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Corners Answering the Question

Corners Answering the Question

by David Villavicencio

At the beginning of every year, Miami assistant coach Mike Rumph likes to put a big question mark on the dry-erase board in the cornerbacks meeting room.

Rumph, who has coached Miami’s cornerbacks since 2016, has produced six All-ACC corners and four NFL draft picks in his tenure coaching at his alma mater. But he wants his corners hungry and motivated to prove themselves with every new season of Hurricanes football.

“I put a huge question mark on my board to let the corners know ‘you guys are the question mark.’ That’s just some incentive for me and my guys and it really does work,” Rumph said. “You don’t want guys to come in feeling entitled because of what had happened here in the past. A lot of guys think they put that U on a helmet and ‘I’m good and I’m a Cane and I’m going to dominate everybody.’ But in reality, there’s a very tough slope that you have to go up that a lot of guys can’t conquer.”

Miami brings back four corners with experience from a year ago. Juniors Al Blades Jr., and DJ Ivey combined to make 13 starts in 2019, while sophomores Te’Cory Couch and Christian Williams were special teams standouts in all 13 games of the debut seasons. Add in freshmen Marcus Clarke and Isaiah Dunson, and Rumph has six corners pushing each other for playing time.

“This is probably the most competition I’ve seen as a cornerback coach here and that involves those two freshmen, TC and Christian, and DJ and Al,” Rumph said. “These six guys are going at it every day and they understand that any day they can be the starter on the ones or they could be with the twos or could be with the threes.

“This is the beauty of what Greentree Practice Field is built off; it’s what I have going on right now and I’m just enjoying that,” Rumph added. “As we all buckle down and get ready for a game, it’ll be a little more evident who is starting, but right now those guys are competing their butts off.”

While Ivey and Blades have the most experience in the defense, neither is assuming they will be starters when Miami’s kicks off its 2020 season Sept. 10 against UAB.

“I go into every practice as if nothing is anyone’s because those guys behind me, Te’Cory and Christian, they’re great corners, as well, and DJ is a great corner,” Blades said. “All four of us and including the freshmen, too — the freshmen, Isaiah and Marcus — anyone can have that job. So, I take it every day as if I’m just another guy, which I am, but it’s up to you when the time comes. If my time does come, it’s up to me to step up.”

“All the cornerbacks that we have right now are stepping up and are doing very well,” Ivey said. “I believe if coach Rumph puts them on the field at any time or any point in the game that they will do as good as we’re doing out there. All of them are dogs, I believe in each and every one of them and I believe that we all could do it.”

Competition brings out the best in every player and Rumph has emphasized daily battles among his players since the spring. The former All-American corner is adjusting his depth chart every day based on what the corners have earned in previous practices.

“The good thing about what we’re doing here at the University of Miami is statistically — every day I look at those stats — so, whoever wins as far as the good and the bad statistically is the starter, so we’ve rotated with the ones at least two or three times right now,” Rumph said. “In the spring we did the same system and we rotated it that way and some guys stood out and some didn’t, but I can say that every day is up right now,” Rumph said. “It’s a great time to do that because we have a little bit of time before we get into chasing guys around and trying to win games, so for the next few weeks, I just really want to turn up the competition.”

While Rumph’s guidance has helped several Hurricanes corners improve year after year, veteran corners are exhibiting leadership qualities that are helping everyone in the position room improve.

“A lot of those four corners that have been here for a year, they are coaching the heck out of those freshmen and that’s what I love the most,” Rumph said. “Like right now, DJ Ivey is out there probably with Marcus Clarke and Te’Cory Couch is out there with Isaiah Dunson and they want each other to get really good.”

For Ivey, the decision to help mentor his younger teammates was an easy one. He remembers the challenges of being a freshman trying to make an impression while adjusting to college life and wants to assist his newest fellow corners in that transition.

“The approach changed for me because seeing the guys that are coming up after me, as far as the freshmen, they don’t really know what to expect,” Ivey said. “It’s their first camp, so I’m making sure they’re on the right path, getting to meetings, making sure they make their meals, checking in and making sure everything is done that they need to get done. That was like one of the biggest parts for me.”

