The early-2013 Miami Hurricanes defense appeared to be a changed unit, forcing turnovers and getting off the field on third down.
But starting with a close victory over Wake Forest, the 'Canes were repeatedly knocked around by opposing offenses, allowing more than 500 yards per game as the campaign came to a close.
Yet again, defensive improvement is the most important topic to be addressed throughout the spring session. This time around, however, Miami has more than warm bodies occupying the positions; there is real, experienced talent at every spot.
Of course, it doesn't mean weaknesses will no longer surface; the reserves must be ready for action at a moment's notice.
During the second week of spring practice, defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio called out the young linebackers, telling the group it was "the weak link today."
D'Onofrio trying to encourage young players today. "Young linebackers you are the weak link today. Let's go." #UM— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) March 20, 2014
Which of the Hurricanes' defensive units actually is the weakest at this point in time? Well, it's hard to disagree with D'Onofrio.
Looking at the defensive line, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Olsen Pierre and Anthony Chickillo will be joined by 5-star end Chad Thomas. Plus, Jelani Hamilton, Ufomba Kamalu, Calvin Heurtelou and Anthony Moten round out a much better group than Miami has fielded in recent seasons.
An experienced secondary of Tracy Howard, Ladarius Gunter, Rayshawn Jenkins, Deon Bush, Antonio Crawford, Artie Burns and Jamal Carter lead the pass defense. Then, sprinkle in some Dallas Crawford, Kiy Hester and Marques Gayot, and the Hurricanes are legitimately deep in the defensive backfield.
According to David Furones of The Miami Herald, quarterback Ryan Williams believes the secondary is the best defensive grouping, whereas Furones says "the linebackers appear to be the strongest unit at this point."
Denzel Perryman, Thurston Armbrister and Raphael Kirby are the elder statesmen at linebacker, while Alex Figueroa, Jermaine Grace, Darrion Owens, Juwon Young and JaWand Blue are the underclassmen.
However, the linebacker position is a top-heavy group. Perryman, Figueroa and Kirby have each been wearing black practice jerseys this spring, denoting the hardest workers on defense. And recently, Armbrister joined the trio.
Newly clad in black: LB Thurston Armbrister. Joins Figueroa, Kirby, Perryman, Carter, Howard. Olsen Pierre still out.— Matt Porter (@mattyports) March 22, 2014
He is definitely the leader at the position, and his versatility is extremely valuable right now. Miami is essentially playing without a true middle linebacker after Jimmy Gaines graduated last year.
Per Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the Sun Sentinel, D'Onofrio said of Perryman:
You need a guy who's a veteran guy to kind of run the show. And then when you have a very good player like that, put him in the middle and that doesn't allow teams to run the ball away from him. And you're not restricting him to playing really one side of the defense.
Kirby and Figueroa fly to the ball and look to unleash massive hits, but neglecting an assignment is always a danger for those types of players. For that reason, Golden and D'Onofrio must use extreme caution employing either 'backer in the middle, and Perryman's additional responsibility is an illustration of that.
Which young linebacker are you most excited about?
Grace, Owens and Young are on the road to becoming staples in the center of the 'Canes defense, but an enormous impact from any of those players in 2014 is very unlikely. Miami needs its reserves to make significant progress before the regular season, because they will be thrust into game action.
Hypothetically, assume the worst situation for a moment: Perryman is unavailable for an extended period of time. How well can the Hurricanes move forward without their senior leader?
Armbrister is the most experienced player, responsible for 73 tackles in his 25 appearances, but Miami is rather thin behind the senior. Kirby has tallied 26 stops in 20 games, and Figueroa notched 17 tackles during his nine appearances as a freshman.
Grace entered 11 contests, primarily playing special teams, and managed eight stops. Last September, Grace recognized the need to be more physical at this level, per Chirinos:
Without being physical in college, it's going to be tough. You're not going to be able to make big plays because there are [offensive lines] that are 6'6" plus. In high school, I was able to get [around] that. Now I have to go up and hit those guys.
Grace has the mental area covered, but his 6'1", 210-pound frame will continue to get knocked around without the extra muscle. Owens (6'3", 217 lbs) and Young (6'2", 240 lbs) still must learn the playbook, nailing down assignments and understanding which gaps must be occupied and when.
It's certainly a lot to comprehend as a 17- or 18-year-old, but the backups just aren't there yet.
A couple of years in the future, the now-young linebackers are likely to be the most exciting unit to watch. Showcasing a couple of hard-hitters, it's a step toward the talent national championship-winning groups put on the field.
Right now, the reserve linebackers are the weakest link on the Miami defense. But spring practice is a critical time in the progression of the young players, and they have time to become a more complete overall unit by September.
All recruiting information and rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.