Hurricanes coach Al Golden has enjoyed seeing his defense grow in terms of depth and maturity and become more adept at creating turnovers, sacks and stops in the red zone.
But for all of UM's early success this season, he said Miami's ACC opener Saturday afternoon against Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson's triple option offense is going to provide a hefty test for his defense -- more challenging than any the Hurricanes have faced this season.
"We're opening up ACC play, and this is our sternest test to date," Golden said. "With all respect to Florida, if you want to test your defense, man this is the team to test it against. This is a great challenge for us. I don't have to remind our defense we gave up 248 yards rushing a year ago against this team. We gave up two pass plays of over 50. We gave up runs of 35, 34, 21, 17 and they were four of five in the end zone against us. This is a great challenge for our defense, and I think our guys understand that. It's not just the ACC opener, it's a tremendous challenge for our defense.
"We're kicking off the ACC conference [play] this week, going against a foe that gives you a number of things with a high degree of difficulty. Lot of respect for Coach Johnson and Georgia Tech and the job they've done. Sixteen consecutive bowls. They've been one of the two teams on the Coastal Side that has represented us in Charlotte and won the division and a championship. They're talented on offense. Vad Lee (6-1, 215) at quarterback has given them a new dynamic in terms of throwing. They have added new formations, the diamond as a lot of people are referring to. [B-Back] David Sims (6-0, 225) is a big play threat as one of the up backs. DeAndre Smelter (6-3, 220) is also a deep threat at receiver. On defense everything starts with Jeremiah Attaochu, 20 career sacks. He's a guy that can wreck the game if you don't account for him. Love the way he plays. A lot of respect for him and a lot of veterans coming back on this defense.
"It's an offense that's top 10 in rushing, time of possession, third down, sacks against. And it's a defense that's top 10 or top 25 in a lot of critical categories -- red zone, scoring, total defense, rushing defense, third down, pass defense. I think they've only given up 10 points in the second half. On top of that Sean Poole is one of the best punters and they're great at net punt, sixth in the country. Great challenge for us. We've been working like crazy the last two days to get ready for them."
To hear all of Golden's press conference Tuesday you can click on the link below. I've also included audio interviews with offensive coordinator James Coley and offensive line coach Art Kehoe below.
MORE NEWS AND NOTES
> Golden spoke about quarterback Stephen Morris and his ankle injury once again. He said he thinks the senior will be fine to play Saturday and is hoping the ankle will soon become a non-issue.
"I think he'll be OK. I think he'll be fine. He's been good. We didn't go backwards. We just got to continue to get him healthy," Golden said. "Really, the practices go shorter and shorter so I don't think it will be anything from a physical standpoint that will incumber his return. I'd like to get him to 95 to 100 percent by Saturday. I think he's making progress. He didn't go backwards Saturday. Hopefully it will be a non-issue here shortly. I'd love to be able to say 'It's a non-issue.' But we're not quite there yet. But we're getting there.
"From what I understand, I'm not a doctor, it's a deep bruise, just takes a little bit of time. It's painful is what it is. Structurally there's nothing wrong or we wouldn't have put him out there, exposed him like that. He's making progress. He's made significant progress since 3 o'clock on Saturday for sure."
> Center Shane McDermott, who hasn't started since the Florida game with a foot injury, was full-go at practice Tuesday and will likely start Saturday against Georgia Tech. Fifth-year senior Jared Wheeler, who has started at center in McDermott's place, will still play a lot. "I think if Shane is ready he'll go," offensive line coach Art Kehoe said. "But [Jared] is going to play and he's going to play a lot."
Said Golden: "We certainly have a six or seven man rotation right now that are going to rotate. I think [Wheeler is] playing a starter level. How is that going to play out this week? I don't know. But he's certainly playing at a starter level."
> Freshman linebacker Jermaine Grace, a fixture on special teams, should be good to go this week, Golden said. It's a different story of course for senior running back Eduardo Clements (strained hamstring).
"That's going to be right to the wire. That's going to be a Thursday decision. With a hamstring, it's a day-to-day thing and we'll see where he's at tomorrow. We'll keep him on task, keep him around the team. Again, OT can have a very positive impact on a lot of the other guys in that room -- Gus, Walter and Dallas. Hopefully he can continue to fight through it."
> Golden said freshman Corn Elder, who is serving as the scout team quarterback this week, will remain at cornerback for now. But he gave no promises that wouldn't change in the future. Golden said the Canes gave Elder a look at running back in training camp, but opted to go with moving Walter Tucker from linebacker over there instead.
> Golden continued to be hard on Duke Johnson for his two fumbles last Saturday and explained the reason Johnson wasn't wearing first team jersey Tuesday in practice.
"Yeah, don't fumble the ball inside the five-yard line," Golden said. "I feel no different than you guys do. We can't fumble the ball inside the five. It wasn't an aggressive mistake. It was a careless mistake. It was going against what we teach. We do not teach to reach the ball unless it's fourth down, last play of the half or last play of the game. When Dallas [Crawford] reached the ball it was on fourth down. That's a young man that has a lot of moxy and he knew going onto the field he was going in on fourth down.
"So again, when we're through learning, we're through. Randy's talents and sensational plays kind of precede him a little bit. He just has to continue to learn and grow. The only thing we have to do in this is discipline the habit -- the correct habit situation. He's been great, had a great attitude. He'll grow from it, learn from it. He always does. He's a learner. He's a hard worker. But for anybody on our team to do that there has to be consequences."
Does that mean Johnson won't start this week? Not exactly. Golden ended his press conference by saying Johnson still has a lot he's earned saved in the bank.
> Golden said cornerback Tracy Howard "is more coachable."
"I don't mean that in a negative sense," Golden said. "When you're young sometimes you need to hear it a bunch of times. Right now, he just understands we're trying to get him to play better and be in the correct position and that's going to lead to success. When he loses a little bit of focus it shows up in his game. We're constantly talking to him about just trusting coach [Paul] Williams, coach D [Mark D'Onofrio]. When Tracy is on task he gets better, and he gets consistently better. So hopefully he'll continue to stay on task."
> Golden said the team is trying to address its penalty issues in practice. The Hurricanes cost themselves two long returns on special teams against USF because of flags. "Right now that's the one element that's missing," Golden said. "We're addressing it on many different fronts and hopefully we get it squared away. I wish I could say it's these two people and let's get them out of the game. But it hasn't been like that. There's enough blame to go around and that starts with me. I got to continue to take responsibility myself and make sure we get it fixed."
> Golden said Ereck Flowers has been playing well at left tackle. "No news is good news at left tackle," Golden said. "We're not giving up a lot of sacks. Ereck really the last two weeks from a fundamental standpoint has been working on his aim points and hand placement, has made a lot of progress. Ereck is a lot more comfortable now. We're pushing him and he's getting better every day. He's got immense talent. He's got to continue to learn. We're very pleased with his development for sure."