Miami's defense gave up 554 total yards in the Russel Athletic Bowl last season with most of that yardage coming through the air. For Al Golden to start off the 2014 with a win, his defense will have to be able to stop an offense that returns all but three starters from that same team. With three of the top five tacklers from last season are either gone or out for the game, Golden will be looking to see if his strong recruiting will pay off for him.
The weak spot of Miami's defense last season was obviously the front four. The starting defensive tackles totaled less tackles for loss on the season than Louisville's linebackers did in the bowl game alone. Size wasn't much of an issue as the tackles were both 300 pounders and defensive end Anthony Chickillo is 282 pounds himself. But for whatever reason, teams didn't have much of a problem running the ball last year. With what is expected to be a much better running attack for Louisville this year, Olsen Pierre and Calvin Heurtelou must do a better job getting penetration in the middle of the field. If not, Louisville will at the very least be able to get themselves into third and medium/short situations which is what they need with a young quarterback.
The other issue with the front four is the lack of a pass rush. The defense only got a few sacks out of it's starters and a good amount of its total sacks came in garbage minutes for backups. No defense works without some sort of pass rush. It doesn't mean that the play actually needs to be made on the quarterback, but there has to be some sort of pressure or distraction. Without it, quarterbacks are allowed to go through their progressions and find the open target. It also leads to your defensive backs trying to keep up with receivers for a much longer time. This defense is not very blitz heavy and it is a must that the defensive ends get up field and disrupt the passing game. That wasn't the case last season. Newcomers Trent Harris and Chad Thomas will be counted on to come in and immediately make plays. Thomas is a five star prospect that has the size and athleticism to be used immediately on third downs. Harris looks like he might actually get the start as the rush end opposite Chickillo after having a strong camp. Returners Tyriq McCord and Al-Quadin Muhammad combined for six sacks last year and both will likely be in the rotation along with the freshmen. If there is a positive for Miami, its that there is much better depth on the edges this year.
The unquestioned leader of this team is outside linebacker Denzel Perryman. The somewhat undersized linebacker passed up the opportunity to play in the NFL to improve his draft stock from a third round grade. He returns after making 108 tackles and 5 tackles for loss. He will be moving to middle linebacker this year after playing outside last season. Perryman is considered the top linebacker in the ACC by voters even though he didn't put up the most impressive numbers. Perryman will line up next to Thurston Armbrister who has the name of a Duke lacrosse player. Armbrister is an athletic outside linebacker that can run extremely well. The issue is that he doesn't really do much else very well. He is decent in coverage but he just doesn't have that instinctive ability to read plays and make a play on the ball. A summer knowing that he is the starter could possibly change that. Either Raphael Kirby or Jermaine Grace are likely to take over the open weaskide outside linebacker spot. Grace was one of a few players that Miami and Louisville battled for on the recruiting trail. He's an undersized linebacker that could do well in a spot where he won't have to take on as many blockers. Kirby, who is more likely to start, hasn't done much at his time at Miami, but he has been sitting behind much more experienced players.
Where Miami's defense really struggled in last year's meeting was in the defensive backfield. The group got somewhat of a face lift over the summer with Dallas Crawford moving back free safety and Deon Bush pretty much being penciled in as a full time starter next to him. Crawford is probably best remembered by Cards fans for getting annihilated twice by James Burgess when he was a running back. The fact that he was moved back to safety is either a good sign for the running back depth or a bad sign for the group of safeties that includes former four-star Jamal Carter. The fact that Crawford looks to have been a starter even before Rayshawn Jenkins was lost for the season leads me to think it's the latter. Bush is a playmaker that showed his ability when he sacked Teddy Bridgewater for a safety in the bowl game. He also picked off Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last year. Carter was the heir apparent to Gerrod Holliman in high school and was a highly regarded recruit last year. I wouldn't be surprised to see the three of them rotate in some way.
Tracy Howard and Ladarius Gunter would likely like to forget the bowl game all together. DeVante Parker got a lot of publicity for having a monster game, but the entire group of receivers found themselves open for the majority of the game. Throw in an inexperienced Artie Burns and there wasn't a single cornerback for Miami that could hold their head high by the end of the game. Gunter ended up with 3 PBUs and 6 tackles, but no one was able to make a play that really impacted the game. As I stated before, the lack of a pass rush should take plenty of the blame for hanging these guys out to dry. However, there were plenty of plays where receivers were wide open on three-step drops. With an offensive system that focuses much more on deeper route combinations and working different levels, it will be a long night for these defensive backs if they can't at least stay with a very talented group of receivers.
KEY PLAYERS: MLB Denzel Perryman, DE Anthony Chickillo, CB Tracy Howard, CB Ladarius Gunter, FS Dallas Crawford
- Dallas Crawford scored 13 touchdowns as a running back last season.
- Marcus Smith, Preston Brown, and Lorenzo Mauldin had as many sacks as Miami's entire defense last season.
- Miami will likely have 3 former 5-star recruits on the field together at times Monday.
- Miami's defense was on the field for nearly three full quarters of the Russel Athletic Bowl.