Manny Diaz's Resurrection of Miami's Defense Isn't All About the Turnover Chain

The Hurricanes' defensive coordinator's success comes down to more than a sideline gimmick. Also in this week's notebook: Lamar Jackson's quiet excellence and Notre Dame's struggles in South Florida.
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Like all good coaches, Manny Diaz knew the power of a history lesson. Diaz arrived at Miami in 2016 as the defensive coordinator on Mark Richt’s new staff after a solid season in the rough-and-tumble SEC at Mississippi State, but this was a unique job for him. Diaz grew up in South Florida as a huge Hurricanes fan. He spent many Saturdays of his youth in a raucous Orange Bowl, especially in the ’80s, when Miami was the dominant program in college football. Diaz was in the stands when the Canes took down No. 1 Oklahoma. He was there for the famed “third-and-43” game in 1989, when the Canes crushed No. 1 Notre Dame, 27–10.

Diaz’s primary point of emphasis with his new charges was getting them to “play like Hurricanes.”

“What that means," Diaz says, "is playing fast, being very physical, playing violent on the field, because that really was the identity of that program back in the day, and that’s really what you saw whenever they played [and dominated] in matchups vs. physical, power-running teams like Notre Dame."

Miami looked eerily similar to the teams of three decades ago in last weekend’s 41–8 mauling of No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish came in riding one of the nation’s top ground attacks, averaging over seven yards per carry; Miami held them to just three yards per carry and forced four turnovers, becoming the first FBS team to notch at least four takeaways in four straight games against FBS opponents in at least 13 years—a feat that’s even more impressive when you consider Miami only starts one senior on defense, has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its defensive two-deep and is playing with just 73 scholarship players.

Diaz says that aggressive, suffocating defense is practically in the DNA of South Florida football, tying into the way the game is taught right down to the earliest levels of the area's storied Optimist Football programs. “Even when you watch the little league football down here, it’s coached tough,” Diaz says. “It’s hard to score points. UM should be an extension of that.”

Of course, talking about playing great, physical football is one thing. Making it happen is another. After all, Miami’s defense ranked 86th in yards per play allowed, the year before Mark Richt and Diaz showed up. [The Canes rank 12th in that category this year and were ninth last season.]

Building a team defined by its toughness was non-negotiable for the new Miami staff, Diaz says. And he demanded they become a better tackling team. As a big proponent of the rugby tackling system Pete Carroll employs with the Seahawks, Diaz knew it’s all about leverage and trusting your teammates.

To help put some teeth back in the Canes’ defense, Diaz created new ways to measure their performance. Players were awarded “a bite” for any sign of physical domination, such as making the opponent go backwards against his will—these players could get their names called out and receive a helmet sticker. On the flip side, they would get “a poodle” if they ran away from contact or were doing something that was not “setting the standard.” The punishment for that was having to push a 45-pound plate across the field.

The most well-known incentive that Diaz has brought to Miami is its now-famous turnover chain, the 5 1/2–pound Cuban link of 10-karat gold that has become a college football phenomenon. “We didn’t know how it was gonna work,” he says. Turns out, it’s been like a turnover magnet.

Turnovers themselves are hard to forecast. Last year Boise State ranked No. 126 in turnovers gained; this year the Broncos are up almost 100 spots to No. 29. And every team has turnover stations and ball-security drills at practice. Diaz says he believes that turnovers happen if you stop the run and force the other team to have to throw the ball. Interceptions and strip sacks come into play when an offense feels like it must takes some chances. He also suspects the turnover chain may have some pyschological impact on both teams, especially after Miami gets its first takeaway. “It sort of puts blood in the water, and maybe it’s planting a seed in the other team’s minds,” he says, pointing out that both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame are excellent ball-security teams, with each suffering nearly half of its season-long turnover total against the Hurricanes.

Credit Richt, a former Miami backup QB, for bringing back the connections to the Canes’ glory days. That bond has no doubt also helpe spark the resurgence. Many of the program’s old stars have come back for summer recruiting camps and are enjoying seeing Miami back in the national spotlight.