Blades believes the entire group has committed to helping each other for the greater good. While they are all competing for playing time, they know that helping their teammates will ultimately help everyone improve.

“I think we’ve all done a great job of just kind of latching on to each other and we’re accelerating very fast and we’re getting very mature and just going against different things with the quarterback, seeing different looks,” Blades said. “And we do a good job of once we see something one time, we learn from it and we talk to each other and we’re growing really fast.”

Communication has been another point of emphasis early in camp. A year ago, Miami’s secondary was brand new after Jaquan Johnson, Michael Jackson and Sheldrick Redwine all graduated and went to the NFL. The new-look defensive backfield had to establish trust amongst each other, but Miami brings back three experienced safeties to go along with Blades and Ivey at corner, giving the Hurricanes a much more cohesive group on the back end.

“I think that a big part of our defense is communication,” Blades said. “Coming off last year, which was like our first time really being all together, and when we came back in spring for the little time we did, you could really just feel the growth and connection after playing a season with each other. It’s kind of like we’re at the point where we can just read each other. We’re just building the connection basically, so we can just communicate without communicating in a game.”

Those experienced Canes shined in Miami’s first scrimmage, with head coach Manny Diaz highlighting four returners who played most snaps with the first team last Sunday.

“I thought Blades and Ivey played very well,” Diaz said. “I thought we were really good on all the outside lanes deep throws. Gurvan Hall might have had his best scrimmage as a Miami Hurricane. He was everywhere; it was really impressive to see. And I thought Bubba Bolden, who just benefited from having just a true camp, which he really didn’t get a year ago, I thought Bubba played very well.”

While the veterans earned praise from their head coach, a pair of young corners also have caught Diaz’s attention.

“I think Te’Cory Couch has had a good camp so far, Christian Williams keeps showing us some good things,” Diaz said. “Those guys are trying to reach the consistency level of the first four.”

A year ago, Ivey led all Hurricanes with three interceptions, while Blades added a pair of picks. During this fall camp, Rumph has put an increased focus on developing all his corners’ ball skills.

“One thing I’ve done as far as trying to help the DBs step up on interceptions is just ball drills,” Rumph said. “Getting them on the machines and the jugs at least three or four times a week, involving a lot of ball drills into individual drills as well, just to get them looking that ball in and get comfortable catching the ball.

Clarke is one corner who is quickly earning the reputation of a ballhawk. The Winter Park, Fla., native intercepted a pass in Sunday’s scrimmage and has flashed a lot of natural ability for catching balls thrown his way.

“We’ve got our hands on some balls, but probably Marcus Clarke has the most interceptions right now just coming out of the last few days,” Rumph added. “He’s done some things. He has to work on his technique and get technically sound with what he is doing, but when the ball is in the air, because he played so much receiver, he does a great job of tracking the ball.”

With the second scrimmage of fall camp set for Saturday, Rumph would like to see all his corners perfect their technique more consistently.

“Coming up in this scrimmage, I just want to see it look really clean. I keep saying that word, but, when you watch film on us, I want to see all my corners doing the same technique,” Rumph said. “You can look at any corner and see that they’ve been taught to do specific things. I think when they do things like that it makes them easier to coach. So, if they make a mistake and they’ve got one way of doing things, I can correct it really quick, but if they’ve got 10 ways of doing something, it’s hard to correct it. So, I just want to see clean, good work and good technique.”

Blades and Ivey are heading into the scrimmage with some slightly different mentalities, but both expect their mindsets to help them play their best.

“I personally will be focused on just playing free, having a little bit of a hair on fire mentality,” Blades said. “Just let myself go a little.”

“I’ve just got to slow the game down, not overthinking and just being everywhere,” Ivey noted. “I’ve got to slow the game down and just play football.”

As they head into the most important scrimmage of fall camp, Blades is confident the 2020 Hurricanes defense will continue to shine like Miami’s defense has for the last several years.

“My confidence level in this defense is big and my love for this defense is big,” Blades said. “With this defense, the sky’s always limit. When it comes down to our growth and our potential, it’s always up to us, every game; every game is a new game and every day is a new day, so it’s always up to us how good we can be.”