Top of Mario Cristobal’s list of talking points since taking over as Miami Hurricanes coach late last year, the focus has been on Miami improving in the trenches.
In a very frustrating 17-9 loss to the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday, the Cristobal Hurricanes at least took a step forward to prove they are improving in this all-important category.
“It shows progress,” the coach said.
Even though Texas A&M has a somewhat significant talent advantage on both lines, Miami (2-1) won the battle on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the Hurricanes limited the No. 24 Aggies to just five quarterback pressures and no sacks, Cristobal said, and ran for 4.9 yards per carry. On defense, they hit Max Johnson 12 times and sacked him three times, Cristobal said, and held Texas A&M to just 3.9 yards per carry.
This is despite the Aggies’ roster featuring 13 former top-notch defensive linemen — including five former five-star prospects — and seven former four-star offensive linemen, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
“We think they’re a really good offensive line. They form a very good defensive line,” Cristobal said. “We wanted to set the run and protect the quarterback.
No. 25 Miami, conversely, has just six former top-notch defensive linemen — with only one former five-star prospect — and five former four-star offensive linemen.
Cristobal’s recruiting prowess has yet to pay off, but the play of talented defensive tackle Leonard Taylor has given a glimpse of what a fuller defensive line could look like for the Hurricanes.
At the end of Texas A&M’s first practice last week, Taylor pulled away the Aggies’ left guard to hit Johnson and force the talented quarterback to throw an incomplete pass.
Even though Taylor only played 17 snaps, his natural talent showed through and Pro Football Focus ranked him Miami’s fourth-best player in the one-score loss.
As for why Taylor has only played the eighth most snaps among defensive linemen, Kevin Steele said the second is still trying to fully grasp this new defensive system.
“It’s a bit different schematically,” said the defensive coordinator. “They were more of a penetrating and attacking front, where we are more playing blocks and so when you’re young it’s a process. … He makes a lot of big plays, but he’ll be the first to tell you: because he has an incredible ability, sometimes Leonard makes some of these plays and, I would say this if he was here, it’s like, no, no, yes, yes.
More Miami defensive bright spots
▪ Miami linebackers progress: The two highest-ranked players for the Hurricanes were Corey Flagg Jr. and Caleb Johnson, but don’t expect to see the two linebackers playing any major snaps together anytime soon.
“The problem is that they play the same position,” Steele said. “When you build a house, you have plumbers and painters and drywallers and you don’t want your drywaller doing plumbing.”
If Keontra Smith can build on her weekend performance, however, the linebacker conundrum will become a little less pressing. The junior finished with three tackles and a half sack, and played more snaps than compatriot Waynmon Steed Jr.
“He is growing, in terms of position. It’s a little different from what they were asked to do last year. This particular position has moving parts. You’re the fitter in a lot of formations and your spread changes, so he grew into that. He’s starting to understand that. I think what came out in that game the other night was his speed,” Steele said. “He’s a former safety, not a linebacker, and that showed.”
Linebacker Wesley Bissainthe played four snaps, mostly in the fourth quarter, and was on the field in the final four minutes when Texas A&M tried to run out of time. It was another good sign in the development of the freshman, who had a tackle.
“He is very talented. He’s going well,” Steele said. “He’s really adopted it, he’s growing up. He can have a bright future if he continues to do what he is doing.
▪ DJ Ivey plays the best game: Coaches praised Ivey throughout the offseason, and the cornerback finally delivered the kind of breakout performance they were hoping for in College Station, Texas. Johnson threw three times at Ivey and the elder didn’t allow a single catch, even breaking two of those passes.
“The biggest jump last week was probably high school,” Cristobal said. “We played a lot tighter in coverage and the guys did a really good job of playing man and for the most part managing to play man coverage.”
Ivey has been contributing to Miami since his freshman season — he was a four-star cornerback for Homestead South Dade — and his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame has always been enticing. Too often, however, he was beaten to the core, mostly due to mental failings.
Ivey’s improvement, Steele said, is the product of best practice.
“He plays more game speed in the week now because he understands he’s going to have to play in the game, so rather than just training he’s learned to really train on his own” , Steele said. “While a play is going on in practice, he plays it like a play. He plays his technique, his speed like a play, so if you’re up against a scout team receiver, who obviously isn’t maybe not being as fast as the guy or fast as the guy you’re going to face on Saturday, he’s not going out there and playing at that level. He is training at a high level and it shows on Saturday.