The Hurricanes have a talented group of pass rushers at the defensive end position right now. Chad Thomas is the most complete player at the position. He has started every game and has been stout against the run. He has three tackles for loss over the last three games and one sack. Unfortunately, he was hurt against North Carolina and is questionable for Thursday's game against Virginia Tech. If he's unable to go, Miami better hope he returns soon. When Quan Muhammad, the projected number two at defensive end, was kicked off the team before the season it created an opportunity opposite Thomas in the starting lineup. Trent Harris was expected to win the job because of his experience but a hand injury slowed him down a bit early in the season. Even now that he's back healthy, it's been Demetrius Jackson who has started two of the last three games. Harris seems to be more of a playmaker, though, with 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks over the last three games. Both are talented pass rushers with bright futures. Jackson is probably a better natural pass rusher but Harris plays with a tremendous motor that allows him to make a lot of plays.
Joe Jackson and Pat Bethel are both freshmen who are in the rotation. Jackson plays more and seems to be more of a playmaker. Still, they both seem to have bright futures here. Scott Patchan, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, made his return against Florida State but suffered a setback. How long he's expected to be out remains unclear.
Depth was good at defensive tackle heading into the season and a few players have emerged above the rest. Sophomores Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh have emerged as the two starters and both have been playing well lately. They might not be confused for Vince Wilfork but they're both good players who have very bright futures here. They've both been active and the top-tier coaching they're getting from Craig Kuligowski will only help them in the long run.
Courtel Jenkins and Gerald Willis have been running with the second unit. Jenkins has been solid for a couple years now and the addition of Willis has been a plus for Miami. A lot of people expected him to come in and be the best interior player for Miami, which has not happened, but he's playing quality football right now.
Anthony Moten is having a hard time seeing the field in his third year. He has as many face mask penalties over the last three weeks as he does tackles. He's running as the team's fifth defensive tackle right now but when the top four are healthy he's been a non-factor. Ryan Fines is a second year player who hasn't seen the field over the last three games. Miami is hoping Tyreic Martin is legit but he's out for the season with an injury.
Miami is currently the only team in college football starting three true freshmen linebackers. To their credit, the trio of youngsters have done a solid job. Shaq Quarterman mans the middle and does it well. He's smart and plays a very physical game. He has 23 tackles over the last three games and seems to be getting better every week. The most impressive one to me has been Michael Pinckney. He's not the biggest or fastest kid out there but he plays with tremendous instincts and does a great job of finding the ball-carrier. He's a playmaker, too. He makes plays all over the field, causes fumbles, picks passes off, and reminds me of a young Nate Webster/Jon Beason/Jon Vilma. Surprisingly, Zach McCloud has held off Darrion Owens for the third starting spot. Owens showed flashes of being a playmaker last season and started this season at less-than 100-percent but he's been able to play in the last five games. Owens is clearly the team's No. 4 linebacker right now and could make a push for seeing more playing time as he gets more healthy.
After the top four there seems to be a significant drop-off. Charles Perry is the best of the rest. In year two, however, he's primarily only seeing the field on special teams. Third-year player Mike Smith is only playing on special teams while third year player Terry McCray isn't seeing the field at all. Jamie Gordinier is out for the season with a knee injury.
Corn Elder has been absolutely lights out this season. He's having a tremendous senior season and is certainly helping his draft status with the way he's been playing lately. He's a true lockdown corner who has become even more active in the running game this season. He has to be considered one of the premier cornerbacks in all of college football. Sheldrick Redwine has been holding off Adrian Colbert for the starting spot opposite Elder. Colbert has the edge in experience but Redwine is a more talented kid. He's struggled at times, however. Keep an eye on true freshman Malek Young, who was heavily recruited and has started seeing the field more and more when the games are on the line. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up starting a couple games and becoming the No. 2 corner by the end of the season. He has a very bright future. Ryan Mayes, Michael Jackson, and Terrence Henley have been playing primarily on special teams so don't expect them to jump into the cornerback mix anytime soon.
Rayshawn Jenkins has been the team's best safety through six games. He has his ups and downs but has turned in a solid senior season up to this point. Jamal Carter was holding off Jaquan Johnson as the No. 2 there but Johnson earned the start against UNC. It seems like they're going back and forth to see who becomes the second starter at safety. Carter has the edge in experience but Johnson is a more talented player. Robert Knowles is playing only on special teams while freshman Jeff James hasn't played this season and is expected to redshirt.
Justin Vogel was quietly put together another very good season. He ranks 16th nationally in net punting heading into Thursday's game against Virginia Tech. Four of his last 17 punts have been placed inside the 20 and Miami's last three opponents have averaged just 18 yards per game in punt return yardage. UNC's Ryan Switzer is considered one of the best in the college game and Vogel limited him to zero yards.
The Canes haven't been good at kicking field goals and extra points this season. I say it like that because I'm not sure MIchael Badgley is the problem or if the operation is the problem. Sure, he's had two field goals and one extra point (a rather important one) blocked but he seems to be hitting the ball well. He's connected on all three tries from over 40, including a 51-yarder against Florida State. The entire operation must improve moving forward in order for Miami to start winning these close games. In his 13 kickoffs over the last three games, Badgley's only had two of them returned (for just 26 yards).
The Hurricanes have returned five kickoffs over the last three games and they've averaged just 13.6 yards on those returns. Malcolm Lewis has four returns for 60 yards, including one that he fielded while stepping out of bounds inside his own five yard line to open last week's game. In an era of college football when most kickoffs don't get returned, Miami's been getting some chances but the return game has been sub-par with just 13.6 yards per return. Berrios has been solid in the punt return game, averaging 15.8 yards per return over the last three games. He nearly took one back against Florida State, which set up Miami's final touchdown.
In all reality, the two best return men on this team are probably Stacy Coley and Corn Elder. Because they are probably the best players on their respective sides of the football, they're not going to be involved in the return game. Every coach has a different philosophy on that but it's clear Richt doesn't want to use them in the return game.