I want to preface this with this is purely my opinion based on my observations, I have literally no idea if any of this is the actual plan of Golden and D'Onfrio, but it's educated guesses based on what I've seen and read. I'm going to break this into three parts, the past (pre-Golden and the first two years including recruiting), the current (the new defense this season), and the future (where I'll go over future defensive players). This is mostly me just free styling thoughts but I hope by the end there's a solid picture of what the state of the defense is now and going forward. For a lot of this post I'm going to use over simplified terms for things, but when I say "3-4", I'm going to be talking about Golden's 3-4 which is 2 gap based and not just the literal 3-4 alignment because it's completely different than the 1 gap variety and the actual alignment of players doesn't really mean a whole lot. Strongside ends will basically mean what it seems like, 5 techs but also guys who would play DT in a 4-3 and are more run defenders than anything, weakside ends would project as ends in a 4-3 (kinda) and are probably more balanced. I might get more into this type of stuff in follow up posts but I want to focus primarily on how this relates to Miami in this post. This is also probably going to focus a ton more on the front 7 because the DBs it's not a huge transition and also I can't see a lot of what DBs are doing during broadcasts so it's a lot harder to form opinions on it (though if people want to discuss them that would be cool).
For as long as I can remember, the Canes have basically been a 4-3 D based on speed, using the DL to apply pressure and playing a lot of press man with with speedy undersized backers. And as much I know about Golden's defenses (going back to UVA and at Temple), it's basically been the complete opposite, running a 3-4 with giant LBs and multiple looks. Coaches very rarely change their philosophies and generally just get players to either transition to their style or find new players. And while for some reason a lot of fans wanted to ignore the fact that the defense was going to change (seriously, he's been saying multiple defense since his first press conference), after his first few recruiting classes he became fairly evident he was changing the entire make up of the defense.
But first, lets talk about the defenses Al's first two years at Miami. Because I want to keep this section short, and the fact that it's already been discussed, you can read about the ins and outs of the scheme for the first two years here
. Miami's base defense was the 4-3 under with 4 DL and a LB on the line of scrimmage which was a fairly big difference than Miami's previous 4-3. They also ran some more basic 4-3 looks as well as some straight 3-4 looks, to go along with special packages (nickel, etc). In the third year the defense seems to have taken a big change to a pure base 3-4, but I think they ran the 4-3 under for two primary reasons. They wanted to integrate their scheme ideas (which you can in this look because it is similar to a 3-4) while having some familiarity to what the players were used to. The other, is they didn't have the personnel to run an actual 3-4 (though some can argue they didn't have personnel to run any defense last season). The first year the defense gave up yards but points were kept in check because the players did have some ability. The 2nd year was horrific because the players didn't physically have the talent and didn't mentally understand the defense and were constantly our of position. While there were schematic issues (the defense was very basic and passive), the talent to excel on defense just wasn't there.
So while the defense was transitioning on the field, let's take a look at the players that were brought in during Golden's first 3 recruiting classes and how they fit into the defense. In the first class, I think they were just getting bodies that had some kind of fit. On the DL, Anthony Chickillo, Olsen Pierre, Jalen Grimble, Darius Smith, Corey King and Junior Alexis and Ricardo Williams were brought in. Pierre and Grimble both fit very well as strongside 3-4 ends. Smith was clearly a NT. I recall some analysts thought Chickillo could really excel as an OLB but he really didn't have an obvious fit in a 3-4. Williams projected as an OLB in a 3-4. I guess King and Alexis were NTs but more just bodies really. The LBs signed in were Denzel Perryman, Gionni Paul, Eddie Johnson and Antonio Kinard. Perryman and Paul don't really have the size you look for in 3-4 backers generally but both can play ILBs in the defense. Kinard and Johnson both could have projected as ILBs and SLBs in the defense. None of the LBs really seemed like great fits in the defense (though I think people over think "fit" for college 3-4s where there is more flexibility in college than the NFL, which I might get into in a follow up post). Thurston Armbrister was also signed in this class but sure as hell didn't project as the monster that he's developed into. Not a lot of perfect fits, but there was some transition in the types of players coming in.
