2010 it was 49.7 percent). This year's number ranks 12th-worst among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The previous completion percentage high set by opposing QBs against UM since 2000 was 56.81 in 2007.

> The Hurricanes aren't only struggling to get interceptions (UM has four this season), they aren't getting their hands on many balls at all. Of the 16 pass breakups, only eight belong to the secondary: Ray-Ray Armstrong has two and Brandon McGee, Thomas Finnie, Lee Chambers, Mike Williams, Andrew Swasey and Vaughn Telemaque each have one. Last season, UM had 47 pass breakups and 16 interceptions -- 36 PBUs from its secondary. Brandon Harris alone had 10 pass breakups last year.

> And while UM's defense has given up 10 runs of 20 yards or more, it’s surrendered 20 through the air -- including six pass plays of 20 yards or more that have gone for touchdowns.

Of course, a lack of a consistent pass rush hasn't helped. UM is on pace to finish with 27 sacks (the Canes had 37 a year ago). Nor does it help either that last year's starting cornerbacks Harris, an All-ACC cornerback (2nd round pick by Texans) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (3rd round pick Raiders) are now in the NFL.

But after eight games, Armstrong and Telemaque -- who were supposed to be the strength of the secondary -- haven't played like the best safeties on the team in Al Golden's eyes. And McGee, the one returning experienced player at cornerback, hasn't turned the corner yet.

"At safety we're not where we need to be," Golden said a day after the loss to Virginia. "Clearly JoJo [Nicolas] is playing the best for us, has been consistent in his ability to operate the defense and the way he's playing and leading. We're not disciplined enough and keep giving up explosive plays on the back end... our tackling is inconsistent as well. At times Vaughn [Telemaque] and Ray [Armstrong] tackled well. But there's still too many times we don't execute the way we need to.

"[At corner] we have to get McGee over the hump now. He's doing so many things better, is becoming reliable. He has to come to the point where he's dependable, that he frees it up and starts to make some plays for us - interceptions or some big tackles, caused fumbles, those type of things. McGee is maturing, improving, but we really need him to finish strong here in this final stretch. And clearly we need more from Mike Williams, Finnie, [Lee] Chambers at this point in time."

Defensive backs coach Paul Williams, whose secondary his final year at Temple last year finished 14th nationally (110.98) in pass efficiency defense, said the turnaround has to start with getting more out of Armstrong and Telemaque.

"Your safeties need to run the show. They need to be your quarterback. They got to get it right, make all the checks. And we got to do our job," Williams said. "Again, we're just inconsistent. We got talent, but at the end of the day it's all about production."

Armstrong, tabbed in the preseason as an All-American candidate, has 18 tackles and a fumble recovery in four games. Telemaque, who has started at safety all eight games, is fifth on the team with 40 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Armstrong said Wednesday he doesn't think he's played well since returning from a four-game NCAA-mandated suspension, but isn't playing the layoff or the new defensive schemes brought in during the spring. He's playing himself. "I think I can do better," he said.

How? "Just working on staying disciplined, being responsible for my responsibilities, Armstrong said. "Just got to listen to the coaches and trust the calls. When you're deep, stay deep. When you're up, play the run. It's not tough. You just have to focus in and do what coaches call."

McGee (25 tackles, 2.5 for loss, a sack and a pass breakup) said Tuesday he feels like he has made strides in his tackling, but said he knows he has to do more. “It's definitely important for me to just lit it rip," McGee said. "Turnovers come when everybody does their job, plays their role and the offense makes a mistake. It's about being patient."

Golden, though, doesn't want McGee to be patient anymore. He wants McGee to play faster and trust his technique.

"There's a curl route against Virginia and it's man to man and he's too far off the ball," Golden said. "He's one of the top three fastest guys on the team. He needs to challenge that guy a little more, trust his technique, have the confidence to be a little more aggressive and assertive, start making more plays on the ball. He's ready to do that."

McGee said he would like to be more physical, but is asked to play differently in UM’s defensive scheme. "I actually played a lot of press [last year]. It was a different defense. Now we play a lot of off," McGee said. "I feel like I've been able to make the transition. Playing off, playing press is pretty much the same to me now. "But I know I have to do more. Whatever they call, you play within the system. I pretty much feel like I can run with any receiver. So, playing press man, bump and run is almost second nature to me."

Duke's passing offense ranks 28th nationally and quarterback Sean Renfree ranks 25th in the NCAA in completion percentage (65.7). Receivers Conner Vernon (51 catches, 740 yards, 4 TDs) and Donovan Varner (37 catches, 443 yards, 0 TDs) both have over 175 catches in their career and could both pass Duke's all-time receiving leader Clarkston Hines this Saturday. And Duke's offense has at least 32 plays of 20 yards or more this season.

"It's going to be a great challenge," McGee said. "Being that those guys are from Miami I expect some trash talking. I know Conner [Vernon] and [Donovan] Varner. I played on the same 7-on-7 team with Conner and have a good relationship with him. We just have to make sure we don't let him loose."