CORAL GABLES, Fla. — At this time last year, the Miami Hurricanes were bad on defense and the numbers would only get worse.
Things have changed considerably so far this season.
Two games is not enough of a sample size to conclude that whatever plagued the 16th-ranked Hurricanes (2-0) on defense last season is fixed, though season-opening wins over Florida Atlantic and Florida provided encouraging signs. And even though a lower-division team in Savannah State is visiting Miami this weekend, the Hurricanes think it’s another chance to further show progress.
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“With demonstrated performance comes confidence,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said.
So far, so good on that front.
Miami had major issues last season in getting off the field on third downs (opponents converted 42 percent of those tries against the Hurricanes in 2012), stopping the run (218 yards allowed per game ranked ninth-worst in the nation) and getting to quarterbacks (the Hurricanes took away a mere 86 yards from teams via sacks all season).
Early returns suggest that the Hurricanes are better in all those areas. FAU and Florida combined to convert 35 percent of their third downs, managed an average of 127.5 yards per game on the ground and the Hurricanes have already posted seven sacks to take away 41 yards.
“What do I see?” said Savannah State coach Earnest Wilson, repeating a question posed to him this week. “Well, they’re bigger, faster and stronger.”
That, of course, means Miami is better, not that improvement wasn’t to be expected.
The 2012 Hurricanes gave up 366 points in just 12 games. Miami also gave up a staggering 5,837 yards of offense, allowing at least 200 yards on the ground in eight straight games — a baffling number for a school that yielded eight 200-yard rushing outings, total, in a 107-game stretch between 1999 and 2008.
Nonetheless, after giving up 22 points in two games this season, the Hurricanes aren’t taking victory laps quite yet.
“I think we’re still seeing what we need to work on, see our flaws, and try to perfect them,” Miami defensive lineman Shayon Green said. “We know what we can get better at.”
To say D’Onofrio was embattled over the past two seasons would be an understatement.
Hurricanes coach Al Golden — one of D’Onofrio’s longtime and closest friends — was asked several times in his first two years at Miami to gauge the level of satisfaction he had with his defensive coordinator, and the answer rarely changed much.
Golden would say something to the effect of that he saw D’Onofrio engineer a big turnaround at Temple, and that he believed he would do the same at Miami. And the win over Florida might have been the most significant for D’Onofrio’s defense at Miami.
“We stood toe to toe,” Golden said. “We won on defense. We took some punches and counter-punched, and we had a quiet confidence and a very matter-of-fact preparation going into that game. We didn’t really worry about the opponent. I think hopefully our guys gleaned a lot from that.”
The way this season started makes it seem like Golden wasn’t just displaying blind faith.
“I think it’s rewarding for all of us, to be honest with you,” D’Onofrio said. “At the end of the day, players have been through a tough time as well so for the most part I’m really happy for those guys and the staff. … You really don’t know until you get out there and play, get a feel for where you’re at, but the first two games are an indication that we’re improving. We’re executing better.”