In the 2nd recruiting class, it became a lot clearer in the players they were targeting and signing. Two NTs prospects were brought in with Earl Moore and Dequan Ivery. Both played NT in a 3-4 in HS and projected to the position in college. Jacoby Briscoe and Jelani Hamilton projected as 5 techs/strongside ends, though Hamilton fit at both because his length and athleticism. Tyriq McCord, Gabriel Terry, Dwyane Hoilett and Jake O'Donnell projected as edge rushers who could play WLB as well as DE in 4 man fronts, McCord fitting the position almost ideally. Raphael Kirby, Josh Witt and Jawand Blue fit as ILBs, with all three projecting at either spot depending on how they developed. The 3rd recruiting class continued the trend. Ufomba Kamalu was the only interior DL signed, and he projects extremely well as a 3-4 weakside end. Alquadin Muhammad fit the edge rusher role previously mentioned. Devante Bond fit as both an edge rusher but also could have played SLB. Alex Figueroa projected we a SLB. Jermaine Grace fits as a weakside ILB which has a lot of similar roles to a WLB in a 4-3, and because it's not the NFL, even with his smaller size in HS, he projects fine to the defense. This one LB who is lame and went to free shoes projected INSANELY well as a SLB and was basically a prototype for the position. So overall, the position breakdown of recruits looks like
Not many of the players fit only a 3-4 (players rarely only fit in one style of defense, some fit equally well in any, and some fit better in certain ones), but there was a clear philosophical change in the players being recruited. So what happens after the defense on the field transitions to something very new and gets experience in that new defense, and you recruit players that project into that defense. This season happens.
In the third season under Al Golden, the Canes defense went from transition to fully transitioned. It began with a huge offseason weight gains that brought the interior DLs starting weight up to 325, 305 and 277, and the starting LBs weights up to 264, 240, 240 and 235. And in the first game of the season and every game since the primary defensive alignment has been a 3-4 look with Chickillo at WDE, Porter at NT, Pierre at SDE, Green at WOLB, Perryman at WILB, Gaines at SILB and Armbrister/Figs at SOLB. The primary back ups so far have been Kamalu at WDE, Renfrow at NT, Robinson at SDE, Gilbert at WOLB, Cornelius at WILB, and Kirby/Cain at SILB. While this has been the base defense, the other main look Miami has used has been a nickel with 4 DL, 2 LBs and 5 DBs. Generally this with all McCord and AQM at DE, with Chickillo and Robinson inside. Perryman and Gaines are at WLB and MLB and Crawford comes in and plays nickel. So that's how the players have been lining up, but what about when the play actually starts.
The primary thing Golden's defense is depended on more than anything else, is every single player doing their job every single play. The defense is dependent on gap control and players making plays when the play goes to their gap. The biggest difference between last season and this season, is the interior DL isn't just staying in their gap, they're controlling their gap, not getting blown off the ball, and making play when they have a play to make. Instead of the DL on their back 5 yards down the field, they're at the LOS controlling the OL and preventing run lanes. Primarily the interior DL is going to 2 gap, but it's not something that is happening every play. the OLBs keep contain but also rush the passer if the situation calls for it. Generally the DL will control the same gaps, but a new wrinkle this season (or at least in terms of it actually being executed), is some really good run slants or gap switch type plays, where the ILB will go outside the OLB (who crashes down inside), switching the gaps that the players are responsible for. This prevents the offense from knowing where the defenders are going to be and also gives some potential to plays in the backfield. Blitz packages can also come from there, where the 3 DL slant, and those 2 LBs are blitzing, and you can either run man cover 1 behind it or 3 under 3 deep looks. Generally four rushers are brought with Green being the 4th, but any of the other 3 LBs can and have blitzed, and also all 4 have dropped with only 3 rushing. When the nickel package is on the field, the gap contain stuff is gone, the DL is getting upfield and penetrating. There is A LOT more going on with scheming and things in terms of actual play designs that someone a lot more knowledgeable can go into (coughDynastycough), but that's a bit of an overview into some of the actual execution of what's going on during the play.
One alignment note I want to address, is when the offense has twin WRs and we're in the base 3-4, we generally walk the SLB out onto the inside WR and he either plays zone out there or crashes down back inside to either defend the run or blitz and the SS will rotate over after the snap. While this helps disguise what the defense is doing, as well as let you keep 2 defenders deep pre-snap, it creates a bit of a weakness to that side. The primary play that has given the defense trouble this year (basically what Driskel did a few times), is the other team will run an inside read play (I guess it's inside veer?), the OLB will crash down off the WR to the RB, and the QB will keep it and belly out and the SS ends up getting blocked by the WR or a lead blocker coming around. It'll be interesting to see if they continue to do this or mix it up with having the CB follow the WR to the other side and bring the safety down on the opposite side.
