‘Canes’ Tracy Howard, Antonio Crawford turn the corner

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Antonio Crawford and Tracy Howard were kids on the corner as University of Miami freshmen last season.

A year later, especially with former cornerback Brandon McGee having graduated to the NFL, Crawford and Howard will be asked to play like veterans.

Both sound eager to do so.

“I feel like I’ve made great steps, a lot of progress from last year,” Crawford said. “I’m just going to continue to come out here and get better everyday.”

“We’re just going to go out there and compete,” Howard told FOX Sports Florida last week. “With more experience, the defense is going to rely on each other, trust each other more, go out there and play as hard as we can, not leave anything on the field.”

Howard and Crawford shared top billing at one CB spot on the Hurricanes depth chart released Monday night. Junior Ladarius Gunter was ahead of redshirt freshman Nate Dortch and freshman Artie Burns, from Miami’s Northwestern High School, at the other corner.

The 5-foot-11, 184-pound Howard arrived at UM as a five-star recruit from Miramar High School. He played in all 12 games last season, with one start (season finale at Duke).

He admitted that adjusting to college ball was a challenge in 2012, after previously excelling on talent alone.

“Coming out of high school, I trusted my high school technique and that don’t work on the college level,” he said. “I was playing football, just trying to be an athlete. And over the offseason, I learned that’s not going to work.

“So I worked on my technique, I learned I had to become a technician. The more I took reps against the 1s (receivers) — Allen Hurns, Rashawn Scott and Phillip Dorsett — is just got me better every day.”

Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said it was not a surprise to see his freshman DBs exhibit growing pains last season.

“Oh, yeah. They realize quickly that it’s not, ‘Hey, I’m gonna run around and cover that one guy and that’s what I do.’ They realize coverages have to be mixed up and quarterbacks will pick you apart,” D’Onofrio said. “You can’t just go out there and play one or two deals. You have to be able to play zone, you have to be able to play man, and you have to be able to mix it up.

“The attention to detail is usually what gets (young players), but they’re willing to work at it.”

The ‘Canes coaches noticed Howard’s progress. He has worn the coveted black jersey, signifying a defensive starter, since the third day of spring practice.

“The black jersey is a high standard but you really can’t think about it like that,” Howard said. “You just have to come out and pretend you don’t have a black jersey, keep on working and keep on pushing yourself.”

Crawford, 5-11, 187 pounds, played in all 12 games last year, mostly on special teams. He was a star at Tampa’s Plant High School but admitted he quickly learned college receivers showed “more physicality — guys using their hands and everything” compared to high school.

Asked in which area he had improved the most since last season, Crawford didn’t hesitate.

“Mentally,” he said. “Accepting the coaching better, listening to my coaches. When I’m putting in a lot of work during the offseason, making sure I’m putting it to good use.”

D’Onofio sounded like he had little doubt Crawford and Howard would show significant improvement as sophomores.

“They made a lot of progress, a a lot of progress,” D’Onofrio said. “Tracy’s such a great student of the game, he loves the game, he understands it. It’s easy to work with guy like that. He’s continually going to get better because he wants to talk football constantly.

“Antonio kind of hit a wall, I think, at one point as a freshman last year but he developed in the offseason and the spring.”

Crawford, Howard and the other ‘Canes defenders are determined to make people forget that the unit allowed 30.5 points per game last season.

“We know we have a different defense, we know we have a better defense,” Crawford said. “That’s what we’re trying to go out there and show everybody.”

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.