WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN
As visions of Hurricanes greatness become blurrier in the rearview mirror, we’re still waiting for the day that UM assembles a dominant front seven again. Odds are, that will probably be the day the Hurricanes return to being a top-10 program.
One UM person said for all the talk of the Hurricanes not maximizing their talent in recent years --- and they assuredly have not --- people also should realize that UM has had only one defensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds since 2005: Calais Campbell, a second-rounder in 2008.
Conversely, UM had four first-round defensive linemen selected between 2001 and 2004. That’s telling, and reflective of the fact that defensive linemen with game-changing potential either aren’t coming here (in most cases) or still too green to wreak havoc (Chad Thomas). Olivier Vernon, who left UM early, has averaged more sacks per game with the Dolphins than the Hurricanes.
And when San Diego took Denzel Perryman 48th in this past NFL Draft, it marked the first time in eight years that UM had a linebacker selected in the first two rounds. Heck, the 2004 Canes had two linebackers picked in the top 17 (Jonathan Vilma, DJ Williams).
Whereas some progress clearly was made last season (opponents averaged 3.7 yards per carry, which was 30th nationally), the Hurricanes were bludgeoned against Nebraska and Georgia Tech and their 27 sacks were 72nd in the country.
So how can a front seven that lost its best player (Perryman) be better this year? Al Golden insists UM has more skilled pass rushers than the Hurricanes have ever had in his tenure.
With practice opening Thursday, some chatter on UM’s front seven:
### One thing we keep hearing from players is how much of a difference defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad is going to make after his 2014 season-long suspension from school.
“His physicality is going to bring something really different as far as setting the edge, allowing things not to go outside,” defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou said. “It's going to make a big difference.”
UM coaches stuck by Muhammad after his semester suspension last fall not only because they desperately need him, but also because some coaches believe it was unfair that he was suspended for a semester last year for punching a student who had incited him in the Sun Life Stadium parking lot.
### Besides needing Muhammad, UM needs some of the other four-star defensive players who haven’t given them much yet to make a significant impact: junior Jelani Hamilton (much improved, according to coaches), and redshirt freshman Demetrius Jackson (who had 12 sacks as a senior at Booker T. Washington). UM believes they're ready to help.
“Demetrius has done some good things,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said this offseason. “He’s very talented, has gained about 25 pounds since he got here. He’s strong at the point of attack.
“He’s a physical guy for a guy who has played only two years of football. He’s got to lock in and not worry about where everybody else is. He’s got a real high ceiling and is really going to be a good player.”
Privately, some UM people credit new defensive line coach Randy Melvin for Hamilton’s improvement. Hamilton admitted he’s responding better to coaching.
“Randy is doing a great job with the group; I see a difference,” D’Onofrio said. “I see them getting better. As a group, we wanted to focus on making more progress toward the quarterback. We want to keep collapsing the pocket, keep making progress toward the quarterback.”
### Difficult to see this line being close to great over the next three years without Muhammad and Thomas (a five-star prospect) playing a lot and fulfilling their potential.
With that in mind, some found it curious that Muhammad and third-stringer Jackson remained behind Trent Harris at rush end this spring, while Thomas was second-team behind Hamilton at the other end spot.
What’s the reason for the defensive staff’s continued fascination with Harris? “For a young player, Trent is really a technician in the run game and the pass game,” D’Onofrio said. “He knows how to use his hands to beat guys. He knows how to set up moves.”
### UM is still waiting for a game-changing tackle to emerge and push decent-but-not dominant Heurtelou and Courtel Jenkins. Golden said Heurtelou and Ufomba Kamalu have distinguished themselves at that position this offseason. Kamalu, who also can play end, “has made some really big strides,” D’Onofrio said.
But has Michael Wyche shown he’s starter caliber?
“Oh yeah,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s made a lot of progress. He’s the lightest he’s been since he’s been with us, which has helped him regain his quickness and his twitchiness. It’s also enabled him to play harder and longer and impact the game the way he can. He’s got another level to go. But he made great progress this spring.”
Kirby said the credit goes partly to Heurtelou, who has taken Wyche under his wing.
Heurtelou said this summer that Wyche “looks a whole lot different. He lost some weight. He's more confident now. Last year, he came relatively late, coming out of junior college. It was a tough transition. I understand the transition because I [did that]."
Anthony Moten had a strong first 10 days of spring, then faded. UM sees impact potential there.
