Canes Building Defensive Depth

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — It’s no secret, Miami’s 2020 football season has been anything but ordinary – and it hasn’t even started yet.

While teams across the country prepare to open up their season as the COVID-19 pandemic still looms, building depth is going to be essential for any team to have sustained success this season. That’s why Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker and the rest of the team’s defensive coaches have spent countless hours preparing their student-athletes to play all over the field.

“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,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Ephraim 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.”

One of the keys to success for Miami’s defense has been a steady ability to wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield. A year ago, Miami was sixth nationally in sacks per game at 3.54 and phenom Gregory Rousseau led the way with an ACC-leading 15.5 sacks.

Rousseau opted out of the season ahead of the start of fall camp, leaving Miami without its top pass rusher. But Baker has a lot of confidence in Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche leading the way at defensive end.

“I think Jaelen Phillips is going to surprise a lot of people,” Baker said. “He hadn’t been able to play really for the last couple years but he has had a phenomenal camp, really one of the best camps probably out of anyone on the defensive side of the ball, so I think he’s going to kind of shock the world whenever he gets to play here in a couple weeks. And then Quincy has been very, very steady. He’s really what we expected; he’s had a great camp. Both of them are elite pass rushers. Potentially, we could be sturdier at that position. I think Jaelen at 270 pounds, he’s a load, he’s pretty stout there.”

I would put Jaelen Philips in the 99th percentile of any player I've ever coached as far as physical attributes.

Associate Head Coach / Defensive Line Coach Todd Stroud

While Phillips has been a marvel in his first fall participating with the Canes since transferring over from UCLA, defensive line coach Todd Stroud has raved about the leadership Roche has shown since he came over as a grad transfer in the spring.

“Quincy Roche has been solid as rock with us,” Stroud said. “As far as his return to play, he has never wavered. He knows that he came here for a reason; he came here to improve his draft status. He had a great career at Temple and he came here to improve his draft status, so it would be silly to rest on his laurels and not relish the opportunity to play with the Miami Hurricanes on this defense and see what he can do in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s been great. He’s been a tremendous leader for us, and I can’t say enough positive things about Quincy as far as what he’s done for us.”

The importance of depth continues to be a central theme for Miami and there are lots of impressive options on the edge in Coral Gables. In addition to Roche and Phillips, redshirt freshman Jahfari Harvey is an athletic end that many expect to shine in 2020. And then there is the Williams duo – Cam, a redshirt freshman and Chantz, a true freshman – that could develop into future stars.

“I think both of those guys have great potential,” Baker said. “Cam Williams is a different guy from last year — both physically and mentally — really has a lot of personality where last year he didn’t really speak too much. He’s had a great camp. He’s powerful, he’s almost six-foot-six, has long levers, but he’s really come on this camp. And then Chantz shows a lot of promise, he’s very fundamentally sound; you could tell he’s very well-coached in high school. I’m excited about the future both of those two guys.”

While Miami is deep at end, Baker believes the Canes are just as talented at defensive tackle. With veterans Nesta Jade Silvera and Jonathan Ford leading the group, Miami has six players that can rotate inside and that will be important as teams will try to run the ball to limit the effect of the Canes’ pass rush.

“I think we’re going to be tested especially early with UAB, they do a really good job of running the football, and then week two with Louisville. Two different schemes, but both are really, really good at running the ball,” Baker said. “I think overall with that position we have a lot of depth. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys play there with Jade, with Jonathan Ford and Jordan Miller. It’s kind of like the safety room where then you have three young guys that have really come on here of late when you talk about Jalar Holley and Jared Harrison-Hunte and Jason Blissett, so a lot of competition in that room. Those guys really created a bond with each other and it’s been pretty unique, pretty cool to watch just over the course of 12 months on how those guys have gelled. Really every single one of those guys brings a little something different to the table, so I think you’ll see a good rotation there on the inside for us.”

Miami’s linebackers are looking to replace a pair of four-year starters in Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney, but there are several players vying for playing time in a unit that is filled with guys eager to prove themselves.

“I think there’s going to have to be a rotation in there and you know we keep preaching about it, especially this year with everything going on, depth is going to be key and I think we do have quality depth in that room,” Baker said. “I really couldn’t be more pleased with BJ Jennings and Waynmon Steed, the way they battled back from their injuries. Both of them had really, really good camps. Obviously, Zach McCloud, you could tell just in one year span how much more comfortable he is inside the box and making the calls, so really, really pleased with his progress.

