Miami's defense wants to take the next step

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- When Al Golden looks at his defense this spring, he sees what has been missing for so long: a multitude of players dotting his practice field.

He finally has depth -- most particularly on the defensive line -- reason enough to do a jig around the office. Couple that with nearly every contributor returning off a top-15 defense, and coaches inside the facility have quietly started raising their expectations.

"Can we take the next step?" Golden said recently. "We'll see how good they want to be, how hard they want to be pushed. They've got to continue to get closer, they have to continue to eliminate mental errors and penalties. That's the challenge for our defense. But it's nice to be able to say 'Let's see how good we can get."

The defense has been the most beleaguered unit on the field over the last several seasons in Miami, but there were signs of improvement in 2014.

Miami ranked No. 14 in the nation in total defense (329.6 YPG), while also vastly improving its rush defense (132.2 YPG) and pass defense (191.4 YPG). Those are the best totals under Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio.

Indeed, there were several games to brag about -- dominating wins over Duke and Virginia Tech, to name two. They also played well against Cincinnati and North Carolina.

But those performances were overshadowed by poor performances against Nebraska, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. While the overall numbers look good, other stats tell the tale of inconsistent play.

Miami struggled in critical areas, giving up way too many first downs and third-down conversions (No. 9 in the ACC in both categories) and ranking No. 10 in red zone defense. The Canes may have limited rushing offenses, but they also gave up 21 rushing touchdowns. They also ranked No. 14 in the ACC in penalties.

This all speaks to a defense that had communication problems and issues with staying disciplined on a consistent basis.

"The guys realize we have a chance to really do well, and at times last year we were excellent," D'Onofrio said. "At other times, we were just OK. The body of work was good. It wasn't dominating. I think that's where they want to go, and in order to do that, you all have to be on the same page. Everybody has to trust."

Coaches have hammered home the idea that players have to start trusting one another. That is a big reason they have had players try to spend more time together off the field, hoping those bonds that form will make a difference in practice and games.

"It feels a little bit different, so I feel guys want to compete more because they know they can't let that guy down next to them," linebacker Raphael Kirby said. "I trust the guy next to me that he's going to be in his gap. I'm going to be in my gap. If we're all in our gap, it's hard to move the ball. That's all it boils down to -- it's trust."

How Miami improves despite losing six starters -- including All-ACC linebacker Denzel Perryman -- is a valid question. Kirby moves from weakside linebacker to the middle, taking over for Perryman. He served as the backup middle linebacker a year ago, so he already knows all the calls to make on defense.

At both linebacker and defensive line, Miami will at least have more depth. Last season, the Canes only played five linebackers for the entire season -- the first time D'Onofrio has done that in his career. He believes he will have six or seven linebackers ready for the start of the season.

There is more on the defensive line. For the first time since he arrived, Golden was able to redshirt defensive linemen. He and D'Onofrio say Earl Moore and Jelani Hamilton benefited from their redshirt years. Couple them with guys like Mike Wyche, Calvin Heurtelou (out for spring), Courtel Jenkins, Corey King, Chad Thomas, Ufomba Kamalu, Quan Muhammad, Anthony Moten and Trent Harris -- not to mention several promising true freshmen -- and the Miami defensive group has numbers it hasn't had in years.

Numbers don't mean a lot if players aren't productive, though. Miami has struggled to hold a pass rush, and only had 27 sacks a year ago. There's no question the defensive line must be an area of improvement. If that happens, improvement across the board should follow.

"We played well as a defense, so we just have to take that extra step," linebacker Tyriq McCord said. "Who says we can't be the No. 1 defense? Being No. 14 in the country on defense, that wasn't good enough. Just have to make that extra step and be No. 1."