NCF Nation: Jermaine Grace

Miami defense clicking at right time

November, 12, 2014
Something was not right in the Nebraska game. The primetime audience knew it. Miami fans knew it. And you can be sure Mark D'Onofrio knew it, too.

The Hurricanes had given up season-highs in points (41) and yards (456). They had shown no answer for the Cornhuskers' ground game, which relentlessly pounded its way to 343 yards on 54 carries. They were on their way to a 2-2 start, and skepticism surrounding the program's direction continued to mushroom.

So D'Onofrio popped in the tape that week looking to tighten a systematic approach. What he saw was the source of all of his frustration.

"I looked at it and I said, 'You know what? We have too much freelancing going on, and we had the opportunities to make plays and we didn't make the plays,' " Miami's defensive coordinator said. "And I really showed it to the defense and took a good, hard look at it."

What has transpired since is one of the bigger in-season turnarounds throughout the country. Miami's oft-vilified defense finds itself ranked No. 11 nationally as it readies for Saturday's prime-time showdown with rival Florida State, as the Canes come out of a bye with seemingly as good of a shot as anyone at knocking the defending national champion off its throne.

[+] EnlargeMiami defense
Michael Shroyer/Getty ImagesMiami has forced opponents into eight turnovers since its last loss on Oct. 4 to Georgia Tech. The Hurricanes look wholly different from the team that Nebraska ran over on Sept. 20.
Four wins in the five games since the letdown in Lincoln have boosted the unit's confidence. And it has all, in many ways, come down to the simplest of fundamentals:

Better tackling.

If that sounds elementary, consider the layers to it.

"A lot of tackling is knowing where your help is and then trusting each other; there is an art to tackling," head coach Al Golden said. "We're just doing a better job of, A, knowing where our help is; B, following the ball to the unblocked players, because every defense is designed with obviously the ball getting to the unblocked players so they can make the tackle.

"We're using the sideline better on perimeter plays and not letting up explosive runs, which we did not do a year ago, and I think the kids are finishing better. They're bringing the technique to the game. They're playing with a base, their eyes are up and then of course we're getting after it. So those five elements are present right now. I can't say that that was always the case early in the season or certainly last year."

Depth has rounded into form throughout this season, too, with Golden praising the maturity and growth of first- and second-year players. Sophomore linebacker Jermaine Grace (4.5 TFLs, 2 fumble recoveries) and sophomore corners Artie Burns (2 sacks, 5 break-ups) and Corn Elder (1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) are among nine defensive freshmen or sophomores on Miami's two-deep. Late leaps have come from upperclassmen, too, with senior linebacker Thurston Armbrister leading the team in sacks (5), tackles for loss (7) and forced fumbles (2).

A safety who was a late, under-the-radar addition to Golden's first recruiting class, Armbrister moved to linebacker his sophomore year and has bulked up some 40-plus pounds during his time in Coral Gables, up to 241.

"He's got really good length, he's very versatile," D'Onofrio said. "He can play on the ball for us at the Sam linebacker, which is his primary position, but he does a nice job when he plays off the ball. And the thing he added this year that we hadn't done with him in the past is we have him rush on third down, and he asked to do that."

Armbrister, like everyone else on Miami's defense, failed to record a stop behind the line of scrimmage at Nebraska. That has all changed in the nearly two months since, starting with a win over Coastal Division-leading leading Duke that saw the Blue Devils score just 10 points in their lone loss of the season. The Canes recovered from the following week's setback at Georgia Tech, with D'Onofrio disappointed only in his unit's inability to create takeaways against the triple-option attack.

Miami has forced eight turnovers in its three games since, all 20-plus-point wins that were decided by the fourth quarter. Its 19 takeaways on the season are tied for fourth in the ACC and 20th nationally. The Canes are playing their best ball at the best possible time, and they might just be in position to turn the tide on their rivalry with the Seminoles while throwing a major wrench into the College Football Playoff picture.

"I just knew that we had to get our guys to execute, we had to get them to trust, and if we did that, we were on the right track," D'Onofrio said.

"I think we've played really, really well," he later added. "Yards per play and third down, we're taking the ball away, we're creating pressure. So I'm very pleased with where we're at. It doesn't mean anything if we don't play well Saturday night, but I think our guys are developing a lot of confidence because of the performance, demonstrative performance, both in practice and in the games."

Big East signing day superlatives

February, 8, 2013

Time to put a little bow on signing day coverage in the Big East. Who fared best? Worst? Read on to find out.

Biggest winner on signing day: There weren't many Big East schools waiting on decisions from ESPN 150 talent on signing day itself, so the big winner has to be Rutgers, for simply finishing with the top recruiting class in the Big East. Again. Rutgers hoped to add a few more players Wednesday, but that did not happen. Still, the Scarlet Knights put together a solid class filled with solid prospects, including four-star quarterback Chris Laviano and cornerback Nadir Barnwell.

Best closer: UConn came on strong in the final few weeks of recruiting, flipping Boston College quarterback commit Tim Boyle, one of the highest-rated players in the class. The Huskies also got a late commitment from three-star receiver Brian Lemelle, who had offers from many other BCS schools. Only one major question mark: Quarterback Richard Lagow, committed since June, has not signed with the Huskies yet.

Biggest surprise: Cincinnati getting four-star tight end Travis Johnson. After Johnson decommitted from Miami, many believe he would end up staying close to home in Tampa and playing for USF. Ultimately, he wanted the opportunity to leave home and ended up with the Bearcats, which continued their recruiting push into Florida, signing 11 from the state.

Who flipped/biggest loss: Louisville wanted to add two more to its class on signing day, but the Cardinals missed on both. ESPN 150 linebacker Jermaine Grace chose Miami over the Cards, and three-star linebacker Lamar Robbins stuck with his pledge to USF. Still, Louisville ended up with five four-star prospects, including two excellent receivers in James Quick and Richard Benjamin.
We are only hours away from fax machines screeching off the hook. National signing day officially starts at midnight, but the real fun kicks off Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. ET, when ESPNU will bring the announcement ceremony of the nation's No. 1 recruit -- defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson).

ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage of recruiting's version of Christmas morning all day, as 18 ESPN 300 prospects will announced their college destinations live on air.

Here's the complete schedule for ESPNU's coverage of live announcements:

NSD TV announcement schedule

February, 1, 2013
National signing day is just around the corner on Feb. 6. That day, a number of the nation’s top football recruits will announce their college destinations, and 18 ESPN 300 prospects are scheduled to do so on ESPNU.

Below is the full schedule of announcements on ESPNU, which kicks off with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, making his long-awaited decision at 7:30 a.m. ET.

Note: All times are Eastern

Miramar (Fla.) linebacker Jermaine Grace is hoping to avenge a state title game loss this fall, and several ACC schools are hoping he will choose one of them afterward.

Miami and Florida State are just two of the major programs looking at Grace, who ran a 4.43 40 in the Elite Scouting Services combine at Cardinal Gibbons last weekend.
"Miami was the only junior day I could get to. I was invited to a bunch of them but transportation was an issue," Grace said. "Miami is a great school for me and I grew up as a fan of the Hurricanes, but I'm taking everything in and I'm going to look at some other possibilities.

"I'm going to be taking in a lot of camps over the next few months. Probably the NFTC camp in April and Friday Night Lights will definitely be one of the camps I go to. We usually go to the Jimbo Fisher camp at FSU and the West Virginia camp as well."

To read Corey Long's entire story on Grace, click here.