At least the defense has been fixed.
Canes fans lamenting the team’s 6-4 record, or the crushing final-play loss to Georgia Tech, or the underwhelming play at quarterback, can at least take solace in the appreciable improvement on defense (and UM’s offensive line, as well).
A UM defense that was average or below average in several key measurements a year ago is now clearly above average, even while playing most of the season without defensive end starters Akheem Mesidor and Nyjalik Kelly.
Credit head coach Mario Cristobal for eyeballing and hiring coordinator Lance Guidry; credit Guidry for his relentless aggressiveness and ability to adjust on the fly; and credit the players, a group that features several returnees who have improved in this system (Wesley Bissainthe, Daryl Porter Jr., James Williams, Jared Harrison-Hunte, among others).
“This group is special, and I feel like we feed off each other to make more plays,” Bissainthe said this week.
Some perspective on how far the Canes’ defense has come from 2022 under Kevin Steele (who’s now with Alabama) to 2023 on Guidry’s watch:
▪ The Hurricanes are permitting just 312.5 yards per game, 19th best in the country. That’s better than national playoff contenders Alabama, FSU and Texas.
Last year, UM was 64th in total defense, allowing 376.5 yards per game.
▪ The Canes are relinquishing just 86 rushing yards per game, which is tied with Air Force for sixth in the country, better than unbeaten Michigan (97.5), unbeaten Georgia (107.9) and undefeated Ohio State (112.4).
Last season, UM was 54th in run defense, yielding 142.9 yards per game on the ground.
This improvement is particularly impressive, because UM lost one of its two best run-defending tackles (Darrell Jackson) to FSU and has been without Mesidor for most of the season.
“Props to the big guys up front,” Bissainthe said of a defense that is holding teams to 2.8 yards per carry, better than everyone in the country except UCLA, Penn State and Nebraska.
“The whole defense as a group, we have a mind-set of `They’re not running the ball on us.’ We have the mind-set of we’re going to defend this line, this goal line to the end. Having that mind-set will take you a long way — just go out there, execute, have fun.”
▪ The Canes are permitting 20.7 points per game, which is 34th nationally and better than the 10-0 Washington Huskies in the offense-titled Pacific 12.
Last season, UM yielded 26.8 points per game, which was 66th.
▪ UM is holding teams to a 35 percent conversion rate on third downs, which is 36th best in the country. Last year, Miami was 97th in that category.
UM’s personnel seems far better suited to Guidry’s attacking, blitz-heavy style than Steele’s more vanilla scheme. And Guidry, for the most part, has made smart, savvy adjustments, including moving to a 3-3 stack against Clemson after UM’s defensive line was depleted with injuries.
“There’s a standard that’s being created here; we’re going to play a certain way, a certain style,” said Guidry, who this week was named one of 61 candidates for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach this season.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. We had to switch the defense halfway through because of injuries [to that 3-3 stack]. I really like this group, being around them. It’s been a good year for us, but we still have a couple of games left.”
Guidry has adjusted how some players are used, including safety Williams, who’s often playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and Bissainthe, who has thrived while lining up on the edge at times.
That role “is new to me,” Bissainthe said. “But I’m athletic, have speed. I’m able to do more in [this] defense.... Coach Guidry knows what he wants, wants to put pressure on the quarterback with personnel, with us having multiple linebackers on the field.”
The front seven appears in good shape for next season, though defensive tackle help will be needed if sophomore Leonard Taylor III turns pro.
Mesidor (a junior), Kelly (a sophomore), freshman phenom Rueben Bain, junior Jahfari Harvey, freshman Jayden Wayne, redshirt freshman Cyrus Moss and highly regarded freshman Collins Acheampong should be back at defensive end.
At tackle, Jared Harrison-Hunte (a junior), Alabama transfer Jamil Burroughs (a sophomore sitting out this season who can essentially replace senior Branson Deen), junior Thomas Gore, freshman Joshua Horton and redshirt freshman Ahmad Moten should be back. If Taylor goes to the NFL, another skilled veteran will be needed in the portal.
All of the key linebackers have eligibility remaining and should be back –—Francisco Mauigoa (who has 6.5 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles), much-improved Corey Flagg Jr., Bissainthe, K.J. Cloyd and a handful of young players (Bobby Washington, Raul Aguirre, Malik Bryant, Marcellius Pulliam), among others.
The defensive backfield will need help in the portal if juniors Kamren Kinchens and Williams turn pro; Kinchens is considered the better NFL prospect. Markeith Williams, Jaden Harris and Brian Balom are behind them on the depth chart.
UM loses senior cornerbacks Te’Cory Couch and Jaden Davis, but Porter and UCF transfer Davonte Brown have eligibility remaining, and freshman Damari Brown and sophomore Jadais Richard took on expanded roles against FSU.
Other young players, such as Robert Stafford, will get a chance to compete, but UM will need at least one cornerback in the portal.
THIS AND THAT
▪ In his most extensive work of the season, Vanderbilt transfer Richard permitted three of five passes in his coverage area to be caught against FSU, for 36 yards.
With Porter sidelined by injury, the freshman Brown permitted five of eight targets to be caught for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Those two cornerbacks “really fit the game better” against FSU “because they were longer,” Guidry said. “We needed longer guys. The young Brown played well, Richard played well. I was proud of them. Big moments and they didn’t really blink.”
▪ Louisville enters averaging 32.7 points and 439.0 yards per game, including 187.9 on the ground.
▪ Sean McDonough and Greg McElroy - ABC/ESPN’s No. 2 college football announcing team - will call their second consecutive Canes game, on Saturday against Louisville at noon on ABC.