The ushering in of the Mark Richt era at Miami has coincided with the start of the Manny Diaz era on the defensive side of the football.
Diaz, 42, who looks like he’s pushing 30, actually has 18 years of coaching experience, including the last decade coordinating defenses at places like Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State, Texas, Louisiana State, Mississippi State again, and now returning to South Florida, where his father served as a popular and largely successful mayor of Miami from 2001-09.
The results for Diaz the football coach have been mixed along the way. But so far back in Coral Gables, the returning son has turned the Hurricanes’ defense around.
From 2012-15, the Miami defense – the backbone of championship teams under Howard Schnellenberger (1983), Jimmy Johnson (1987), Dennis Erickson (1989, 1991) and even Larry Coker (2001) – stumbled badly.
The 2012 team allowed a stunning 30.5 points and 486 yards total offense per game. In 2013, the numbers were 26.8 points and 426 yards total offense. After significant improvement in 2013, the Hurricanes allowed 28.2 points per game last season.
Enter Diaz, whose defense is ranked 12th in the country in points allowed (17.3) and 26th against the pass (194.6 ypg.) through seven games. A nice dose of Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic and Appalachian State helped beef up those numbers out of the gate.
But the ‘Canes “contained” Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack to 21 points and 267 yards rushing, held Florida State to two touchdowns and two field goals, limited North Carolina to the same scoring output, and then finally showed some give in allowing 523 yards and 37 points to Virginia Tech.
Diaz and the Miami defense have accomplished this against steep odds. Before the season even began, its two best defensive players – defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and linebacker Jermaine Grace – were removed from the team.
Injuries to defensive linemen Gerald Willis, Chad Thomas and Demetrius Jackson sidelined them for all or most of the North Carolina and Virginia Tech losses. Each of the starting linebackers is a freshman. Only the secondary is veteran with three seniors, and it now appears one of those seniors, free safety Rayshawn Jenkins, has been added to the injured list.
So how has Diaz done it?
“There’s some good personnel that they’ve really let go,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “They’ve allowed their personnel to be who they are.
“Not to take anything away from the former staff, but they’ve identified who they are and allowed each one of their players to be the kind of player they were recruited to be.”
Miami has benefitted from “turning the defense loose.”
“Just go play,” said Kelly, summarizing Diaz’s defensive approach with his troops.
“You don’t see a lot of fronts, a lot of coverages. They’re going to let their athletic ability stand out.”
Kelly equated it to Notre Dame’s defensive improvement since the firing of Brian VanGorder and the hiring of Greg Hudson to coordinate it and Mike Elston to help run the show with press-box analyst Bob Elliott chipping in.
While Notre Dame certainly hasn’t had to contend with Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech – as Miami has – the Irish have allowed just 17 offensive points in the last 10 quarters of football.
“It’s similar to our situation where in a few short weeks, we went from 102nd to 63rd in (total) defense,” Kelly said. “You can make those jumps quickly because they have very good players that can play.”
The challenge facing the Irish offense this week is to get back to where they were five games into the season when they were averaging 39.8 points and 495.4 yards total offense.
The offense bogged down amidst Hurricane Matthew at N.C. State and in a clunker of a performance (10 points and 307 yards total offense) against Stanford.
Ironically, Notre Dame’s self-scouting during the bye week concluded that Notre Dame’s offense was suffering from some of the same pains produced by the defense under VanGorder.
“We have fallen into a similar trap that we fell into a little earlier defensively,” Kelly said. “We were probably doing a little too much.
“When you do the things you practice every single day and it becomes second nature, you can play free, you can play fast. From an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution.”
The challenge now is to out-execute what remains a young Miami defense, although some of the Hurricanes’ recently-wounded could find themselves on the field in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.
“They’ve gotten some elite corner play, and their safety play is very strong,” said Kelly, explaining Miami’s defensive success. “They can cover, they can run support. They’ve gotten great play on the back end of their defense.
“They’ve rolled a lot of players in on the defensive line. They’ve had a lot of injuries, but they have some pretty good depth. The linebackers have stayed pretty much injury free. So a lot of young talent, a lot of guys flying around, and Coach Diaz has done a nice job of keeping the points down.
“He’s not getting too exotic. They bring a fair amount of pressure, but they don’t put themselves in high-leverage situations. They will track you down. They’re extremely athletic.”
Can the Irish make the Hurricanes pay for their ‘go-play’ attitude?
DeShone Kizer and the Irish offense must regain the level of performance that made them one of the top offenses in the country five games into the season. Otherwise, Notre Dame will suffer its fourth straight home loss.