'Nole your Enemy- The Miami Hurricanes' Defense

We continue our " 'Nole Your Enemy" Series with The Miami Hurricanes.   We started with South Florida (OffenseDefense) and continued with BYU's Offense and Defense.   Last week we previewed BC's Offense and the Boston College Defense, and UNC's Offense, and Defense.

Last season, Florida State gashed the Hurricane defense, in Miami, for 39 minutes of possession time, 320+ yards rushing, 27 1st downs, and 41 points.  It was the first time the 'Noles had scored 40 points in a Non-Duke ACC game in almost three years.  To know how good a unit will be this year, we must look at how good they were last year, who they bring back, who they lose, and what new faces could make an impact.  

So how good was the Hurricane's defense last season?  They were bad.  Very bad.  Let's look in chart form: 


A.  MIami was slightly below average by the traditional measure of Total Yards Per Game, which is a terrible statistic greatly distorted by noise and not adjusted for opponent.

B.  Miami was dead last in Opponent-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADOE), a great all-encompassing stat developed by Brian Fremeau of FootballOutsiders.com  Basically, it looks at what Miami's defense did against their competition, and what all other teams did against those Miami's competition, removes garbage time possessions, and gives an excellent rating of Defensive Performance.  Miami was the ACC's worst defense, and finished 65th nationally.

C & D.  This is another advanced metric.  While AODE is a per-drive measure, S&P+ is an opponent-adjusted (very important) play based measure.  Here, Miami finished 73rd in the nation in defensive efficiency.  And when you look at the measure for ACC games only, Miami was the 2nd worst ACC defense, ahead of only NC State.  It's fairly safe to say that Duke played better defense than Miami in 2008.  

So there wasn't much to like about Miami's defense last season.  But why were they so bad?  Is there reason to believe they will be better this season?

Miami had the ACC's worst run defense.  

No matter how you slice it, Miami's run defense was awful last season.  Again, this looks best (or worst), in chart form.  This is yards allowed per run play (no sacks, since those are pass plays):


That's unlike any Miami defense I've ever seen.  In terms of defensive efficiency, their rushing defense was 86th in the nation.  5.0 yards allowed per running play?  When looking at Miami's game by game performance, you can see other trends in the running game.  Teams which featured some element of quarterback decision making in the run game, be it Georgia Tech's Option, or the Zone-Read of NC State, Florida State, and even Cal, all destroyed Miami.  Teams that were more straight ahead did not.  Those four teams exposed Miami, rushing for 1264 yards on 175 carries, an average of 7.2 yards per running play.  Even removing Georgia Tech, the average is still 6.6 yards allowed per rushing play.  Against teams which featured a more pro-style, straight ahead type of rushing attack, their average was 3.1 yards per rushing play.  So running the ball while making Miami account for the quarterback as a possible rusher produced double the results that a pro-style attack produced.  More on this later.  But what of their passing defense?  


Miami had the ACC's 3rd worst passing defense.

Miami's pass defense was better than their run defense, but not by much:


53rd Nationally, 3rd worst in the ACC.  The ACC featured some seriously good defenses in 2008, but Miami was not one of them.  Canes fans will say their pass defense was far better than this, but on a per pass basis, they were 10th in the ACC.  It's just that teams ran so much on them they rarely had to pass.

We can talk about how Miami only had 4 interceptions last season, which was dead last in the nation, but it's very likely that Miami's defense struggled to force interceptions because they didn't put their opponents into 2nd and 8+ or 3rd and 5+ situations, where interceptions are likely to occur.  There simply isn't much need to throw a risky pass in a 3rd and 2 situation.  


What scheme does Miami run?

This is a bit complicated.  Miami is on their third defensive coordinator in three years, and Randy Shannon is a defensive head coach (most will argue to his detriment, as his ultra conservative nature hampers his team's chances to win.)  Last season, Miami had Bill Young, who is considered a good defensive coordinator, and they ran Randy Shannon's defense.  After firing Young, Young quipped "Randy Shannon knows more about defense than I ever will.", which means that Shannon didn't let him runt he defense how he wanted to run it.  Shannon is calling the shots here, just as he did last year, and just as he will do this year with puppet defensive coordinator John Lovett.  Lovett was fired from Clemson after a few years of middling results, and then went to North Carolina, where he coaches special teams.  While there will obviously be some new wrinkle, Shannon will be running this defense again, which means that FSU will see Miami's typical scheme: 

NOTE:  i wrote this in 2008, and boy did it come true.  FSU did exactly what I predicted they would do against Miami's predictable scheme.


