2016 Miami Hurricanes Position Review: Defensive Line
The Miami Hurricanes concluded their season with a bowl win for the first time since 2006, breaking the horrid losing streak that ranged for over a decade. The bowl game win gives Hurricane fans much optimism about next season. The team as a whole improved in many areas, defense being on of the main areas.
Upon his arrival at Miami, Mark Richt spoke about getting back to seeing a “fast, violent Miami defense.“ After he brought in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Richt made it a priority to land defensive line guru Craig Kuligowski, or Coach Kool as he is readily known. One of the biggest reasons for the decline of Miami from powerhouse to just an average team has been the lack of dominance from their defensive line. Although the Miami Hurricanes have produced notable All-Pro’s in the NFL such as Calais Campbell and Olivier Vernon, collectively as a group there hasn’t been dominance in a while.
The Kool Factor
Coach Kool left the University of Missouri after 15 years and a reputation as churning out the best pass rushers, not only from the conference but within the nation. For over a decade, he was able to produce a defensive lineman that made All-Conference, four 1st round NFL draft picks, as well as two straight Defensive Players of the Year in the SEC conference.
He more than lived up to his billing as he helped transform a Miami defense that was heavily criticized the year before. His defensive line group was the strongest position on the team in addition to being the most consistent. The Hurricanes were ranked 5th out of all FBS schools in tackles for loss, an improvement of 100 spots (ranked 105th in 2015). After being ranked 70th in 2015 for team sacks the Hurricanes moved up to the 22nd spot under Coach Kool.
As impressive as the stats may be, that was not Kool’s greatest feat. Players that were being under developed began to see their true potential. In 2015, the highest tally for tackles for loss for a defensive lineman was 8.5 by Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami’s best pass rusher that was dismissed from the team in training camp. Kool was able to use the loss of his best returning defensive lineman as a growth opportunity for others. In the 2016 season, there were five members of the Miami defensive front four that finished with more than the previous season’s mark, and two that finished half a tackle short of having 10 tackles for loss.
Chad Thomas came to Miami as a 5-star recruit and going into his junior season only had one sack and two and a half tackles for loss. In his junior season alone, Thomas was able to quadruple his sack total as well as finish with 11.5 tackles for loss. Freshman Joe Jackson only started two games on the year, but was able to tie Thomas for the team lead in tackles for loss and lead the team in sacks with eight and a half as well as score a touchdown on a fumble recovery. Those stats would earn Jackson Freshman All-American honors and his physique would earn him comparisons to a gladiator.
The defensive tackle position at Miami spearheaded many great defenses with talents such as Warren Sapp, Jerome Brown, Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy and Vince Wilfork. Coach Kool was able to use a group of defensive tackles to change the line of scrimmage and cause havoc on opposing defenses. R.J. McIntosh and Kendrick Norton were the starters last season and together made it hard for an offense to move the ball in any way. Norton received All-ACC third team honors after finishing with 10 tackles for a loss, McIntosh finished with 9.5. The backups to them were just as instrumental to the defense as they would continue the pressure; Gerald Willis and Courtel Jenkins both were very productive.
Outlook Into Next Season
The Hurricanes will need this group to be just as effective, if not more than they were last year, as they all were underclassmen last season. Miami will need to replace key reserve Courtel Jenkins as he was dismissed after the season, coming off of a strong performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl where he had a sack.
The players must continue to develop and be ready to step up much like Joe Jackson was able to do after starter Demetrius Jackson was injured during a stretch in the season. There is potential for this group to be the best in football next year because of the fact that they have arguably the best defensive line coach in college football and also because they all return (minus one dismissal) and add more pieces. Looking even further down the line, Miami needs to start recruiting even more defensive tackles as there is a possibility that the top three from last year (McIntosh, Norton and Willis) all could be gone following next season as each of them have the ability to be NFL draft picks as juniors.