If there is anybody intimately familiar with the way Miami should look on defense, it is Manny Diaz.
Diaz grew up in South Florida during the Hurricanes’ heyday, when they were fast, aggressive, physical and tough just about everywhere on the field. Those characteristics have been missing from the Miami D over the last several years, and it is up to Diaz to fix those issues. Good thing he already has the road map toward getting there.
“I do think growing up here in a time when Miami was the standard in football -- certainly defensive football -- it gives you a perspective,” Diaz said during a recent interview. “I have an idea of the identity of this town, and it is certainly a town that relates to toughness, and that’s what they want to see. They want to see a team of fighters.
"We’re a different place down here. There’s a little bit of an ‘us against the world’ type deal. They want to see a team that represents that.”
Especially on defense, where players like Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy and Vince Wilfork always made their presence known.
Diaz is transitioning back to a 4-3 alignment, but more than the scheme, he said what will make his players more physical and aggressive all comes down to the little things: how they set the edge, how they pursue the ball and the angles they take. Playing harder and faster will be expected.
To reinvent the line, Diaz hired Missouri assistant Craig Kuligowski, who has mentored some of the best defensive linemen in the country.
“He and I philosophically fell out of the same tree in terms of what we believe with defensive line play,” Diaz said. “In a lot of ways, it hearkens back full circle to what Jimmy Johnson brought here in the '80s, which is we may be undersized, but we’re going to make up for that with our speed, our aggression, and that’s what starts up front.”
Just take last season as an example. Missouri ranked No. 2 in tackles for loss in 2015 with 106. Miami had 66. Diaz says Kuligowski has been an effective teacher because his players believe in what he asks them to do. It was no different when Kuligowski started coaching up his Miami players.
“To be a great defensive line coach -- it’s a unique room of all the rooms -- you really have to be the alpha,” Diaz said. "You’re in there with a bunch of big guys. You have to earn the respect of the room.
"I think the one thing is the players, they instantly bought in because they see this defense is about defensive linemen making plays, and they know his background, they know his track record, so he had instant credibility when he walked in and then he said, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re playing a scheme where instead of you worrying about tying up blocks or standing on the line of scrimmage, we’re going to eat in the backfield.’”
Diaz also said the recruiting philosophy moving forward will focus on speed and athleticism.
“There may be highly sought after defensive linemen who are big and physical, but if they don’t run the way we want them to run, they may not be our type of guy,” Diaz said. “Why is that? You put those guys together and you see that’s why you can get to the quarterback, that’s why you’re disruptive in the backfield, maybe we’re taking a little bit more of an athletic guy up front. You still have to have toughness. There is a size we want our guys to be. But we want guys that are athletic, we want guys that can change direction, turn corners where you can envision this guy sacking a quarterback.”