Cover-2 Man Under



Why is it called Cover 2

When deciding the terminology of calling coverages, the number of deep zone pass defenders that are deployed will normally determine what a defensive coach calls a defense. In Cover 2 for example, there are two deep safeties that divide the field into halves. If the secondary played Cover 3, three deep defenders would divide the deep responsibility on the field into thirds. If they played Cover 4, four deep defenders divide the deep zone into fourths.Obviously, different teams use different terminology, but the most commonly used is simply identifying how many deep zone defenders are used.

Miami does run Cover Two as their primary defense.  Instead of running it as a full-zone look (Tampa-2, from Tony Dungy), however, they adopt a common variation as their base defense (2000 Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins from 1999-2004)

Variations of Cover 2
Man under

is when the defense chooses to play two deep safeties but assign the five underneath defenders to play man-to-man on the offenses five eligible receivers.


The ESPN article talks about the Man-Under being a changeup for teams who run a cover-2 zone.  That is true, but Miami uses the Man-Under look as their base defense.  Most college teams don't play great Zone defense (though many do run it with some success).


Let's be Play-Station All-Americans!


Image Courtesy of Gamespot.com

Obviously, you should disregard the video game controls.  This is a good photo, showing what a Man-Under/ Man-2/ Cover-2 Man/ Cover-2 5 defense looks like.  Yes, that is a lot of different names.

How does Miami implement this defense?  Miami will often press out of this look.  In the above photo, Miami would press the "X" and "B" receiver.  They can aggressively press the receiver because they have the deep safeties as a safety net, should they miss.  Miami's defensive linemen aggressively attack the line of scrimmage, specifically the ends.  Their Defensive Tackles play a bit more gap-responsibility than our guys.  The linebackers are responsible for covering the RB's and the TE.  Don't be fooled, however, their primary responsibility is the run.

What routes are unavailable or unwise against Miami's Cover-2 Man Under look?  Clearly, because of the de facto double team, the outside receivers are usually taken away.  Ever wonder why our famous "rainbow offense" failed miserably against Miami?  Yes, that's correct.  We tried to attack their strength.

Hitches, quick outs, and arrows are definitely out as primary routes because of the press.  Deep outs, deep posts, and corners are out as primary routes.  We will revisit those in a moment. 

What primary routes will work?  Assuming Miami plays press, slants, curls, comebacks, the skinny post, and digs should be open.  

It's all about route combo's.  We need to run pick routes (bubble screens), and route combination's that leave large areas of the field wide open.  Remember how the linebackers and underneath defenders (except the 2 outside corners) are concerned with the run first?  We must take advantage of that.  Interior pass catchers (slot men, tight ends, and running backs) are extremely effective against this defense.  Running from the inside to the flats with the interior offensive threats is extremely effective against this defense.  It's also a really easy read for Ponder.  We haven't thrown to the TE much in the last 15 years, but we need to now more than ever.

If the defense is playing more off-coverage, the bubble screen will be wide open, as it was in 2008 (over 100 yards on bubble screens).  

Crossing routes.  That's right, crossing routes are going to be important as well.  Why?  Crossing routes work really well against man coverage because you can lead the receiver by a considerable amount.  They are also effective because they cause a lot of traffic and often, a defender can get caught up in that traffic.  FSU fans see this often with their own defense.  I think Ponder would much prefer to see a primarily man defense, as opposed to a zone defense. 

We also have something Miami hasn't seen; something that they don't want to see; something that works really well against a man defense (safeties deep are irrelevant for purposes of this point). 

A fast, agile, mobile QB  Look at the graphics above.  Everyone is accounted for, and the safeties have blanketed deep field.  Who has the QB?  Nobody.  This is a huge weakness for the D.  Nobody is assigned to account for Ponder.  Miami's defense of Ponder's wheels will be completely reactionary, as opposed to a defense that accounts for him with a spy defender, or a zone defense, where the defenders all have their eyes on him at all times.  There will be multiple opportunities for Ponder to run in this game as Miami's underneath defenders turn and run with out receiving options.  Note: I don't expect Miami to ignore Ponder this season, after he gained 140+ rushing yards on them last season.  

