Earlier this week during the ACC Football Kickoff event in Charlotte, the Miami Hurricanes were declared the favorites to win the Coastal Division this fall. Although the Hurricanes have questions at the quarterback position, they were likely picked by the ACC media members because of the players returning on defense.
In their first season under coordinator Manny Diaz, Miami’s defense improved significantly. Consider that two years ago, the Hurricanes finished 69th nationally in total defense after giving up 404.8 yards per game. Last season, that average improved to 345.4 yards per game, good for 20th in FBS.
Miami also was among the best in limiting opponents on the scoreboard (18.5 ppg, 12th in FBS) and on the ground (131.6 rushing ypg, 26th). Seven starters return from the unit that ranked no worse than seventh in the ACC and 47th nationally in any of the four major categories.
The Hurricanes’ defensive line is led by sophomore Joe Jackson, who was tops on the team in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (11.5) last season. He will team with senior Chad Thomas (4.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL) to give Miami a formidable duo on the edges.
The interior of the line is anchored by starting tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh, a pair of juniors with size and speed. There also is experienced depth behind the starters with guys like Demetrius Jackson (junior) and Trent Harris (senior).
Last year, Miami did something unprecedented by starting three first-year players at linebacker. Now the Hurricanes have arguably the best linebacking corps in the ACC.
Shaq Quarterman finished second on the team in tackles with 84 last season. He also racked up 10 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks from his middle linebacker spot. Quarterman was named to the All-ACC Preseason Team on Wednesday.
Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney are the fellow sophomores that will man the outside spots. Pinckney recorded 61 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks in 2016, while McCloud chipped in 37 tackles and 3.5 TFLs.
While Miami’s front seven could be one of the best in college football, the secondary is less of a sure thing with no starters returning. But one player expected to help the back end immediately is graduate transfer Dee Delaney.
A two-time FCS All-American from The Citadel, Delaney is a senior cornerback who is expected to start opposite junior Jhavonte Dean. True freshman and local product (Columbus High School in Miami) Trajan Bandy will likely see plenty of time at corner this fall too. Junior safety Jaquan Johnson is the most experienced player in the Hurricanes’ secondary with just five career starts (all in 2016) under his belt.
Because he’s starting over in many respects in the secondary, Diaz had his cornerbacks spend time at safety during the spring. Don’t be surprised if he mixes and matches his defensive backfield at the start of the season while looking for the right combination.
With a young quarterback, the Hurricanes will rely on their defense to help them win the Coastal and earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game for the first time. With the talent and experience he has at his disposal, the hope is that Diaz can have this edition of the Miami defense resemble some of the more accomplished and productive units from the program’s storied past.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.