### Linebacker, which was initially a concern for UM after losing Perryman and Thurston Armbrister, isn’t nearly as much of one now.
Raphael Kirby, moving to the middle, displayed playmaking ability this offseason and has improved in being in the right spot at the right time.
Jermaine Grace is very good in coverage, “blazing fast,” as Brad Kaaya put it, physical and has improved greatly against the run. A UM football person said his football IQ is similar to Sean Spence’s.
In fact, Heurtelou pointed to Kirby and Grace as the defensive players who have most impressed him this summer, “especially Kirby. You see how he becomes a general on the field, takes control of the defense. And it has been a smooth transition for Tyriq [McCord, from end to linebacker]. He’s really smart.”
McCord is competing with sophomore Darrion Owens, who flashed pass rush skills and opened eyes this spring. Coaches love him.
“We have to finalize the right spots for everybody,” D’Onofrio said. “We have Kirby, Grace, Darrion and Tyriq who have all played a lot of football.
“Juwon Young improved quite a bit in the spring. Marques Gayot was making a lot of improvement but unfortunately missed the last week of spring.
“Charles Perry came in. Michael Smith came in off a redshirt year, off an ACL [in high school]. We have Terry McCray who can play [middle linebacker].
We have [New Jersey-based] Jamie Gordinier, [Booker T. Washington’s] James King coming in. Last year, we played five, which was not what you want to play with. [Ideally you want] seven guys who can go in the game.”
Considering college players are optimistic by nature, it isn’t surprising that Heurtelou predicts “our front seven is going to be something pretty nasty.”
Unfortunately, nobody expects Warren Sapp/Cortez Kennedy nasty. But going from generally decent to very good – and somehow doing it without Perryman – would be a start.
### Though Dolphins offensive line coach John Benton said Tuesday the team’s young guards have improved, “I wouldn’t say [it’s] to the point of saying, ‘I’m impressed.’”
He called the guard play “a little bit inconsistent.”
Who has been the best among left guards Dallas Thomas and Jamil Douglas and right guard Billy Turner?
“That’s a tough question to answer,” Benton said. “One guy has a real good practice, and the other guy maybe doesn’t and the next day it’s switched. It’s going to be who does well consistently over time.
"I’m not 100 percent sure we have a real front-runner. Dallas has been doing really well. He got dinged up a little today [but I don’t think it’s serious].”
The Dolphins gave Douglas some work at right guard Tuesday in case they settle on a Thomas/Douglas pairing. As Benton said, the Dolphins want to “make sure we are able to put the best two guys on the field.”
Benton wants more consistency from Turner. “We love the aggression and physicality he plays with,” Benton said. “We don’t want to temper that. We just want to do it the right way.”
Benton said shoring up the play of the interior of the line “was our No. 1 concern coming out of last season. That has been the major focus of our group from the start. It’s going to happen… I’ve seen some progress in the three practices [in pads]. That’s all you can do, find a way to get incrementally better every day.”
### Yet another sack today for defensive end Terrence Fede, who has been among the most impactful players in training camp.
“Once I came in and saw Fede,” Ndamukong Suh said, “I didn’t know much about him, but as I’ve seen him and saw some of the old tape on him, he’s definitely a young guy last year that’s made great progression coming into his sophomore year.”
### Please see the last post for Dolphins nuggets from Day 5 of training camp on Tuesday.
### Even after dumping three players, the Heat is on track to have a $23 million luxury tax bill if it keeps 15 players, with James Ennis or another player at the minimum as the likely 15th.
That’s why Mario Chalmers and potentially Chris Andersen remain in play, should a team suffer an injury in training camp and have the cap space to take on either player’s salary without needing to send salary to Miami.
### Though studies show pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery usually lose velocity, Jose Fernandez surprisingly has gained a mile-per-hour on his fastball, to 95.5 --- his highest since he broke into the majors.
“I’m not trying to throw harder [but] I feel stronger,” he said.
### Several people inside the Marlins expect Dan Jennings to leave the dugout and return to the front-office this winter. And beyond the obvious 2016 managerial candidates (Mike Lowell, Bud Black, Dusty Baker), people who have Jeffrey Loria’s ear also have suggested others to him, including former All-Star catcher Terry Kennedy (a Manager of the Year twice in the minors and now a scout for the Cubs) and Twins Double A manager Doug Mientkiewicz, the former big-league first baseman.