What about pass protection?  Pass pro will be extremely important.  Typically, teams running cover-2 man under do not blitz.  

I am going to say that Miami won't blitz much in this game.  Miami will be looking to get pressure with their front 4 defenders.  The line is going to have to block these guys.  If Miami can get pressure with their front 4 defenders, we are in a lot of trouble.  

Ideally, FSU wants to run  Miami out of their cover-2 look.  Why?  Forcing Miami to call stuff that they'd prefer not to run is advantage FSU. 

FSU can do this in several ways.  The first is consistently shredding the underneath stuff, making Miami impatient.

The second is the running game.  Make Miami plays assignment football, use their speed, maintains their gap responsibilities, and pursue inside-out, limiting cutback lanes. Last year, Miami did not do this well at all:  


via assets.sbnation.com

So enough about that scheme stuff.  Who are Miami's players? 

Defensive Line

This is a very talented group.  Miami has done a great job recruiting along the defensive line.  Phil Steele believes they are the 3rd best defensive line in the country.  

At the ends, Miami has Eric Moncur, Marcus Robinson, and Adewale Ojomo.  Oh wait, that's right, Ojomo broke his jaw when he was suckerpunched in the shower by another Canes player.  That player is supposedly a walk-on, but Eric Moncur (yes, the other defensive end), mysteriously came down with a groin injury that needed special treatment 3000+ Miles away in Philadelphia the very next day.  Internet rumors suggest that it was actually Moncur who jacked Ojomo, and not the walk-on, but that the Canes sacrificed the walk-on to avoid answering a hurricane of "team unity" questions.  Moncur was going to start at Strongside End, but he is now out with that persistent groin injury (or, if you believe the rumors, secret suspension).  Moncur is a pretty good player and will be missed.  He is replaced by Steven Wesley, a 6'3" 260lb Junior who actually started 11 games last season (and was not very good, but was not terrible).  The 6'1" 245lb Sophomore Robinson will start on the weakside, and while Ojomo wasn't the starter, he figured to see at least 40% of the snaps on the weakside.  Not having Ojomo and Moncur cripple the Canes depth here, and present an immediate target for other teams to run at.  The backups now are true freshman Olivier Vernon and Sophomore Andrew Smith, both of whom have never started agame (obviously).  There's a real possibility Vernon could beat out Wesley, but Shannon isn't saying much right now.  In any event, the Canes are now missing about 1.5 defensive end starters.  This could seriously hurt them against FSU, and Georgia Tech (next week).  Moncur was important for his ability to set the edge against the run.  Can the true freshman Vernon do that?  

Things are considerably better at defensive tackle, where the Canes have several talented players.  The gem lof this group is former 5* recruit Marcus Forston.  The 6'2" 308lb sophomore was a freshman All-America a year ago.  Fortson is big and quick and is just a very good player.  Next to him is a physical freak in Allen Bailey.  The former outside linebacker has grown to 6'4" 285lbs and is now a junior.  He's probably the most physically impressive player in college football, but it doesn't always show up in his play on the field.  He had a torn pectoral last season and only played in a few games, but was very productive.  


via assets.sbnation.com

Allen Bailey scares me.  He kills alligators with shovels.  Really.


Miami's tackle tandem represents a problem for any opposing offense.  Another challenging for a starting job is 4* tackle Josh Holmes, a 6'0" 280lb fireplug who is more consistent than Forston, though less talented.  Oh, and Miami also has excellent depth at this position.  6'3" 305lb Senior Joe Joseph started 14 games over the course of his career, and would start at most schools.  They also have 6'2" 321lb Sophomore Micanor Regis, who is far from refined but another big body the canes can put in there.  

This is an excellent defensive line when healthy, and even without Ojomo and Moncur, they are pretty good.  One thing the canes might do is to shift Bailey out to defensive end, a position he played previously.  They have the depth at defensive tackle to replace Bailey and they need someone to play the run and pass at defensive end.  Expect much better play from the tackles who are now healthy and a year older.  The ends are anyone's guess, but every team will look to test the replacement.



