Besides importing two talented Southeastern Conference transfers (cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and defensive end Deandre Johnson) and bringing aboard a loaded recruiting class including five-star tackle Leonard Taylor, the Miami Hurricanes defense also is essentially injecting players who were ranked 40th and 170th nationally in their recruiting classes.
Safety Avantae Williams (ranked 40th by Rivals among all players in the 2020 class) and linebacker Avery Huff (rated 170th by Rivals among all players in the 2019 class) are poised to assume rotational roles this season.
Williams missed all of his 2020 freshman season with an undisclosed injury, and Huff barely played on defense last season after not playing a single snap as a freshman, his lack of 2020 usage partly a byproduct of coaches not believing he was effective enough at identifying gap responsibilities.
Those two players should be assets to UM’s defense in 2021, likely as backups, at least initially.
Huff, by all accounts, has improved significantly this spring.
And Williams — considered by some to be the nation’s best 2020 safety prospect — is healthy and as former UM coach Randy Shannon might say, flying around this spring. UM people praise his range, energy, enthusiasm and ball-hawking skills; he had an interception in one of the recent scrimmages.
Williams declined to discuss the injury that sidelined him all of 2020 — or whether he ever thought his football career was in doubt — but acknowledged Tuesday that “it hurt to not be out here with the guys. I worked hard in the offseason so I was ready when my name was called. I just love the game, just love being physical and running around.”
Because of the medical issue, he spent last season working out in the weight room and watching film. He said he could participate in some drills, but he wasn’t cleared for contact until earlier this offseason.
UM coach Manny Diaz has said Williams’ medical issue last season was football-related, a problem lingering from his standout high school career at DeLand High.
Williams said he has been playing free safety and strong safety in practice and “my goal [this season] is being more fluent in the back end, getting a lot of playing time and being fast and helping on special teams.”
He said UM chief of staff Ed Reed, a Hall of Fame safety, “is giving us ways to learn the defense better, play faster.”
And Williams said of safeties coach Travaris Robinson: “I met him at South Carolina, have a great relationship with him. One of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Williams said he’s “thankful” that Bubba Bolden, Gurvan Hall and Amari Carter returned for another season and said “we’ll help” incoming five-star freshman safety James Williams ”fit in the defense so we can be more deep in the back end, all make an impact.”
As for Huff, he redshirted in 2019 to focus on academics and played just 11 defensive snaps last season, per Miami Herald metrics correspondent Daniel Gould.
That limited playing time in Year 2 was disappointing for a player who was rated the No. 27 outside linebacker by ESPN in 2019 and had offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Syracuse, Tennessee and Texas, among others.
But the proverbial light has turned on this spring.
“I feel like I got it right now,” he said Tuesday. “The hardest part I had to overcome is understanding how they want me to play and see it how they [wanted me to see it] instead of seeing it from the high school athlete point of view. I had to sit back and be coachable.
“I’m trying to show everybody they could depend on me. What held me back is understanding how the coaches want me to play and getting used to how they want me to play it. Now that I’ve got a good understanding, the sky is the limit.”
He said he’s effective against the run and in pass coverage and “I consider myself a dual threat. I made strides in my blitzing. I got better as a pass rusher.”
He said he has been getting some first-team snaps — but mostly second-team snaps — at weakside linebacker. Waymon Steed is the Canes’ healthy veteran at the position. Sam Brooks, who figures to play a lot this season at weakside linebacker if healthy, has been limited all spring with a toe injury.
On Tuesday, Huff discussed his two favorite plays of the spring:
“Second scrimmage, I hit right up the A gap before the O-line that was pulling and made a big tackle for loss. It was beautiful in my eyes, honestly.”
He also recalled a play in one of the two scrimmages that “I messed up. I was supposed to stay attached to the tight end. I tried to get the sack, quarterback threw the ball to the tight end. I recovered my steps, made the tackle. Five yard gain.”
Inside linebackers coach Jon Patke said recently that Huff has “made great strides this spring. He’s one of the guys that stands out in my mind that has really picked it up mentally, understanding what we’re trying to accomplish and just getting aligned right, understanding what his job is. Because, as we know, he’s a great athlete.”
▪ Former UM defensive end Jaelan Phillips missed the medical checkup available to 150 top NFL prospects in Indianapolis last week because he was diagnosed with COVID-19, per NFL Network.
Phillips, a likely first-round pick, had several injuries at UCLA before transferring to Miami, including multiple concussions.
▪ ACC Network assigned Matt Barrie and Mike Golic Jr. and reporter Kris Budden to Saturday’s UM spring game cablecast at 11 a.m.
Budden will be at Hard Rock Stadium; Barrie and Golic will call the game remotely.
Fans aren’t invited because of COVID-19.
▪ UM guard Kameron McGusty announced on Monday evening that he will enter his name in the NBA Draft but will not rule out returning to UM.
McGusty can withdraw his name by as late as mid-July and return to the Canes if he chooses. The NBA Draft will be July 29.
McGusty has averaged 12.5 and 13.3 points in his two seasons at UM after transferring from Oklahoma.
UM is awaiting a decision from guard Isaiah Wong, who also is mulling whether to turn pro. He averaged a team-high 17.1 points last season.