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Leadership, depth growing on improved Canes defense; Feliciano has developed into Mr. Cut Block

There were plenty of times last season when coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said he went to his bench too much as he tried to plug the holes and solve the woes of a putrid Hurricanes defense. 

"Last year we probably played 25 to 28 guys in certain games," D'Onofrio said Tuesday."We had too many guys on the field at the same time who were susceptible to a big mental error, a missed tackle, those sorts of things."

The 16th-ranked Hurricanes (2-0) aren't throwing the kitchen sink at opponents anymore. Bigger, stronger, deeper and finally with real veteran leadership, UM's defense played only 19 players against Florida, D'Onofrio said, a sign there is finally a standard of excellence where only the best who can hold their own will play against the best.

"That was the right number for that game because at this point those 19 can execute at a high level and not have a drop off where you get gashed or somebody is not in the right spot," D'Onofrio continued. "I'd like to play more, but I'm not going to play more until they play at the level the 19 are executing at."

A year ago, D'Onofrio said there were current third team players on his defensive line who got upwards of 300 snaps. With the additions of veteran players like senior defensive tackle Justin Renfrow (6-6, 320) and ends David Gilbert (6-4, 256) and Ufomba Kamalu (6-6, 285) freshmen and sophomores who aren't ready aren't being pressed into action anymore.

The Hurricanes, ranked among the worst defenses in the country last season, are surrendering only 2.9 yards per carry this season and rank second nationally in red zone defense.

"There is leadership. There's accountability. There's guys in the room who take a lot of pride in what they're doing now as opposed to saying hey 'I'm on the team and I'm starting or I'm a backup,'" D'Onofrio said. "Like I mentioned [Monday], those guys were a starter or a backup on a team that wasn't playing very well.

"You can pat yourself on the back for that or you can get better. The guys realize that. And they realize they had to do their job and execute better. I'm just happy for them. I'm happy for the players because they put a lot of time and effort into it. It's a good start. By no means are we a finished product yet. We're 2-0 and we've improved in some areas and I expect us to continue to work hard to continue to improve."

A big reason the team is also gelling on defense more, according to coaches and players, is that real leaders have stepped forward. There is an accountability for mistakes and blown assignments.

"I think it started in the summer," said senior and defensive captain Shayon Green. "Not having the coaches around, the leaders, me and Stephen [Morris], Alonzo [Highsmith], Jimmy Gaines, the players saw who was in control. The coaches had been asking us 'Who was going to step up and do it?' A lot of guys take PCP -- Players Coaching Players. There's a big difference from Coach saying it and Shayon saying it or Stephen saying it. When I tell a player to do something or we do something as a team there's no backlash anymore. If this is what we got to do to win, that's what we'll do. Weight room? 5 minutes early? Guys listen. It's all a big help."

Was leadership not present enough before?

"It wasn't present enough," Green said. "We had good leaders. But it wasn't like it was now. It's a big difference. My first couple years we had leadership. Now we do everything together. Before, we had some individual guys who wanted to do their own thing. Now everybody does it as a whole."

That includes playing fewer snaps -- and liking it. Green, Miami's leading tackler a year ago, said he's averaging about 20 fewer snaps a game than he did last season.

"And I'm cool with it," Green said. "I just want to win. If we get a better pass rusher or somebody who is fresher -- that's good."

Denzel Perryman, Miami's workhorse at linebacker, said he was happy to see there was no drop-off in playing against Florida the times he had to tap his shoulder and come out of the game. He said backup Tyrone Cornelius (6-2, 225) more than held his own. Coaches agreed.

"I feel like from my freshman year to now guys just aren't afraid to say something to one another anymore," Perryman said. "Before, I don't want to say we were afraid, but the coaches did all the yelling. Now, we kind of do it amongst each other. If I was to mess up on a play, Shayon will get on me, Jimmy will get on me instead of just Coach. Nobody is taking it negative, fighting among one another. I feel like that's making us better."

MORE NEWS AND NOTES FROM TUESDAY

> Sophomore safety Deon Bush (6-1, 203) moved into the depth chart this week and is listed as a backup, but he's still not 100 percent ready to say he'll be back on the field and playing Saturday against Savannah State.

"I wish I could tell you all a for-sure answer, but I really don't know right now because it's a staff decision," Bush said Tuesday. "I still have a little bit of discomfort [in the surgically repaired groin], but I'm still getting ready to play this game."

> Sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard (5-11, 184) has never been the type to wane on confidence, but his first career interception against Florida definitely made him feel better about himself.

"I was just waiting to get that one out the way so the rest could just roll in," Howard said. "You get comfortable. It's like anything else, I'm glad I got the first one out of the way."

> D'Onofrio said freshman cornerback Artie Burns, in the running for a starting job, has a lot of the natural instincts to be a ball hawk like Howard can be. Running back Dallas Crawford said Monday Burns isn't the type of defensive back to deflect passes in practice, rather "he catches them."

"He just has a good feel for it," D'Onofrio said of Burns' knack for picks in practice. "Some of the guys you have to coach it over and over and over again, where they have to be high rep guys where they have to be in the position to make a play. There are other guys who are instinctive, like the Artie's and Tracy's who understand what route is coming, understand a situation and go ahead and step in front of someone and make a play. And know when to take those chances -- more in zone than in man I hope. But that's the deal."

> The Hurricanes have been awarding a WWE-style wrestling belt to the best cut-blocker on the team over the past month and apparently left guard Jonathan Feliciano has owned it the longest.

"We have a belt for the most cuts in a game and we pass it around," Feliciano said. "I've had the belt for the first two weeks of the season. All the positions talk trash about who is going to get the belt. [Receiver] Allen Hurns came up to me today in practice. He said it's mine. We've been doing it for a month. Malcolm Lewis had it once."

According to Feliciano the toy belt has a giant-sized "U" in the middle. UM coach Al Golden said earlier this week Feliciano and right guard Brandon Linder have been the team's most consistent offensive linemen.

"He's kind of like an old school guy," offensive line coach Art Kehoe said of Feliciano. "He's real smart and real tough. He'll do a little bit of pancakes and cutting and six-second drive blocks. He's got a little bit of the devil in him.

"You don't want to be on the field kind of lolly-gagging around because he's going to take you out. He's fun to watch."

> Golden didn't participate in his usual Tuesday afternoon press conference before a game because he felt ill. D'Onofrio pinch-hit for him at the podium and said he expects Golden to bounce back.

> Quarterback Stephen Morris was one of 22 student-athletes selected to the 2013 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team Tuesday by the Allstate Insurance Company and the American Football Coaches Association. Last year, running back Mike James was selected for Miami.

Morris is one of only 11 college football players from the Football Bowl Subdivision to be honored with the award, one of the most prestigious community service awards in all of college football. He is the seventh Miami Hurricane to be named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, joining Robert Bass (1993), Tony Coley (1996), Ryan Clement (1997), Nate Books (1998), Joaquin Gonzalez (2001) and James (2012).

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