Miami lost Glenn Cook, who was consistent, but unremarkable.  On the outside they have the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year, 6'0" 212lb Sean Spence.  Spence makes a ton of plays because he is rarely blocked (defensive tackles absorbing the blockers).  He is lightning quick and has great football instincts.  He is not great at shedding blockers, however, so the key is to run right at him.  In the middle, the Canes have 10th year Senior Darryl Sharpton.  He's 6'0" 235lbs, and has started 20 games.  Sharpton is a decent player, and should be good at recognizing run flow because he has played forever.  Their other outside linebacker is the very underrated Colin McCarthy.  McCarthy missed last year's FSU game (320 yards rushing allowed), and the 6'3" 235lb outside backer is key to the Cane's defense, particularly because they lost their defensive ends (see above).  A backup capable of playing the middle or the outside is 5* recruit Arthur Brown, who started slow a year ago but had a nice fall camp.  

Overall, this is a very good linebacker unit.  Other than spence, they don't blow you away with their athleticism, but they are veteran, talented, and have a nice football understanding.  



Front-7 Size

While Miami isn't afraid to bring the safety down into the box to stop the run, (playing cover-1 or cover-3), they would prefer not to do that, and they rarely have to. And one way they are enable to accomplish this (stopping the run with 7 and not 8 men), is with great size. 

We've done a lot of work on this, and you can read out 3-part series "Does Size Matter" here:  Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Here's what you need to know:  there were 9 defenses that had a combined front-7 size of more than 1860lbs:  Alabama, South Carolina, Boston College, Wake Forest, Southern Cal, North Carolina, Iowa, Cal, and Florida.  All of those defenses were elite, all have numerous highly regarded NFL prospects, and all forced a lot of turnovers by stopping the run with their size and forcing teams into 2nd and 8+/ 3rd and 5+ situations.  Miami checked in at 1785lbs.  That is not so big as to be able to easily stop the run without using a safety.  Of course, this puts Miami in a bit of a quandry.  Cou can't effectively play cover-2 with 8 in the box.  Of course, when your focus as a safety is on the pass and stopping the run is an afterthought, you will play well against the pass.  Miami got ran on so much last season that their safeties rarely were able to focus solely on the pass, and thus the low interception totals.  There is a much more detailed explanation in the linked articles above. 

This year, their front-7 should be among the biggest in the country again, weighing in at 1777lbs, which is slightly smaller than last year, though the difference is likely negligible because of their improved talent level.  How does that rate against other defensive fronts FSU played last year?  

There are two ways to stop FSU's running game and not get burned by the bubble screen (a pass FSU throws exceptionally well)  Essentially, the bubble screen is a tool to make sure that the defense plays 7 in the box and not 8.  If the defense cheats and brings extra men against the run, we throw the bubble to keep them honest. : 

  1. The first is to have a huge, disciplined front 7, that is difficult to cut block.  One that takes good angles and doesn't allow cutbacks.  This allows teams to play straight upon the receivers, also maintaining deep coverage.  Or...
  2. Play 8 in the box and play zero coverage-press man against each receiver.  Virginia Tech did this and they were eventually burned deep.  This requires excellent athletes in the secondary, and nobody on FSU's schedule should expect their cornerbacks to cover FSU's 4 and 5* receivers without safety help.

As we'll see in a second, UNC does not have the option to play number two.  They have to hope their front-7 can stop the run.  What did other front 7's do against FSU's run game?

Boston College 1912lbs, 

Wake 1838lbs, 27 rushes for 103 yards.  Wake was very big.  They were able to play the bubble straight up, which worked very well.  They also had 4 seniors on defense drafted in the first 4 rounds.

Florida 1835lbs, 29 rushes for 137  Big and supremely talented, the rushing success came primarily in garbage time.

Miami 1785lbs, 51 rushes, 325 yards.  There is a pretty big drop off from UF to Miami (55lbs).  Remember here that FSU's rushing success came primarily on reverses and Ponder running, most of which was a result of Miami's idiotic plan to defense FSU's attack.  FSU bubbled them to death when they went 8 or 9 in the box.

