Column: What’s wrong with the Hurricanes’ defense?

Head coach Manny Diaz encourages players as they leave the field after an offensive drive. Miami lost to Virginia 30-28 after a missed field goal attempt in the final seconds of the game at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday Sept. 30.
Head coach Manny Diaz encourages players as they leave the field after an offensive drive. Miami lost to Virginia 30-28 after a missed field goal attempt in the final seconds of the game at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday Sept. 30. Photo credit: Josh Halper

One of the many disappointments of the Miami Hurricanes’ 2021 season thus far has been their lackluster defense.

With head coach Manny Diaz reclaiming defensive play calling duties, the Hurricanes were expected to have a tenacious and cutthroat defense, similar to the defenses Diaz coached throughout his previous tenure as Miami’s defensive coordinator.

Through five games this season, Miami’s defense has been underwhelming, as they currently rank 84th nationally in points allowed per game, 96th in passing yards allowed per game, and 60th in rushing yards per game.

The Hurricanes pride themselves on forcing turnovers, but have only brought out the infamous turnover chain a measly four times this season, good for 86th in the country in that category.

“We had a few things we did well overall,” Miami redshirt senior defensive end Zach McCloud said after Thursday’s loss to Virginia. “We let the [Virginia] offense do too much on third downs.”

Miami ranks 100th nationally in allowing opponents to convert on third downs. The performance against Virginia was no different, as the Cavaliers converted a whopping 50 percent of their third downs.

These woes on third downs are partly contributed to the lack of pressure that Miami’s pass rush has put onto opposing quarterbacks.

Despite unleashing a very blitz-heavy defense, the Hurricanes have been average at best at compiling sacks, as they rank 56th in the nation in registered sacks with only 12.

When Miami’s pass-rushers blitz on these third downs and are unsuccessful at sacking the quarterback, they put the rest of the defenders in unfortunate circumstances as they are forced to play near-perfect defense in order to prevent a completion for a first down.

The largest issue with the Canes’ defense has been their poor tackling, which has prohibited Miami from consistently stringing together successful defensive possessions.

Through the first three games of the season, Miami allowed 66 missed tackles, which topped college football, and the Hurricanes graded out as the worst tackling team in the country according to Pro Football Focus.

“We’ll have to look at everything we do,” Diaz said after the Michigan State loss. “If there’s a surprise, it’s that players that miss tackles that normally make tackles for a long time.”

Diaz’s concern regarding his team’s ability to complete tackles has not seemed to make much of a difference, as Virginia was able to extend drives and score points as a result of Miami’s poor tackling attempts.

One bright spot of the Hurricanes’ defense has been the emergence of true freshmen James Williams and Leonard Taylor.

Williams, a safety, recorded his first career interception in Week 4 against Central Connecticut State, while Taylor, a defensive tackle, led Miami in pressures on the opposing quarterback against Virginia.

“He can finish plays,” Diaz said when asked about Taylor. “His role can continue to increase in the guys that we’ve got playing defensive tackle.”

Miami will need further contributions from these freshmen along with improved play from upperclassmen if they plan on improving what is currently an uninspiring defense.