By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Miami's defense didn't make many headlines last season, and when it did, it was for all the wrong reasons. The unit struggled mightily, eventually finishing dead last in the ACC in rushing defense, passing defense and total defense, respectively. The group was young, and it showed: The 'Canes' porous scheme often undermined a rather competent offense, led by strong-armed quarterback Stephen Morris and dynamic running back Duke Johnson. The results weren't anything like the ones coach Al Golden envisioned in defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio's second season.
The 'Canes finished 7-5 last year and went 5-3 in the ACC's Coastal division, good enough for a three-way tie for first place with North Carolina and Georgia Tech. The U has enough returning offensive talent to contend for the conference title this fall, but the defense must make some major adjustments.
The 2012 Miami defense didn't discriminate; it was equally bad at stopping both the run and the pass. But the 'Canes were particularly awful at getting to the quarterback. No Miami player ranked among the top 10 in the league in sacks, and the team finished with just 13 in sum, the 11th-ranked total in the ACC. Defensive end Shayon Green -- a key cog on the Hurricanes' defensive line -- led the team with 67 total tackles last fall, yet he couldn't manage even a single sack. The team's leading sack-getter, Anthony Chickillo, threw down the quarterback only four times, but even that number signaled a drop from Chickillo's five-sack total in 2011. Factor in an unreliable secondary and the defense simply didn't pose a significant threat to opponents' passing games.
In fact, opposing quarterbacks probably had Miami circled on their calendar weeks before the matchup. Duke's Sean Renfree, Boston College's Chase Rettig and NC State's Mike Glennon all threw for more than 400 yards against Miami, while Florida State's E.J. Manuel (229 yards) and Virginia Michael Rocco (300 yards, four TDs) similarly picked apart the defense. Those numbers don't even include the performances turned in by Kansas State's Collin Klein and Notre Dame's Everett Golson, who appeared to be in cruise control during blowout wins over the 'Canes. The Wildcats beat Miami 52-13 and the Irish thrashed UM 41-3.
Miami's offense overcame the defense's deficiences at times, including in shootout victories over Boston College (41-32), NC State (44-37) and Duke (52-45). Yet with so little pressure from the defensive line, quarterbacks had no trouble orchestrating their offenses, something D'Onofrio will need to change as the team prepares for 2013.
As mentioned above, however, opposing quarterbacks weren't the only players who had their way with Miami. Many running backs steamrolled the 'Canes in scoring situations. Of the 52 red-zone scores that Miami allowed in 2012, 26 came courtesy of the ground game. Quarterbacks pushed opponents down the field, and running backs finished the job. It happened like clockwork. Rinse and repeat.
Plenty of the blame for last year's woes was ultimately placed on D'Onofrio, but as he pointed out early on, 17 of the 22 players on the defensive depth chart were either freshman or sophomores. It was a sentiment Golden echoed throughout the 2012 campaign:
“As I say to [D'Onofrio] and the whole defensive staff, we’re moving the team forward. Just keep moving it forward. As I said to you guys before, it’s not like we’re hiding a bunch of fourth and fifth-year seniors on the scout-team field. Where are they? There are no fifth-year seniors, there are no fourth-year seniors – only a couple – and there are very few juniors."
Experience came at a premium on Miami's defense, but that's an area where the Hurricanes have improved, especially across the line. Green, now a senior, and Chickillo, now a junior, join junior Olsen Pierre and senior Curtis Porter to keep last season's starting line intact with another offseason of practice under its belt.
'Canes' fans should also take heart in the notion that D'Onofrio has shown the ability to construct dominant defenses in the past. In his first season in Coral Gables in 2011, the Hurricanes finished seventh in the nation in red-zone defense (87th in 2012) and 21st in scoring defense (82nd in 2012). Fixing last season's problems will be a test, but the coordinator has dealt with adversity before: He took a Temple defense ranked 117th in the FBS in total defense in 2006 and helped it finish 17th nationally in the same category in 2010. Miami brings back a good chunk of its defensive production, but that won't mean much if those same players don't learn from their 2012 mistakes. The biggest question mark remains the defensive line, but players across the entire depth chart must step up. Given their offense, the 'Canes could be a legitimate ACC contender. Now, it's up to D'Onofrio to turn things around with some more experienced pieces to the puzzle.