Posted: 8:09 pm Thursday, March 20th, 2014
By Matt Porter
CORAL GABLES – First came the crunch of the pads. Then the ooohhhhhs and howling from teammates and coaches. Then Al-Quadin Muhammad‘s voice ringing throughout the practice field.
“I told y’all I was gonna kick your [bleeping] [bleep], boy!” he shouted. “I told you! I told you I was gonna kick your [bleep]! I told you!”
During a drill pitting defensive linemen one-on-one with offensive linemen, Muhammad, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore defensive end, hit right tackle Taylor Gadbois with a torpedo shot to the chest.
Gadbois, some four inches taller and 80 pounds heavier, tumbled backward to the turf. Muhammad powered through, stopped, turned, and taunted.
It was a fleeting sequence in one of 15 spring practices, a few seconds that in the long run mean very little. But after last year’s performance, Muhammad and the Hurricanes’ defense have a lot to prove.
So far this spring, they’re getting the better of the offense more often than not. For two years, the offense has kept the Canes in ballgames. Muhammad, fellow rush end Tyriq McCord, linebackers Denzel Perryman, Alex Figueroa and Raphael Kirby are taking over more prominent roles in the defense, which represents an upgrade in speed, skill and physicality over last year.
“We can run and we’re explosive right now, and we’re bigger than we have been,” coach Al Golden said of his front seven. “Those guys are all big, physical guys right now, and there’s experience. They’re playing faster. That was good.”
In addition to problems with the front seven, the Canes struggled to tackle on the perimeter last year. While one moment in a spring practice won’t solve those issues, it was encouraging to see safety Jamal Carter (6-1, 207) square up and lay out bruising back Gus Edwards (6-2, 235) in the open field during a drill.
If they consistently make plays like that this fall, UM will have truly improved its defense. Now naturally, there were plenty of moments where coaches admonished defensive players. At one point, coordinator Mark D’Onofrio chastised a couple inexperienced linebackers as the “weak link,” warning they would “get exposed” if they didn’t commit to “books and ball.”
But there was a lot of good, and certainly, there’s a lot more talent than last season.
“We’ve got a long way to go on both sides, and special teams, but it’s good to see those guys practicing that hard,” Golden said.
Take a look at highlights from Thursday’s practice, leading with Muhammad’s must-see move on Gadbois:
* * *
Other notes from Thursday’s practice …
Chickillo returns: Senior defensive end Anthony Chickillo was in a green (full contact) jersey for the first time this spring. He’s been dealing with a foot injury.
“He didn’t look like his conditioning dropped off,” Golden said. “That’s always positive.”
Chickillo returned to his usual spot at strong-side defensive end, though he ran with the second-team behind Ufomba Kamalu. Last season, Chickillo played more snaps than anyone on the roster (1,967). He was at the strong-side defensive end on first- and second downs and played defensive tackle in UM’s third-down “speed package.”
“Anthony can move around,” Golden said. “He’s 280 and he’s got good ‘get-off.’ We’re going to keep moving him around. On third down, we like moving him inside and get him matched up on a guard. We’ll keep trying to find the best combination for third down, but Anthony gives us a lot of flexibility there for sure.”
Golden said Chickillo has decreased his body fat and could possibly play this fall at 285 pounds, which would be some 40 pounds heavier than he was his freshman year.
Figueroa continues to impress: The sophomore strong-side linebacker made several explosive tackles and leading teammates in huddles on the sidelines. UM dearly hopes Figueroa can stay healthy; he’s struggled with shoulder injuries dating back to his high school days at Stafford (Va.) Brooke Point High. He sat out the final four games of last year with a torn labrum and a slight tear in his AC joint.
“We missed [him] last year,” Golden said. “We’ve just got to keep him healthy and keep him going. Clearly, he’s making a difference right now. Three or four plays today that, that’s the way we want to play defense. He plays with a lot of energy, as you guys can see.”
Figueroa sees positive signs from the defense.
“I think we can be great,” he said. “It’s just going to take focus, dedication, sticking to the playbook, getting extra work out here, working hard when nobody’s looking.”
Coley a student of the game: Coaches talk about wide receiver Stacy Coley‘s preparation and work ethic as much as his spectacular talent. It’s clear he’s observant and pays attention. Ask him about UM left tackle Ereck Flowers, for example, and you wonder if you’re talking to Stacy Coley or offensive coordinator James Coley.
“He’s working on the little things, like his hands, keeping his hands inside,” Coley said. “Once he gets that, he’ll be tremendous. He’s a first-rounder, in my eyes.”
About left guard Jonathan Feliciano: “Same type of guy. Tremendous talent. Very fast. When we make our cuts, he’s right there too to make a cut [block] on a safety. He’s right there with [Flowers] – a first-rounder.”
In a couple years scouts might say that about Coley, who, by the way, said he’s 6-1 “and a half,” and 186 pounds after playing at 180 last year. His coaches have challenged him to get stronger and increase his conditioning. Coley said he wants to get up to 196 pounds, and increase his numbers in the bench (currently 225) and squat (305).