“Then you bring up Sam Brooks and Avery Huff, Sam Brooks has done a phenomenal job for us. He’s kind of rotating between ‘MIKE’ and ‘WILL’ for us and doing a really, really good job for us and Avery has done some good things,” Baker continued. “Ryan Ragone is another name out there, so we have a lot of depth in that room. I’m really excited to watch this linebacker room continue to grow. They’ve gotten a lot better over the course of the past month and still have a lot of room to get better, but I’m excited about the future.”

McCloud, who arrived at Miami along with Quarterman and Pinckney, has earned an important role in the linebacker corps after years of experience playing well in the Miami defense. But the veteran has added even more responsibilities to his task list, choosing to mentor younger players as they try to make an impact for the Hurricanes.

“I think he’s the only fifth-year senior we have on defense that’s been here all five years, so we kind of call him the old wily vet, and he does a great job of leading both on the field and off the field,” Baker said. “He’s a guy that handles his business in every aspect of his life so when he talks, people listen. He’s also a guy that I think really cherishes taking guys under his wing. The two freshmen linebackers, Corey Flagg and Tirek Austin-Cave, I didn’t even mention and both have done a phenomenal job, but that’s kind of been his project: those two guys really learning the playbook, making sure they’re taking care of their bodies off the field, and you can see how much two guys have matured under the guidance of Zach McCloud. He brings everything to the table you want, both tangible and intangible, and I’m excited about this season for him. I think he’s going to have a humongous season for us.”

A fifth-year veteran, Zach McCloud has appeared in 43 games for the Hurricanes.

The Canes have a pair of exciting athletes pushing to replace former standout Romeo Finley at striker. Redshirt sophomore Gilbert Frierson has the most experience after playing in all 13 games behind Finley a year ago, but sophomore Keontra Smith has really opened some eyes since moving over from safety.

“Keontra’s done a heck of a job. He’s really coming along, you think of him as an older guy almost with Romeo being that guy for the last two years, but he’s only a sophomore,” strikers coach Jonathan Patke said. “He’s a coach pleaser, hard worker, head down and going to do everything it takes to be a great player, which you’d love to see. And Gilbert coming back, he’s smart, can line up the entire defense; sometimes he does that if he’s out there with young guys, young DBs, he’s helping those guys out getting aligned. Obviously, coming over from corner a year ago, he knows corner, safety and striker so he understands the defense, understands what we’re trying to do. He’s that old guy in that room and is just very cerebral when it comes to football.”

On the back end, Miami’s secondary is filled with competition, both at corner and safety. That’s one thing cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, who was an All-American corner at The U, loves to see every day from his group. With veterans DJ Ivey and Al Blades Jr., leading the way, young returners Te’Cory Couch and Christian Williams, as well as freshmen Marcus Clarke and Isaiah Dunson, are battling to earn major roles for Miami’s defense this year.

“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. 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.”

Miami’s safeties are led by a trio of talented players expected to play huge roles leading the defense this season. Bubba Bolden, Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall are excellent examples for what it takes to be a safety at The U.

“I think Gurvan Hall has had an unbelievable camp,” Baker said. “He is playing his tail off and coming to work every single day with the blue-collar mentality and then Bubba and Amari are doing a great job, as well. I think all three of those guys are going to play a ton for us, all three of those guys have veteran leadership, all three have played a bunch of football throughout the years, so excited about those three and then you have a great mix of youth in there as well with the three freshmen: Jalen Harrell and Brian Balom and Keshawn Washington.  Coach Banda is doing a really, really nice job bringing those guys along but I think our safety position from those three first guys, they’re doing a phenomenal job. They could start anywhere in the country, in my opinion.”

With talent and depth at all three levels, the Hurricanes will look to continue their trend of defensive excellence that began when head coach Manny Diaz arrived as Miami’s defensive coordinator in 2016. His aggressive style of defense has led to consistent success on that side of the ball. In 2019, the Hurricanes finished the season ranked No. 13 in the country in total defense at 309 yards per game allowed and ranked No. 23 in FBS in points per game allowed at 20.2 points.

“I think our defense, forever and ever, philosophically, is prided on tackles for loss and takeaways,” Baker said. “I think if we can get the offense behind the chains, that increases our chances to turn the ball over and get the ball back to our offense as quick as possible, and at the bottom line, that’s the name of the game. Redzone and third-down defense are the other two things we really, really pride ourselves on. For those four aspects of our defense, if we can do good in those four stats I think we will be really, really good in the wins column and from a statistical standpoint defensively at the end of the season.”