How the Miami Hurricanes Are Building a Championship Defense

Chris Bello@itsauthingblogContributor ISeptember 16, 2013

Offense carried the load in 2012, but Miami's return to the top will be a result of old-school U-style defense.
Offense carried the load in 2012, but Miami's return to the top will be a result of old-school U-style defense.Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes brought home five national championships over the past three decades, and a swarming, hard-hitting defense deserves most of the credit for that success.

Al Golden knows that the path back to the top begins with a solid defense. Now the third-year UM head coach finally has the proper personnel falling into place, enabling his program to resemble the Miami of old.

UM had its share of quality quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs over the years, and many went on to be NFL greats, but it was on the other side of the ball where "The U" truly built its legacy.

The list of greats is long and storied. Jerome Brown. Russell Maryland. Bennie Blades. Benard Clark. Jessie Armstead. Micheal Barrow. Cortez Kennedy. Warren Sapp. Ray Lewis. Dan Morgan. Ed Reed. Vince Wilfork. Jon Vilma. Sean Taylor. Antrel Rolle. Jon Beason. All deserve mention, as do countless others, as these young men took care of business while sporting the orange and green. They also went on to be defensive greats at the next level, too. 

Legendary coach Jimmy Johnson wasn't a household name when he took over the Hurricanes program in 1984, but he changed the way the game itself was played by the time he left Miami five seasons later.

Johnson came to Miami defensive-minded, knowing the level of athlete South Florida produced. A combination of heat, humidity and top-notch competition, as well as a mix of inner city kids with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove, became the true staple of Hurricanes footballespecially defensively where the job is to deliver a hit, not avoid one. 

Johnson's defenses were built on speed. Turn a cornerback into a safety. Take a fast safety, pack some muscle on him and convert him into a linebacker. Add some man-weight to a fiery outside linebacker, stick him on your defensive line and let him use that speed and athleticism to get after the quarterback.

This approach went on to revolutionize the college game, but in the mid-1980s it gave the Hurricanes a leg up on the competition—especially Big Eight programs like Oklahoma and Nebraska, which were still running a wishbone offense that great Miami teams ate alive en route to national championships. 

Johnson took the Dallas Cowboys job after the 1988 season and was replaced at Miami by Dennis Erickson. Erickson quickly implemented his one-back offense but knew better than to tinker with the all-world defense his predecessor left in place. The result? Two national championships and a 33-3 record over a three-year span, as his first few rosters were loaded with Johnson's players. 

Butch Davis, a Johnson protege, replaced Erickson in 1995. The Hurricanes were enduring scholarship losses as a result of NCAA sanctions, so Davis wisely rebuilt the program with a defense-first mindset, as Golden now attempts to do the same, almost 20 years later as new NCAA sanctions hover. 

By the time Davis departed in January 2001, Miami had players like Morgan, Reed, Wilfork, Vilma, Taylor, and Rolle either on the roster or set to sign within weeks. Their impact was the backbone of a 34-game win streak, four straight BCS games, back-to-back title game appearances and one national championship.

From there, the unraveling began. Davis' successor Larry Coker was an offense-minded head coach and was unable to recruit the same caliber of player as Miami's previous leaders. The talent dropped off tremendously, giving then-defensive coordinator (and future head coach) Randy Shannon little to work with on his side of the ball. 

The Hurricanes run of 11-1 (2000), 12-0 (2001), 12-1 (2002) an 11-2 (2003) soon became 9-3 (2004), 9-3 (2005) and 7-6 (2006), which earned Coker his pink slip, despite a 24-1 start in his first two seasons.

Shannon's tenure proved even more forgettable, going 28-25 over a four-year span. A defense-less 45-17 loss to rival Florida State in 2010 proved to be the beginning of Shannon's end. He was gone weeks before a 33-17 Sun Bowl loss to Notre Dame, while Golden watched from the press box. 

Seeing what a disaster the Miami program had become, Golden made a commitment to strength and conditioning, getting his guys in proper shape, eating right and working on overall endurance—something Miami inexplicably stopped doing under Coker and Shannon.

The recruiting process was completely revamped as well. Golden mended fences with high school coaches whom previous Hurricanes leaders burned, then got busy aiming for the right Miami-style players, especially on the defensive front.

Golden and his long-time defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio are proponents of the 3-4 defense, which they've spent two-plus years easing Miami into. The Hurricanes have run the 4-3 for decades, but changes in the college game have Golden and D'Onofrio preferring the presently popular defensive alignment that sports three athletic down linemen and four linebackers.

The four down linemen/three linebacker option is still at play often for Miami, but the 3-4 is being incorporated in order to utilize the skills set of Golden's newest Hurricanes. Golden uses the outside linebackers to get after the quarterback and create some pressure, while defensive linemen can drop into coverage if need be, and defensive backs can lock down and reel in some interceptions. 

Miami caused five turnovers against Florida on September 7, forcing three fumbles and two interceptions. The Hurricanes also got a crucial stop on 4th-and-1 inside the red zone in the second quarter, when the Gators were looking to take a halftime lead.

Offense was expected to be the early storyline for Miami this season, but the defense has come together early and stolen the show. Ranked 116th out of 120 teams nationally in 2012 according to the Orlando Sentinel, the Hurricanes gave up an average of 486.4 yards per game, had the 112th-ranked rushing defense (217.9 yards allowed per game) and 113th in sacks given up (an average of 1.1 per game).

Two games into a new season, it's premature to state that Miami's defensive woes are a thing of the past. However, five takeaways against Florida definitely show a level of maturity this squad didn't possess a season ago, especially with the Gators consistently driving the ball and being within scoring distance so often.