“Dan Morgan texted me [right after the Notre Dame game], and that made my day,” says sophomore linebacker Mike Pinckney. “He texted me and said, ‘I love the way you guys are playing as a defense,’ and that kind of brought a tear to my heart. That’s someone I always looked up to when I was younger. That just made my day. D.J. Williams, [Jon] Beason, [Jon] Vilma, they text us all and as a younger guy that makes us feel special.”

It also makes some older guys on the Canes staff feel pretty special, too.

Other Notes

• Coming off a dominant showing in knocking off No. 1 Georgia, folks are raving about Auburn’s defense (rightly so) and star running back Kerryon Johnson has shot into the Heisman race (rightly so), but the Tigers have also gotten a jolt from one of the better under-the-radar stories in college football this season. Center Casey Dunn was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against the mighty UGA defense. Dunn graded out 91 percent for the game and had a season-high six blocks that led to first downs or touchdowns for Auburn. In addition, he helped pave the way for the Tigers to roll up 488 total yards, including 237 rushing yards—the most for any team against Georgia in two years.

Not bad who a guy who began his college career as an FCS walk-on player.

Dunn, a grad transfer, is listed at 6' 4" and 292 pounds—those inside the program say he’s probably more like 6' 2"—but his toughness is off the charts, he has good feet and he’s extremely smart. At Jacksonville State, he earned All-America honors, anchoring the unit that sparked the top offense in the Ohio Valley Conference and propelled the Gamecocks to the FCS title game in 2015.

How did a guy who clearly has SEC talent end up as an FCS walk-on? Dunn played at a very good program in Alabama, Hewitt-Trussville High, and had the grades. His high school coach Hal Riddle said Dunn went down with a knee injury midway through his junior season that required surgery.

“When all the college coaches are rolling through and coming by practice, he’s standing over there helping coach with a big old brace on his leg,” Riddle says. "He didn’t get clearance until August, so he couldn’t attend football camps that most kids would, so he was flying under the radar.”

Riddle had coached several other SEC linemen and says Dunn was as good as any of them, but he just got caught up by some bad timing and the numbers game. “So many coaches today will get into this ‘If you want us to be interested in you, you need to be at our camp.’ ” Riddle says. “But he wasn’t cleared for that and then all the big schools have this template that they’re looking for, where you need to be this tall and weigh this much and run this speed. Casey’s got all the intangibles. He’s an incredible young man. Just by his presence he makes your team better. So humble and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the team. He’s the one who’s always lifting kids up.

“I never once heard him say [while getting passed over in the recruiting process] ‘I don’t know why?’ or act like poor, pitiful me. And then Casey enjoyed every minute he was up there at Jacksonville. I’m so happy for him to see how things have turned out.”

• Defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is quietly having another record-setting season. Last weekend he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. This year Jackson has thrown for 3,003 yards and rushed for 1,176. Yet he’s pretty far off the Heisman radar right now. Why? It’s a question I’ve gotten a few times this week.

For starters, Louisville has had a pretty underwhelming season, at 6–4 with two games to go. Any early momentum the Cardinals had was torpedoed by a blowout home loss to Clemson in Week 3, which was followed by three losses in October. Three of Louisville’s four losses have been by double-digits, and its lone win over an FBS team with a winning record just came last week against 6–4 Virginia. On top of that, Jackson wasn’t great in his two games against ranked opponents, rushing for 69 yards a game on just 3.8 yards per carry—about half of what he’s done in the other eight games. His QB rating in those two games is 30 points lower than it has been against non–Top 25 teams.

• Name of the Week: Bull Barge. The 5' 10", 225-pound South Alabama linebacker had a career-high 13 tackles against Arkansas State in a 24–19 win last Saturday. His full name is De’Themeyus Terrill Barge.

• Stat of the Week: Notre Dame has played two huge games in Miami in the past five years: one agianst Alabama for the national championship at the end of the 2012 season and the other last Saturday against Miami, a playoff elimination game of sorts. The Irish were outscored by a combined 55–0 in the first halves of those games. Mercy.