Speed. The word has been synonymous with Miami Hurricanes football for some time.
Not this year. Not on the defense, at least.
Through four games of the 2011 season, Miami’s defense looks like a college kid the morning after his 21st birthday. Slow moving.
Just watch the tape. Where are the consistent hits in the backfield? The explosive sacks off the edge from a year ago have become a rare occurrence. Miami ranks 39th in the nation in tackles-for-loss, while they hovered at or near the top of the category for most of last season.
That isn’t to say the individual players are slow, because they’re not. Cornerback Brandon McGee runs a blinding 40-yard dash in the 4.20 range, and Marcus Robinson is one of the more explosive edge rushers in the conference.
As a unit, the defense is playing slow. They’re doing a lot of thinking and not a lot of tackling. The only player who looks somewhat comfortable out there is senior linebacker Sean Spence—the unquestioned leader of this defense.
The players haven’t completely accepted the new defensive philosophy of Al Golden and his staff. It doesn’t appear to be for lack of effort, but, rather, enduring the pain of change.
“It takes us playing fast,” McGee said. “The techniques Coach Golden and his staff are implementing, we need to do our best to take the training to the game, get rid of old habits and allow them to coach us.”
Spence noted a key difference in the systems. “It’s a different defense,” he said. “Last year we ran a lot of men with not many line stunts and concepts like that, so it’s been an adjustment.”
It’s why in Tuesday’s weekly press conference, Golden mentioned how the younger players—most notably true freshman such as defensive end Anthony Chickillo—are often able to grasp these new concepts more quickly. They don’t know any better because they haven’t been programmed any other way. The veterans have to mentally dismiss one style they’ve been taught for several years and accept a new one after just months of preparation.
Long-term progress isn’t always a steady, consistent climb. The identity of this year’s team just may be “one step back, two steps forward”.
Many of the fans expected a smooth transition from the days of Randy Shannon, at least on the defensive side of the ball. It’s been anything but.
Defensive tackle Marcus Forston is now out for the season, and was actually in danger of losing significant playing time to former end Adewale Ojomo. Safety Ray Ray Armstrong hasn’t played a down this season, and neither has defensive-end Olivier Vernon, as both received suspensions for their involvement in some extracurricular activity. They desperately need those two to make impacts because this team lacks impact players right now.
“There’s going to be some growing pains,” defensive coordinator Mark Donofrio said of his defense after Wednesday’s practice. The question remains: For how long? A vicious Hokie rushing attack awaits in Blacksburg.
Danny Dolphin is a Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.