Is Hurricanes defense finally turning the corner?

Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio says linebacker Raphael Kirby -- seen here returning an interception against Arkansas State -- has shown the most improvement since the beginning of the season.

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However, last Thursday’s dominant performance at Virginia Tech proved encouraging, offering signs of progress that the Hurricanes faithful has been waiting for.

Until allowing a touchdown inside the last two minutes, Miami nearly shut out a program that hadn’t been blanked since 1995. Virginia Tech tallied just 262 yards — a season low for a Division I opponent against the Hurricanes — and 22:08 in time of possession, going 3 of 12 on third downs.

"We’re getting better," head coach Al Golden said. "We tackled better in that game, we played good force. We probably left a couple sacks out there. We disrupted the quarterback. We altered his throws. Now we just got to finish a little bit better. … We played a lot of guys and obviously third-down differential was huge in the game, and we were able to keep the ball, which anytime you can do that can help the defense."

Perhaps the defense is finally hitting its stride through game experience, preparation and confidence. Look no further than junior linebacker Raphael Kirby, who is starting for the first time in his collegiate career.

Two years ago, the Hurricanes inserted him into the lineup against Notre Dame after he saw limited action over the first six contests. On Thursday, he recorded four tackles and one for a loss, putting him fifth on the team with 32 tackles on the year. His first stop against the Hokies came on a crucial third-and-1 on Virginia Tech’s opening drive.

Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio called him the player making the biggest strides from the beginning of the season to now. Not only does he play mike and will linebacker for the team, but he also exemplifies a student of the game.

"Sometimes you forget about that as a coach," D’Onofrio said. "I think he’s improved every week. … Just his practice habits, the example he’s setting, the leadership he’s doing. It’s really fun to watch. It’s always fun to watch players improve, but that’s one that had stood out to me."

Kirby credits the jumps he has made to his preparation, which includes watching "a lot" of film with D’Onofrio. He takes what he sees to the practice field and then plays the way he practices.

Hurricanes' Flowers out

Like his teammates, Kirby put together the "small things" to allow him to go out there and be "confident, relax and just play fast." The off week allowed guys to focus on ways to get better and rest up. Each player executed his job.

"My tackling and covering — those are things I had to work on," Kirby said. "I spent a lot of time hitting the bags, covering receivers. Just getting jams and having good vision on the quarterback. Just all those things you have to develop in practice so it translates in a game."

This season, tackling has been the determining factor in the defense’s success — or failure — in a game.

Against Nebraska, for example, the Hurricanes failed to take down Ameer Abdullah. The nation’s leading rusher rumbled for 229 yards and two touchdowns. The defensive line didn’t record a sack or a tackle. Georgia Tech tallied 318 rushing yards with its spread option, while permitting just one sack and two tackles for a loss.

Compare that to the win over Virginia Tech when Miami gave up 120 rushing yards on 31 attempts for a 3.9 average. There were 29 yards lost on run plays with two sacks and six tackles for a loss.

"I think it’s been better the last two weeks, but there’s so much game in space right now," Golden said. "If you can’t tackle you get exposed. Just in college football in general if you’re not tackling very well you can give up a lot of big plays, a lot of explosive plays, a lot of yards.

"We have to continue to be mindful of it, stay on top of it, embrace it as a defense and continue to tackle well and play with force. Those two go hand in hand. If you don’t trust the guy next to you and how he’s going to fit the play that’s really hard to tackle with confidence. We did that well the other night. The other night’s over and we have a new set of variables and circumstances that we have to defend on Saturday."

As a defense, it’s hard to deny the impact of creating takeaways with said force.

Over three consecutive drives, the Hurricanes caused fumbles to prevent the Hokies from trimming a 24-point deficit early in the second half. Sophomore linebacker Jermaine Grace recovered two of them.

Senior linebacker Denzel Perryman, a 2014 Butkus Award semifinalist, forced the third fumble. The aggressiveness displayed by Perryman, senior safety Dallas Crawford and junior Deon Bush isn’t just a style of play but attitude.

Multidimensional offense

"I feel like we improved as a whole just everybody taking ownership of doing their job and just trusting the man next to you," said Perryman, who led the team with 11 tackles. "We just got to continue to do our job, play downhill and be aggressive like we were."

Those turnovers foster morale. The defense has 2.1 takeaways per game and 1.1 fumbles per game, good for 16th in the nation. They are the differences between wins and losses.

In Miami’s three defeats, the Hurricanes forced just four turnovers — two apiece against the Cornhuskers and Louisville Cardinals. In the five wins, they have induced 13 takeaways with multi-turnover games in each.

"One of the things that doesn’t stand out in the stats but what we know here is every week this year in eight games we’ve had less mental errors each week since the beginning of the season while playing more guys," D’Onofrio said. "To me that’s a good sign that guys are doing their job, playing the defense and we’re bringing young guys along. Overall, we’ve improved our depth, our knowledge and our execution. I think that’s the biggest thing."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.