It may prove to be the story of the season, but the Turnover Chain is certainly the story of the week. Four different Miami Hurricanes were awarded with the huge gold necklace and prominent, sparkly green and orange “U” logo during Saturday’s 41-8 victory over Notre Dame. Broadcast cameras panned to the Hurricanes' sideline and caught the ceremony and celebration following each of the three interceptions forced by the Miami defense, as well as the fourth-quarter fumble recovery that set up the game’s final touchdown. There was even an on-screen graphic highlighting each “Turnover Chain Recipient.”
We love the Turnover Chain in part because it is shiny (literally) and new (developed during summer 2017),but also because it’s a nostalgic nod to an era in which Miami was the biggest and baddest team on the planet, winning national championships with a combination of elite talent and unmatched swagger. The Turnover Chain has made an appearance 24 times this season, at least once in every game and four times in each of the last four contests. Only three FBS teams across the country have produced more takeaways, and Miami’s defensive playmaking ability is a big reason why “The U” has jumped out to a 9-0 start, boasts the nation’s longest winning streak (14 games dating back to 2016), an ACC Coastal Division title, and moved to the forefront of the College Football Playoff race. With its renewed swagger, Miami is once again one of the biggest and baddest teams in college football.
And Manny Diaz deserves a lot of credit. The Turnover Chain — a simple yet brilliant motivational tool used to reward players for making big plays — is a Diaz creation. So is the opportunistic Miami defense.
Diaz first worked with Mark Richt at Florida State. Richt was the offensive coordinator for the Seminoles when Diaz was a defensive graduate assistant in 1998-99. Diaz would later work his way up the defensive coaching ladder at NC State, where he worked for another former FSU assistant Chuck Amato, and earned his first opportunity to be a coordinator in 2006 at Middle Tennessee (where, continuing the Florida State connection, he worked for former Seminoles quarterback Rick Stockstill).
Like most coaches, Diaz preaches the importance of forcing turnovers. However, Diaz has done better than most following through with on-field results. The first defense he ran with the Blue Raiders recorded 27 takeaways. His second forced 30 turnovers, followed by 23 in 2008. In 2009, Diaz’s Middle Tennessee unit broke into the FBS top 10, No. 8 overall, with 33 turnovers — and the Blue Raiders won 10 games. Four straight years of 20 or more turnovers caught the eye of Dan Mullen, who hired Diaz to lead his Mississippi State defense. After 28 turnovers (23rd nationally), Mack Brown sought out Diaz to coordinate the defense at Texas.
His tenure ended on a sour note in Austin as Diaz was ushered out of town early during the 2013 season, but the Longhorns still managed to produce at least 20 takeaways in each of his three years. Diaz landed on his feet when Skip Holtz hired him as the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 20014, and he immediately led the Bulldogs to the top spot on the national turnover leaderboard with 42 takeaways. Such success helped Louisiana Tech improve its record from 4-8 the year before Diaz arrived to 9-5, including a Conference USA West Division title and a victory over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
It’s worth noting that turnovers are fickle. Coaches across the country preach the importance of creating turnovers, and also put their teams through specific practice drills designed to help create more opportunities, such as stripping the ball from a ball carrier. However, there is also quite a bit of luck involved. In fact, football analytics pioneer Bill Connelly has a specific category dedicated to turnover luck. Sometimes — either by design or by luck - a player is in the right place at the right time to make an interception, or force or recover a fumble. Yet footballs bounce in unexpected ways, and that same player could be in the right place at the wrong time, allowing the opponent to keep possession of a loose ball, or following a poorly thrown pass. There are other drills that focus on taking advantage of fortunate bounces, such as tip drills and the proper way to recover a fumble, but on a long enough timeline, turnovers often find a way of evening out eventually, regardless of how well coaches prepare their players to make big plays.
Things evened for Diaz in 2015. When he returned to Starkville for a second tour with Mullen, the Bulldogs produced only 14 takeaways, which ranked 110th in the country, and marked the fewest turnovers ever for a Diaz-led defense. But Richt, who arrived in Diaz’s native Miami after more than a decade of success at Georgia, was comfortable enough with Diaz’s track record to bring him home. He also brought in legendary defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, Diaz’s right-hand man for roughly a half-decade in Ephraim Banda, and former Miami defensive back Mike Rumph to round out the defensive on-field coaching staff. It’s proved to be a good combination.
Miami forced 19 turnovers in 2016 (down from 25 the previous year), but the Hurricanes improved their record, finishing 9-4 and setting the stage for a standout performance in 2017. It took only seven games and one Turnover Chain for Miami to reach 20 takeaways this season — and though there is still work to be done to bring a championship (or two) to Coral Gables - thanks to Diaz and staff, the Hurricanes are among the nation’s best once again.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Photos courtesy of @CanesFootball)