Miami’s long-promised youth movement is finally actually here. ‘You’re going to see more’

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Manny Diaz has spent much of the first two months of the season teasing larger roles for the Miami Hurricanes’ impressive underclassmen.

On Saturday, he made some of Miami’s most extreme changes yet and promised the defensive youth movement will only get more pronounced.

“There are some guys that we found out on Saturday their roles just simply have to be reduced a little bit,” the coach said.

At safety, freshman James Williams is now along as the starter opposite Bubba Bolden on the Hurricanes’ weekly depth chart — he was previously listed as co-starter with fellow safety Gurvan Hall. At cornerback, second-year freshman Marcus Clarke is now a co-starter alongside fellow cornerbacks DJ Ivey and Te’Cory Couch. On the defensive line, freshman Leonard Taylor finally passed fellow defensive lineman Jordan Miller in snap count, even though the Monday depth chart didn’t reflect it.

At the root of all the changes are Miami’s ongoing tackling issues. The Hurricanes (2-4, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) now have two freshmen among their top three at safety, gave a pair of freshmen at least five snaps at defensive tackle Saturday and are eyeing an expanded role for a freshman cornerback.

At all three positions, upperclassmen either missed an assignment or a tackle on long touchdowns during Miami’s 45-42 loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“You’ve got other guys that have been through your tackling system for years now and they’re abandoning training,” Diaz said Monday on WQAM. “These are guys that have done it in games. Why is that? At some point, the answer to the why becomes irrelevant. You’ve got to move on and part of moving on is, OK, is the next guy ready to go in? Those guys, they deserve their chance, but at the same time they’ve got to make make sure and function, and know what to do once they go in there. They can burn the house down for other reasons, so we’re getting to that point.

“That’s just the transformation of this program. That’s where this is going. ... You’re going to see more of that going forward.”

James Williams’ ‘young-guy mistakes’

Diaz first pointed to Williams and fellow safety Kamren Kinchens when singling out freshmen poised for bigger roles. Both have been contributing since Week 1, and Williams made his third straight start Saturday and was tied for the team lead with five solo tackles.

Williams played 40 snaps Saturday and Kinchens played 42. Bolden, who missed a tackle on the Tar Heels’ 51-yard first-quarter touchdown run, was the only safety to play more. Hall, who got burned for a 45-yard touchdown later in the first quarter, only played 19.

Williams was far from perfect, though, and committed a pair of costly personal fouls on touchdown drives and missed a tackle on another touchdown

In the second quarter, the safety snuffed out a third-and-13 screen at the Hurricanes’ 12-yard line, making a solo tackle on North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs to force a field goal. He roughed the kicker on the next play, though, and the Tar Heels scored two plays later.

In the fourth, Williams pressured Sam Howell on third-and-9 as his teammates stopped North Carolina short of the first-down marker at midfield, but he unnecessarily threw the star quarterback to the ground got called for roughing the passer. Five plays later, the Tar Heels scored again to take a two-score lead with 9:22 left.

Williams also whiffed on a tackle on Howell’s 30-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, trying to crush the sophomore with his shoulder rather than wrapping up.

In the end, Diaz is more willing to live with those sorts of mistakes from a freshman.

“If you had 11 guys playing with that type of relentless intensity, you’d probably [be in a better place],” Diaz said of Williams, who was a five-star recruit in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2021. “We’ll ride with young-guy mistakes. What we can’t have is we can’t have guys in their fourth, fifth year in the program not execute the basic fundamentals.

Miami Hurricanes safety James Williams (0) looks on before of the start of an ACC football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, September 18, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Miami Hurricanes safety James Williams (0) looks on before of the start of an ACC football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, September 18, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Leonard Taylor rises in rotation

Taylor, Miami’s other five-star freshman, is also “getting better and better,” Diaz said, and being rewarded with more playing time.

The defensive lineman played 20 snaps Saturday and was the Hurricanes’ highest-graded player by Pro Football Focus. Miller, who’s still listed ahead of Taylor on the depth chart, played just 11, and defensive linemen Jared Harrison-Hunte, Jonathan Ford and Nesta Jade Silvera were the only ones to play more at defensive tackle.

Taylor is even closing in on Silvera, who played 27 snaps Saturday. Second-year freshman defensive lineman Elijah Roberts also played five snaps and drew praise from Diaz.

Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Jacolby George (15) runs 44 yards to score on a pass reception in the third as Central Connecticut State Blue Devils defensive back Justice Calloway (20) fails to defend at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, September 25, 2021.
Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Jacolby George (15) runs 44 yards to score on a pass reception in the third as Central Connecticut State Blue Devils defensive back Justice Calloway (20) fails to defend at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

More Miami freshmen’s growing roles

Elsewhere on the defense, Clarke played 12 snaps Saturday, still leaving him fourth among corners behind Stevenson, Ivey and Couch, but he’s pushing for the No. 2 job behind Stevenson.

Diaz also mentioned freshman Chase Smith as a candidate to get more playing time moving forward. Fellow striker Amari Carter, who has started whenever healthy this year, missed four tackles Saturday, according to Pro Football Focus.

On special teams, wide receiver Jacolby George now sits atop the depth chart at punt returner. The freshman got the starting nod Saturday because cornerback Tyrique Stevenson was still working through a hamstring injury and he returned three punts for 36 yards.

“We’ve got a guy back there that can make it happen,” special teams coordinator Jonathan Patke said, “so we’ve got to set up returns for him.”

On offense, Cody Brown and Thaddius Franklin Jr. are also set for expanded roles after fellow running back Cam’Ron Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury Saturday. Second-year freshman Tyler Van Dyke, of course, continues as the starting quarterback, too, with third-year redshirt freshman Peyton Matocha as one of his backups.

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