So we're 4 games into the season but there are still a lot of questions due to the fact that we haven't face a real threat on offense, but it's clear as day the defense has taken an enormous jump from last season. Is it going to stay top 10/15 all year? I'm not sure, but if those 3 interior players continue playing at the level that they are, it should continue to be a strength throughout the season. With everything I just said, the GT game is COMPLETELY different, we may come out in a 4-3 or something else I seriously have no clue. But I think whatever it is GT really ain't gonna do **** against it.
One of the primary reasons I wanted to right this whole thing was to address the future recruits. If I see someone post one more time "we need more DT recruits" I'm gonna find where you live and come kick you in the shin. We don't need DTs, we need NTs, we need 5 techs/DEs. They aren't the same, if you bring in 30 5 techs you're still going to have a hole at NT so stop talking about Cory Johnson and Claude Pelon in the same sentence. So now that the hostility is done, let's talk about the current commits in the front 7. Again this is where I'm projecting the players to used here, not necessarily what the actual plan is.
The Canes currently have 3 "DT" commits, and I think all 3 can project to NT. Courtel Jenkins most certainly projects to that position. JUCO commit Dalvon Stuckey also projects as a NT but could also be a strongside end. Travonte Valentine is the most talented of the three and can also project to any of the three positions, but I think he'll end up being one of the best interior DL in the country in a few years playing primarily as a NT. Cory Johnson is a JUCO player who projects as a NT who would compete for the starting spot next season if he signs with Miami.
As I mentioned both Stuckey and Valentine can play here, but I think the premiere player at this position in the class currently is Chad Thomas. While Thomas definitely is an edge rusher at the next level, and he'll probably be used there his first year on campus, I think he projects as a weakside end (what Chick plays now) down the line when he eventually gets to be 6-5 280 or in that range. Claude Pelon is a great fit for this position and would probably contribute a fair amount next season if he signs here. Anthony Moten is also a pretty ideal prospect for this position and would be a tremendous fit and likely contribute his first or second season on campus.
Oooooooh boy where to start. This class is stacked with edge rushers. Trent Harris, Demetrius Jackson, Mike Smith and Terry McCray all project to this roll. I think you'll see a lot of this group redshirt and and I'm not sure all end up in the WLB spot. Jackson will almost definitely be used similar to how Green/Gilbert and AQM are being used this year.
I think this position and the WLB will start to blend more closely together going forward but there are going to be some distinct differences between the players at each spot. Mike Smith and McCray both project here better than they do at WLB. Darrion Owens might also project here but I like him at another position more.
Juwon Young is the first real great fit as a SILB in a 3-4 that I've seen commit/sign with Miami. Gaines has really grown into this role because of his size (6-3 240) and I think Young can be fantastic in this role. He can also play on the edge at SLB. Darrion Owens projects extremely well to WILB due to his range and his insane versatility. He's going to have incredibly size and be a threat as a blitzer and pass defender. It's early but he's probably my 2nd or 3rd highest rated defensive player in the current commitment group. I also think there is a possibility of McCray ending up as an inside backer. It's a bit of a projection, but with all the other edge rushers I think McCray has some solid tools to project inside.
So with the departing players (assuming no early loses *stares at Denzel*), here is how I feel the depth chart will look next season in the front 7.
WDE - Chickillo/Kamalu
NT - Moore/Stuckey/Valentine
SDE - Pierre/Hamilton
WLB - McCord/AQM
WILB - Denzel/Grace/Owens
SILB - Kirby/Blue/Young
SLB - Figatron/Armbrister
WDE - AQM/Hoilett
NT - Pierre/Hamilton/Valentine
DT - Chickillo/Kamalu
SDE - McCord/Thomas
NT and ILB are both a bit scary, especially if Denzel leaves early. Would probably see Figs/Armbrister get reps inside if that happens.
So that's it, the past, present and future of the Canes defense under Al Golden and D'Onfrio. One thing I didn't really discuss much is the development and teaching the coaches have done with the players which is really the biggest difference in this season compared to last. There is no defense that you can design that works with bad players, but I think the scheme that is currently installed can definitely have be a top unit and downright scary with the players Golden and the coaches are bringing in. Again, this is all my opinion, so it's most likely not all correct, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the defense since it has been such a major change to what the Miami defense usually is.