Georgia Tech 1772lbs (I think they were lighter because of major injuries, correct?).  31 rushes, 228 yards.  Remember that GTech was missing 2 key linebackers and a safety.  Still, this is a big drop in weight from the 3 schools over 1835lbs.

Virginia Tech 1766lbs, 34 rushes, 123 yards.  Poor numbers.  Explanation?  Yes.  VT played 8 in the box and manned up on the wide receivers.  If you're puzzled, remember what happened:  the only thing open was the deep ball.  They saturated the running lanes and pressed FSU's wideouts. Eventually, FSU burned them deep.

Clemson 1760lbs, 34 rushes, 281 yards  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

NC State 1757lbs, 42 rushes, 162 yards  These numbers aren't amazing, but much of this game was us trying to control the clock while battling holding penalties.  They also include lost sack yardage (which isn't a run play).  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

Maryland 1755lbs, 41 rushes, 172 yards  Maryland struggled all game in choosing to defend the bubble or the run.

Colorado 1755lbs, 45 rushes, 259 yards  The smallest front we played AND they decided to stop the bubble.  Running wild was the obvious result.


Bottom Line:  if Miami had their starting defensive ends, there's a chance they could sit back and stop most team's run game while playing their preferred cover-2 shell with man coverage underneath.  Without them, it's doubtful.  Teams should be able to get Miami out of that shell (unless Miami just wants to give up a lot of rushing yards, like a year ago).  But this front-7 is more talented than a year ago, and a year older, so they could have some success against the run without involving their safeties.  



Last year, Miami's secondary took a lot of heat for their performance, some deserved, but some undeserved.  Miami's DB's were put in poor situations, and in those situations, they underperformed even the situationally reduced expectations, as they registered only three interceptions (lowest in the country).  As discussed above, Bill Young/ Randy Shannon did a poor job calling defenses against the run, and it was obvious that Miami's safeties became pre-occupied with stopping the run, even if their pre-snap alignment didn't indicate that.  The corners did not play well last year and lacked awareness. 

The veteran leader of this group is the Redshirt Senior Randy Phillips, who seems to have been around since the Chris Rix days.  He didn't play much last season, and took a Medical Redshirt.  He's a decent run defender, and understands the defense very well, having played in more than 30 career games.  Maybe he will play well as a senior, but he hasn't shown much so far and isn't considered an NFL prospect of any note.  At Strong Safety is Vaughn Telemaque.  The Redshirt freshman. is 6'2" 200 and Hurricane fans feel he is like a mutation of Sean Taylor and Ed Reed.  That seems a little premature considering he has yet to start a game.  It's safe to say he is athletic and definitely has potential, but he is a redshirt freshman.  But in a surprise move, Miami is actually starting JoJo Nicolas, who started 8 games for them last season.  He's not a great player, but knows his assignments better than Telemaque, and at the safety position, it's really important to know the plays, as safeties are the last line of defense.

At the Boundary Corner is Brandon Harris.  Let's go to the photos


Yeah, that's high.  Brandon Harris apparently is averse to jumping.

But not to pass intereference:


That's probably not fair.  While Harris was picked on by FSU, the 5'10" 190lb Sophomore will probably be better this season.  He took his lumps last year as a true freshman.  He was a 4* recruit and is unquestionably Miami's best corner.  At the field corner (the side more likely to receive safety help), the Canes have a logjam.  Junior Demarcus Van Dyke has good physical talent but has yet to live up to his potential.  They also have senior Sam Shields, who is making the switch from wide receiver to defensive back.  He has looked good in practice so far, but he could also be vulnerable to double moves due to his limited experience at the position.  At the Nickel Corner, the Canes have Senior Chavez Grant, who has started 17 games.  He's not an impressive player (nobody in this secondary is- yet), and it shows as he got moved to the Nickel corner despite having started 13 games.

This weekend, we'll discuss how FSU plans to attack this defense.  The important things to remember are that their front-7 is very talented, but depleted, they likely can't stop the run without heavily involving their safeties, and if (when) they do leave their Cover-2 shell, will their corners be able to hold up without a bunch of help over the top?  This defense will likely be improved, and should be in the top half of the country and the ACC, but they have a long way to go to even be average and they are not special yet.

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