Miami coaches see more confident defense

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami had one of the most maligned defenses in the ACC a year ago, a group that showed a modicum of improvement but lacked the overall tenacity to dominate play after play.

Coach Al Golden, faced with increasing scrutiny over defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, made a choice shortly after the season ended. He opted to believe in the power of consistency over the power of change and kept his staff intact.

Now here it is, three months later, and the Miami defense has emerged as the story of the spring. Not only is this group playing with renewed confidence and vigor, it also has gotten the best of the offense as practice has progressed.

While it would be foolish to extrapolate too much from drills in March and April, it also would be foolish to discount the progress that has been made. Spring practice is valuable in several ways, as it gives coaches a glimpse of what type of team they will have once August rolls around.

“Every team is different; I say it every year,” Golden said recently. “You just don’t know the direction and the mentality and the maturity until you get that team. … We’re getting more collaboration and more unity. Communication is a big part of that. Guys are running to the ball. Guys know what they need to do; they’re willing to tackle. It’s all encouraging.”

But at the same time, Golden finishes:

“We’ve got a long way to go.”

That goes without saying. But Miami, at least on paper, seems capable of making its biggest defensive jump in three years based on returning experience alone. Eight starters and 16 from the two-deep are back. Coaches are no longer emphasizing bigger-picture concepts in practice. They are drilling down on the fine points, a sign of growth and maturity.

Their best defensive player, Denzel Perryman, is now playing middle linebacker, where he can have a bigger impact on the game. Dallas Crawford was moved to safety to help improve a position that was in major need of an upgrade.

Linebackers and defensive backs have been challenged to be more physical on the perimeter. Last season, the Miami defense gave up a chunk of big plays because it could not contain on the outside.

Third-down defense also is a major point of emphasis. Miami allowed opponents to convert 42 percent of the time on third down, and that was another big reason why the defensive performance dropped in the second half of the season.

Finally, Miami wants to improve its four-man rush. The Canes hope to accomplish that with more production out of rush ends Tyriq McCord and Al-Quadin Muhammad. Though they play on the same side of the line, there will be packages putting both on the field at once.

D’Onofrio says he has a more physical, more talented defense today than he did one year ago. But if players do not know the scheme or are out of position, talent and aggressiveness end up meaning nothing.

“We’re just trying for improvement daily, just getting guys to focus in on doing their job, and not trying to do more than we’re asking,” D’Onofrio said. “It’s easy to get exposed on defense. All it takes is one guy out of his gap or one guy to miss a tackle in the open field and it can result in big plays. We’re putting the pressure back on them to execute and the leadership within the room of trying to put the pressure back on their teammates. We’re starting to get that. We’re starting to get some guys to respond and take ownership.”

Perryman has emerged as the leader on defense after mulling over the option of declaring early for the draft. Golden said, “Denzel sees himself as a leader, and he’s not going to fail the mission. When you do things right, and you love the game as much as he loves it, you can lead.”

Golden also points to better leadership from cornerback Tracy Howard, who has been a big part of the improvement seen in the secondary so far. Better leadership translates into better communication, which translates into better energy and better performances during practice.

Coaches have seen that this spring. Now the question is how all that will translate when the games begin.