Williams confident: One teammate of greater interest to Coley is quarterback Ryan Williams. Coley says Williams, whose arm strength is often compared negatively to that of former QB Stephen Morris, “can do the same things Stephen did” as it relates to throwing power. “I feel his arm is strong enough to get the deep balls,” Coley said.
Williams, on stretching the field: “It’s definitely a part of the offense. We’ve got receivers that can make deep plays with Phillip and Stacy, and some guys who can run after catch underneath that can make big plays.”
Golden reiterated Thursday that Williams is the No. 1 quarterback over Kevin Olsen - he’s said this all spring.
“Obviously it’s Ryan right now,” Golden said: “Kevin’s having a good spring. Gray [Crow] and Kevin are competing. Ryan’s ahead right now. Kevin’s having a good spring, he is. But as I said going in, Ryan’s experienced, and smart.”
Williams said he continues to work on being more vocal, “making sure I’m speaking up … making sure I’m taking control of the offense.” As for his play, he said: “I think I’ve played good, but you can always improve. I don’t know where I stand, really. We haven’t had a scrimmage yet. We’ll see then.”
* Taylor Gadbois looked bad in the video we shot, but coaches are very high on the redshirt freshman, who projects to start at right tackle.
“Once Taylor figures out the conditioning part of this, I think it’s going to open up the gateway to success,” Golden said. “In terms of requisite skills, he has them all. He’s got length, strength, punch, he’s intelligent.
“Not everybody gets everything [instantly], and once Taylor gets past the point of conditioning being an issue and the mental toughness that accompanies that and the maturity, I think he’s going to take off. We’re all excited for that moment.”
* Tracy Howard, who was the nation’s No. 1 cornerback recruit out of Miramar High, was one of a slew of true freshmen who played in 2012. Now a junior, he’s been impressive this spring. Golden said Howard’s strength and physical play is catching up to his mind.
“A lot of times it’s the other way around. You get them strong, you redshirt them, and then you let them catch up with the experience,” Golden said. “He’s doing a great job leading. He’s fun to coach right now. In great shape and he’s playing hard.”
* Receiver Malcolm Lewis, who has worn a yellow (limited contact) jersey the last two practices, doesn’t know when he’ll be back to full-go. I don’t know. “I feel pretty good, but they don’t want to push me too much,” he said. “They just want to get me strong.”
* Expect to see UM’s depth chart look a little different after its first scrimmage, which is next Friday (and closed to fans and media).
Golden said he’ll start to mix second-string players in with the first team to give younger players more experience. That especially goes for the offensive line and the quarterbacks – Kevin Olsen (or Gray Crow) will run with the ones over Ryan Williams, but it may not necessarily mean he’s the starter.
* Golden said right now, he sees five offensive linemen who are game-ready: left tackle Ereck Flowers, left guard Jon Feliciano, center Alex Gall, right guard Danny Isidora and right tackle Taylor Gadbois. When injured center Shane McDermott comes back, “that gives us six,” Golden said. “Then we’re looking for seven and eight.”
Golden said the second unit — left tackle Kc McDermott (early enrollee freshman), left guard Sean Harvey (walk-on), center Hunter Wells, right guard Trevor Darling (early enrollee freshman) and right tackle Sunny Odogwu (redshirt freshman) – needs to “grow up,” adding he wasn’t disappointed with their play, just that they were inexperienced.
* Tight end Beau Sandland, who missed nearly all of Tuesday’s practice with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, returned.
* Golden said UM was holding out Olsen Pierre, who limped off during Tuesday’s practice. It was his absence of the spring. Jelani Hamilton took Pierre’s place as a first-team defensive tackle, with Corey King backing up.
* Aside from that, there were no other changes on first-team offense or defense from Tuesday’s practice:
The Canes first- and second-team base offense in 11-on-11 drills:
WR Coley-Rashawn Scott
RB Edwards-De’Andre Johnson-Walter Tucker
QB Williams-Kevin Olsen
LT Flowers-Kc McDermott
LG Feliciano- Harvey
C Gall- Wells
RG Isidora- Darling
RT Gadbois- Odogwu
TE Sandland-Stan Dobard-Jake O’Donnell
WR D’Mauri Jones-Phillip Dorsett-Garrett Kidd
Wearing black jerseys (defensive starters/team leaders): LB Alex Figueroa, LB Raphael Kirby, LB Denzel Perryman, CB Tracy Howard.
First- and second-team defense:
DT Hamilton- King
DT Earl Moore-Calvin Heurtelou
WLB Kirby-Thurston Armbrister
MLB Perryman-Juwon Young
SLB Figueroa-Darrion Owens
CB Antonio Crawford-Ryan Mayes
S Carter-Dallas Crawford
S Deon Bush-Nantambu Fentress
CB Howard-Artie Burns
* A few stars from past Canes teams showed up. Three-time All-American Ted Hendricks and Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon watched practice, while fellow NFLers Jimmy Graham, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams and Reggie Wayne did some conditioning work on a side field.
* The Canes picked up a commitment from Dade City-Pasco High tight end Bowman Archibald, a senior-to-be.
Archibald (6-6, 240), visited UM on Tuesday and chose the Canes over Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Oregon and Southern Cal, among others. He is rated a three-star prospect.