It seems that there would be few questions surrounding a defense that ranked first in the country and led the Hurricanes to a blowout National Championship victory over the Cornhuskers. However, the Hurricanes lost all four starters in their secondary to the NFL. Miami's defense in 2001 was highlighted by a dominant defensive line and a secondary, which was nearly impossible to pass on. If Miami had a weak link in their defensive armor it was their vastly talented yet inexperienced linebacking unit that struggled with consistency throughout the season. Please don't take the word "weak" out of context. Miami's defense led the nation in points allowed (9.8 ) per game and shut down a superb Nebraska offensive attack in the Rose Bowl. Most teams in the country would be pleased with the performance by Miami's linebackers last season. Judging a unit by Miami Hurricane standards is a different story.
Although the linebacking unit improved throughout the season they were often plagued by mental lapses and overall inconsistency, thus allowing several teams to run for success against UM. Pittsburgh, Florida State and Virginia Tech each averaged over four yards per carry against the vaunted Hurricane defense. Florida State ran for 214 yards albeit many came in garbage time. Still, the Seminoles had little difficulty establishing their ground game against UM. This year's Hurricane linebacking unit will play behind an improved defensive line that returns all four starters, eight letterman and should be the premier line in the country. Miami's linebackers return a year wiser and stronger from another off-season of conditioning in UM's weight-training program. Miami returns two starters from their 2001 linebacking unit, and a third former starter (Howard Clark) who played as a reserve last season after starting on the weak-side in 2000.
Let's take a look at this year's unit:
PRE-SEASON DEPTH CHART (does not include recruits Harris or Reynolds)
SLB MLB WLB 1.McIntosh Vilma D.J. Williams 2.Clark L. Williams McClover 3.Weaver Adzima WalkerMiami returns two starters who have gained national exposure following an outstanding performance by the duo in the Hurricanes National Championship victory over Nebraska. First team All-Big-East middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma returns alongside former USA-Today national high-school player of the year D.J. Williams who will start on the weakside.
Vilma, (6-2 220) has gained almost ten pounds since the Rose Bowl and figures to enter fall practice at approximately 225 pounds. He stepped in as a starter last year as a sophomore after apprenticing as a true freshman as an understudy to former All-American Dan Morgan. His sophomore year was a success as he paced the Hurricanes with 79 tackles. Vilma's sideline-to-sideline speed enables him to be around the ball at all times. Although he is a true ballhawk, Vilma has yet to scratch the surface of his potential. Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon and Linebackers Coach Vernon Hargreaves would like Vilma to become more of a playmaker behind the line of scrimmage.
The Hurricane coaching staff implemented several new schemes this spring, which should result in increased opportunities for Vilma and his fellow linebackers to freelance. While the coaches are looking to draw on Vilma's speed, they are also attempting to shield their star linebacker from his lone drawback; lack of size. Vilma has added additional weight and seemed to have less trouble shedding blocks throughout the spring and Hurricanefest in which Vilma totaled three tackles for a loss along with two sacks. Look for Shannon to blitz Vilma more this season in an attempt to put more pressure on opposing Quarterbacks, which should alleive pressure for a very green UM secondary. Vilma, is growing into his body in a similar manner to his predecessor Dan Morgan who added twenty-five pounds to his frame during his time at UM. Vilma will also benefit from increased experience, as he seemed less hesitant and more confident this spring. He over pursued many running plays last year, especially those to his left (strong side). With more film work and increased strength Vilma's numbers should improve dramatically as will his ability to square off against opposing tight-ends. It is safe to pencil Vilma in as a pre-season All-American and a legitimate Butkus award candidate.
D.J. Williams returns after a promising second half of his 2001 season. Williams (6-2 245) has outstanding speed and similar to Vilma, can play sideline-to-sideline. He struggled with run/pass recognition throughout the season after switching back to linebacker from fullback after his freshman campaign. Williams is blessed with outstanding size and speed (prototypical NFL linebacker) yet is still a little raw in his mental approach to the game. While he was plagued with inconsistency last season, Williams play improved throughout the season, which culminated in a coming out party in the National Championship game. If Williams can put it all together this season he could be simply unreal. It is not a stretch to expect Williams to play this season at the same level he played at in the Rose Bowl. With a year of experience under his belt, I expect Shannon to allow Williams increased opportunities to freelance as well.
Heading into fall there remains a tight competition for the starting slot on the strongside. Redshirt freshman Roger McIntosh (6-3 220) earned the starting role over senior Howard Clark heading into fall camp after an impressive spring. McIntosh has blistering speed and is an impressive athlete. In due time he is expected to become a stud linebacker at UM. However, he is entering the fall with absolutely no playing experience as he spent last season as a member of the Hurricane's scout defense. While McIntosh has a bigger upside than Clark, he is very raw and must continue his impressive play in fall camp if he hopes to start.
Clark, (6-1 227) is heading into his last season of what has thus far been a mediocre tenure at UM. After earning numerous accolades (Parade All-American) as a prep-star, Clark has struggled with run/pass recognition throughout his years at UM. Clark never seems comfortable and often appears to be playing in second gear. He seemed to flourish as a reserve last year, and is an outstanding option to have on the second unit. Clark sat out this spring while recovering from an off-season ankle injury and was unable to compete with McIntosh for the vacant strongside slot. Clark is expected to recover and be ready for fall camp in which he will try to salvage his UM career by earning a starting bid for his senior season.
Backing up Vilma will be from prep All-American Leon Williams. Williams, (6-4 230) is a punishing tackler and a ballhawk. His play in the Hurricanefest, (8 tackles, five for a loss) impressed all in attendance, and earned him the label; player-of-the-future for the ‘Canes. Williams will benefit by playing behind Vilma and the opportunity to develop at his own pace. Should Vilma go down with injury Miami's defense will be in safe hands. All Williams currently lacks is experience.
Playing behind D.J. Williams at weakside linebacker is Darrell McClover, a speedy third-year sophomore linebacker. McClover, (6-2 220) may be the Hurricanes fastest linebacker yet played sparingly as a reserve last season. Prior to last fall McClover was battling D.J. Williams neck-in-neck for the starting slot. However, he received less reps in 2001 than in 2000.
Two other reserves to keep an eye on are fourth-year junior Jerrell Weaver (6-3 213) and third-year junior Carl Walker (6-3 215). Weaver brings experience to the table along with outstanding speed in pursuit. He is a proven playmaker with four of his fifteen tackles last season coming behind the line of scrimmage. Weaver is still small and would need to add another ten pounds to his frame to earn a serious look at the vacant strongside slot. Walker, is a special teams stalwart and punishing hitter. A former prep All-American as a cornerback, Walker has added twenty pounds to his frame since arriving at UM in the fall of 2000. It will be interesting to see whether UM coaches redshirt Walker to stagger the class of their linebackers.