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Securing the Back End on Defense

Securing the Back End on Defense

by David Villavicencio

Experience is an important factor in any successful defense.

A year ago, Miami had battle-tested players up front and at linebacker, yet was reloading in the secondary. But players like Amari Carter, Gurvan Hall Jr., and Bubba Bolden went from young guns to veterans in just one year, giving the Hurricanes a veteran group leading the safeties into the 2020 season.

“I feel really good about those first three,” co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Ephraim Banda said. “They’ve done a great job in the summer. They’ve done a good job through training camp. I thought Bubba and Gurvan had really good training camps. Obviously, Amari is ‘Mr. Steady’ and has done a great job being a professional throughout the pandemic and time off of really being a pro.”

Both Carter and Hall appeared in all 13 games for the Canes a year ago, while Bolden emerged as a playmaker in the five games he played in before suffering a season-ending injury.

Hall became a force in his sophomore campaign, as his 66 tackles ranked second on the Canes. He also made several impact plays, recording 3.5 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, one interception and three pass breakups. Now a junior, the West Palm Beach, Fla., native is in position for a breakout 2020 season.

“For any young safety we’ve had, it isn’t just Gurvan, early in the career you have to constantly press or remind young players—and especially safeties—how important urgency and being locked in affects their game,” Banda said. “Early in Gurvan’s career I had to keep pressing the button and reminding him, so I would say the biggest jump I have seen from him in this camp is that I don’t have to remind him as much. He now just knows how important it is to start fast and be locked in and not allow the moments of casualness to jump into his brain—which is natural for all of us. We all have that in our brain where it tells us to get casual and relax.

“He now is starting to develop and grow and understand that I have to start fast, I have to play fast,” Banda continued. “I have to be ready to go. I am starting to see maturity and the awareness of being locked in from the jump and starting practice and starting a scrimmage like that.”

Hall was Miami’s leading tackler in its first scrimmage, recording seven stops and drawing the praise of head coach Manny Diaz.

“Gurvan Hall might have had his best scrimmage as a Miami Hurricane,” Diaz said. “He was everywhere, really impressive to see.”

After another strong showing in the second preseason scrimmage, Diaz made sure to let Hall know he is in a position to take the next step as a player.

“I actually had a little talk with him at the scrimmage and he just said that now I’m an older guy, so it’s now time to step up,” Hall said. “I had leaders before me like [Sheldrick] Redwine [Jaquan Johnson]; I was always like the quiet guy. I wouldn’t always say what I was thinking in my mind. This year is a different approach. Now I know that is stuff I’ve got to do. I’ve got to provide for my family. Now it’s just that time where now I’m growing up.”

Carter, who has known Hall since high school, has seen his fellow safety and longtime friend grow significantly as a football player in just a year’s time.

“You can tell he is reaching a level of comfort and confidence because he has been working on his technique and understanding what he sees,” Carter said. “His IQ is going up. He is starting to understand what the striker is doing and how that adjusts where he is going to have to be or the defensive line and what gap he is going to have to fit. He is taking all that to another level.”

Speaking of those young safeties, Brian Balom, Jalen Harrell and Keshawn Washington have all been quick studies since arriving at Miami. The trio has flashed impressive ability in scrimmages and is working hard to earn the trust of their coaches and teammates.

“The ones that stand out to me are Brian Balom and Jalen [Harrell],” Hall said. “Brian, he’s more like a guy like I am, more versatile, more flexible and he can run. Jalen, he’s more like a big-time 6-2 safety, he can come and bang.”

Washington enrolled early at Miami and got a head start learning the defense before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring football and team activities for several months. But Banda believes the former South Dade star benefitted greatly from his early taste of Canes football.

“He did a good job taking advantage of the early spring meetings in the few practices we had,” Banda said. “He’s still like the rest of the freshmen, still trying to come along, learn the importance of practicing hard, the importance of being physical. And I’m not just talking about Keshawn; the situation is the same with him, Jalen and Brian.”

The talented trio is adding youth and depth to Miami’s safeties room and that is something that will be crucial in an uncertain 2020 season.

“This is a year where if you can’t play multiple positions and do a lot of things, your value to the team, roster, how you can help the team drastically drops,” Banda said. “We’re looking for guys that can do multiple things. It doesn’t matter what position you may play, you never know what 2020 will bring.”

While he has his freshmen currently learning one safety position at a time, Banda has challenged his veterans to understand both spots because he understands the importance of building depth ahead of this season.

“It’s not about who plays free safety or rover. It’s about depth. It’s about getting guys through the situation and learn as many positions as possible,” Banda said. “We have rolled numerous guys and everybody has learned a new position. It’s something coach Diaz reminded to everyone throughout the pandemic while we were stuck at home. We wanted everyone to teach multiple positions to our kids because you never know what may happen. At field safety, Gurvan has been there and done a great job. I’ve had Bubba learn both, Amari already knows both. We started camp with all of the young guys rotating in and out. As a whole, I feel really good about the three guys we have in Bubba, Gurvan, and Amari.”

Carter believes any member of the veteran trio is more than capable of playing either safety position because of their increased understanding of what Miami does on defense beyond the defensive backfield.

“We’re starting to be able to work both sides and there’s a certain level of comfort that we’ve been getting to that’s been allowing us to play faster,” Carter said. “Knowing different parts of defense, we’re starting to learn things that don’t even directly involve us. We’ve been able to understand what the front is doing so then that may change how we play our technique. Everything is a learning experience.”

Part of the increased knowledge for Bolden, Carter and Hall comes from facing Miami’s new offense every day in practice. The group has been able to test their ability against a talented group that is constantly coming at them with different looks and lots of weapons.

“With our offense, y’all know we have different threats from the outside working in and then we’ve got Cam [Harris] at running back and D’Eriq [King] at quarterback, who is a good passer. He can scramble and all that kind of stuff, so we have a lot going on the offense,” Carter said. “As a defense, you have to get comfortable being in different situations at one time. You have to get comfortable at processing like, ‘I have this job but if he does this, then I’m going to have to adjust this way, or if D’Eriq is giving me this look, I’m going to have to adjust to this, but at the same time I know my job, know my role and where I’m going to fit on the ball or the player.’ So, they’re giving us a lot of looks and there is speed all over the field, so we have to match that.”

New offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s scheme has challenged Miami’s defenders to get a greater understanding of what an offense does, and Carter believes that has helped the Canes improve defensively.

We're seeing different types of play calling and spreading the ball in different parts of the field, so I feel like all around we're getting better at playing defense and understanding offense."

Amari Carter

The safeties are excited to get the chance to show off their skills in front of fans at Hard Rock Stadium in 2020. Miami will allow 20 percent capacity at its home game this season and Carter believes that will be great for him team and the people who support it.

“Football, it’s one of those teams sports where having fans there just adds to everything, so us being able to have our fans there that’s a big thing for us,” Carter said. “Every single year, even before everything that has been going on this year, we actually look forward to our fans being there.

“I suppose as a fan when you’re at the stadium, you’re not on the field, but you have a sense of belonging to the program,” Carter added. “Just fans being there, that’s a big bonus for us. We love our fans; that’s what everyone is looking forward to, fans being there.”