After closing the door publicly to spring football sessions and most of the nitty-gritty details, University of Miami football coach Manny Diaz shed some light Thursday after the Hurricanes’ final spring practice heading into the spring game Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
Diaz opened his Zoom session with news: 15 players, including high-profile ones such as safety Bubba Bolden, running back Donald Chaney Jr. and cornerback Al Blades (apparently unrelated to myocarditis), are injured or rehabbing and will be unable to participate in the spring game. He also spoke of position changes on defense, some of the players and position groups that have impressed him and what he expects, in general, Saturday.
“We just walked off the field, Greentree Practice Field, for the last time this spring and had a good day,’’ Diaz said. “Worked a lot of situations — overtime, one-minute drills, third down, red zone. It’s been good. We’re looking to get back into Hard Rock [for] an ACC Network, national TV audience and showing our progress that we made this spring.’’
The 11 a.m. scrimmage, for invited guests and media only, is closed to the public.
▪ UM tight end Larry Hodges “has been withheld from team activities due to violation of team rules,’’ UM confirmed to the Miami Herald after 247Sports first reported it, meaning there are no scholarship tight ends left to participate Saturday.
▪ The two players who Diaz mentioned are practicing at new positions are former striker Keontra Smith, now learning weak-side linebacker and safety Amari Carter, now at striker.
Smith is a 5-11, 215-pound second-year sophomore out of Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna. He played in all 11 games last season and had 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries.
Carter is a 6-2, 220-pound fifth-year senior who was tied for second in total tackles last season with 53, and had two fumble recoveries.
“They’ve both done a great job,’’ Diaz, who also serves as defensive coordinator, said. “Keontra, at Will, he’s looked at home there. He actually played that position at Chaminade quite a lot. He just feels very comfortable, sort of closer to the ball.”
The Hurricanes are stocked with high-end safeties, including some, such as five-star All-American incoming freshman James Williams, who haven’t even arrived yet on campus. Diaz spoke of Carter’s “versatility” and ability to read the field and make calls.
“Amari has a little bit different skill set,’’ the coach said. “We have a lot of versatile guys in our back seven, a lot of experienced guys... When we get all of our guys back in the fall, [with] some of the different looks we can provide on offense, I think we’ll be more diverse because of guys like that that can play different positions, not to mention at our subpackages [at] nickel and dime.”
▪ Injury wise, Bolden has a toe injury, Chaney has another surgery-requiring shoulder injury (“popping in and out,’’ per Diaz) after undergoing shoulder surgery before the 2020 season, cornerback Te’Cory Couch has a neck injury, receiver Jeremiah Payton had a surgery-requiring knee injury. And cornerback Blades, who already was out with myocarditis following his bout with COVID-19, is rehabbing from an unspecified “stress fracture.’’
The other injured or rehabbing players: linebacker Sam Brooks (toe), tight end Will Mallory (shoulder surgery), offensive lineman Cleveland Reed (pectoral muscle), tight end Elijah Arroyo (minor knee surgery), tight end Dominic Mammarelli, defensive tackle Nesta Silvera (shoulder surgery), cornerback Marcus Clarke (jaw), safety Brian Balom (neck injury/car accident), offensive lineman Michael McLaughlin (patella), quarterback D’Eriq King (ACL).
Chaney’s recent shoulder injury and subsequent surgery jeopardizes his status for the Sept. 4 opener against defending national champion Alabama.
Hard look at linebackers
▪ Run-stopping linebackers have been sorely needed at Miami, and Diaz was asked if he feels confident with what he has now or is contemplating going the transfer portal route.
“After Saturday we’re going to watch our spring cutups,’’ Diaz said, to “watch all the same type of runs, same type of fronts and see how the defense behaves predicated on who the guys are. I believe our linebackers have taken a big step forward this spring. It’s just what we said we needed. I’ve been saying for a long time Avery Huff just just needed at-bats. In five weeks of at-bats this spring, Avery, he made as big of an improvement as anybody on our entire defense.”
Diaz also praised Corey Flagg, who has lost weight and gotten stronger, which has been reflected in his “movement skills..’’ The coach said Waynmon Steed and BJ Jennings are “further from their [past] injuries. This time last year we weren’t even sure if those two would be able to play for us a year ago.”
Defensive end Deandre Johnson, who transferred from Tennessee after four seasons there, missed much of spring because of health protocols, but is back and “very talented,’’ said Diaz. “Because he was out, he came back a little out of shape for the tempo that we play with. It’s hard to sit out and jump in for as fast as we go. But he’s showing every day why he’s here. The great thing about him is he’s eager to learn.”
Diaz said for the first time since 2017, “maybe 2018,’’ the Canes “can be deep on our front four.’’
He praised end Cam Williams, who also missed time in the spring to comply with health protocols, and said he believes he is still learning and “looks like a big-time guy.’’
“Where last year you obviously had a high-profile guy like [edge rusher] Jaelan [Phillips] — I’m not saying we don’t expect a guy to have a Jaelan type year we’ve had at defensive end with eight sacks every year for the last five years — I think we can come at people with our depth and really play hard and not have to pace ourselves,’’ Diaz said. “It was hard sometimes last year for Jaelan and Quincy [Roche] with how much they had to play because of the inexperience of the defensive ends behind them.
The coach also named Jahfari Harvey, Chantz Williams and Zach McCloud as helping to fill out the end rotation.
“I’m pretty fired up,’’ Diaz said.