Personnel-wise, Golden and D'Onofrio obviously feel that the right players are finally falling into place, as proven by the defensive coordinator's recent move from the field to the press box this season. There's less on-the-field coaching and more overall trust for the players, which has worked thus far, two games into the season.

Like any new coach making his mark, Golden has added a few cornerstones to his improving rosters. A lack of depth and roster holes has created challenges, but over the past three recruiting classes there have been a few standouts who will play a huge role in Miami's defensive resurgence:

Denzel Perryman

The 3-star linebacker out of Coral Gables was on Miami's radar before Golden was hired, but was also courted by Florida, Florida State, LSU and others, with the Hurricanes losing ground in the wake of Shannon's firing.

Golden was able to close Perryman in late January 2011 and counted on the linebacker immediately. Perryman saw action in all 12 games as a true freshman. Per his UM bio, Perryman made Freshman First Team All-American and a year later earned some All-ACC honors.

At outside linebacker, Perryman recorded 13 tackles against Florida and forced a fumble. In the opener against Florida Atlantic, the junior had a team-high six tackles and two pass breakups—one that should've been returned for a score, like he did last year early on against Boston College, helping to set the tone.

Perryman is noticeably bigger size-wise as he enters his third season for Miami and is both physically and mentally ready to take a giant step forward his junior season. Perryman is also a member of a 16-player "Unity Council" that Golden has established, proving that this coaching staff sees him as a mature team leader.

Deon Bush and Tracy Howard

A huge coup for Golden in Year 2, as he kept two local defensive backs home. Bush stood front and center at the 2012 Army All-American Bowl, tossed up the "U" with his hands and stated on national television (h/t Miami Herald): "It was a hard decision. A lot of them were great schools. But I think I have to put my city back on the map right now," as the 4-star safety chose the Hurricanes.

Weeks later on National Signing Day, the 5-star Howard stunned the nation when choosing Miami over Florida, having been a Gator lock for months.

Putting a fence around South Florida is a must for all Miami head coaches, and in the same way that Davis kept local studs like Taylor and Rolle in Coral Gables, Golden threw down a serious gauntlet when landing Bush and Howard. The fact that both proudly announced for Miami on national television, in big moments, only reaffirmed the belief in what Miami's new staff was accomplishing. Plus, it was great PR, helping counter all the NCAA negativity.

Bush played in 10 games and had six starts in 2012, racking up 24 total tackles. He's been sidelined the first two games of his sophomore season, recovering from a hernia procedure months back, but is game-ready and will be eased back into the lineup with Savannah State on deck this week. 

Howard played in all 12 games last season, earned one start and had 17 total tackles. He pulled down his first career interception against Florida in Week 2 and is also a member of the "Unity Council."

Al-Quadin Muhammad

Like Bush last year, Muhammad used this January's Army All-American Bowl for his benefit. Deciding between Miami, Notre Dame and Alabama—the latter two prepping to face off in the national championship days later—Muhammad chose the Hurricanes and was one of only two defensive ends in the 2013 class.

Miami is painfully thin at defensive line this season, having reeled in a few transfers over the past few months to build some depth. Muhammad came to Miami from New Jersey but definitely possesses a Hurricanes swagger that makes him feel homegrown. Before the season even got underway, Muhammad talked about his style of play with Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald:

"Some of the moves I have and some of the things I do is just God-given talent. Some things I do and moves I make, you have probably never seen a guy make before. You probably don't even see some of them in the NFL," Muhammad explained. "Any move I see I put some swag on it."

Time will tell if the 4-star defensive end lives up to the hype, but he was a huge pickup for Golden in 2013. Miami didn't reel in most of the defensive linemen it targeted last season, but since Muhammad, the Hurricanes already have eight ends or tackles verbally committed for next February.

Alex Figueroa 

Figueroa sat out a year and went to prep school, but as a freshman for Miami this season is battling junior Thurston Armbrister for the starting job at strong-side linebacker. Figueroa was on campus in January and began working towards a starting role. Measuring 6'3" and weighing 233 pounds, Figueroa is a machine.

According to the Miami Herald, the freshman has 6.3-percent body fat, squats 415 pounds, lifts 318 pounds in the power clean and benches 320 pounds. Figueora also possesses a 32.5-inch vertical leap and ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash.

Hardworking, aggressive, athletic, tough-nosed linebackers are at a premium at Miami, and Figueroa is already looking and playing the part early. If he keeps it up, he'll certainly be one of a few guys around which Golden will build over the coming years.

Figueroa has seen little action thus far, but has been creating buzz since spring and will become a force as the year rolls on. 

Miami had an impressive showing in Week 2 against Florida thanks to turnovers, but the Hurricanes still allowed 413 total yards against the Gators, as well as a career-best 291 passing yards for Jeff Driskel, who isn't known for throwing it around all that well.

To Miami's credit, it did hold Florida's rushing attack to 122 total yards and an average of 2.8 yards-per-carry, as the goal was to not let Driskel, Mack Brown or Matt Jones run wild. So, mission accomplished there.

UM currently ranks 35th overall in total defense, 72nd in points scored and 12th in points allowed, with those stats expected to improve as Miami takes on Savannah State and South Florida over the next two weeks. The Tigers were outscored 143-12 in its first two games, while the Bulls are 0-3, with losses to McNeese State, Michigan State and Florida Atlantic, who Miami topped, 34-6 in the opener.

Two games in, the biggest takeaway for Miami's defense is the overall attitude. The Hurricanes were pushed around the past few seasons and often looked lost. UM was playing down to its age and experience level, while depth issues took their toll.

With a little bounce in their collective step, more experienced personnel, two warm-up games on deck and riding the wave of being the difference-makers in an upset of an in-state rival, Miami's defense should continue to take some big steps forward between now and when ACC play begins against Georgia Tech in early October.

Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog


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