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Barry Jackson

The part of the Miami Hurricanes football team’s defense that has players salivating

A six-pack of notes from the first day of Miami Hurricanes spring practice:

Monday was the first day of a new era of UM football with the implementation of an up-tempo spread. But it was also a significant day on defense, offering a glimpse of a defensive end unit that should be elite.

Senior grad transfer Quincy Roche practiced for the first time opposite Greg Rousseau, UM’s most talented returning player (along with injured tight end Brevin Jordan), and Canes players already are salivating at the havoc those two elite pass rushers can wreak against opposing quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, defensive end Jaelan Phillips — who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2017 when he signed with UCLA — practiced for the first time in well over a year.

The Roche/Rousseau tandem should be one of UM’s greatest strengths, because opposing offensive coaches will need to decide which one to double-team.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Rousseau said Monday. “They have to choose. The more people that get doubled, the more one-and-one matchups on our defense.

“Quincy has been great. Adding him to our roster is really a blessing. He’s a workaholic. His football IQ is really high. I’ve already learned a whole bunch of things from Quincy.”

The 6-6 Rousseau, who had 15.5 sacks last season, looks bigger at 260 pounds.

“January, February is always time to put on some weight, get faster, bigger stronger,” he said.

Rousseau is the nation’s returning sack leader from a year ago and Roche is third.

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As for Phillips, he wasn’t permitted to practice as a transfer last season but is now fully healthy after battling assorted injuries at UCLA.

“He is a freak of nature,” Rousseau said. “He’s huge. He’s fast. He’s looking real good. Really promising. I know what it’s like to come back from injury. It’s tough. He’s worked so hard for these moments. I believe he’s going to take advantage of it.”

Phillips put on a lot of weight in the move from outside linebacker to defensive end.

“Just judging on Jaelan through our offseason, he’s a highly competitive guy,” coach Manny Diaz said. “Jaelan can run. Even when we ran steps at Hard Rock last week, Jaelan was one of top finishers [defensively]. Very athletic for his size. Totally transformed his body.

“We’re trying to add as many highly competitive, talented players to our defense. He was not allowed to practice last calendar year. It will take him a minute to get back into the feel of things. We expect him to be fighting for [a role]. There is no one who should feel comfortable on this team; guys like Jaelan are the reason why.”

Diaz indicated no concern about the lack of depth at running back. Only three tailbacks are healthy this spring — Cam’Ron Harris, Robert Burns and freshman Jaylon Knighton. The fourth on scholarship, freshman Don Chaney Jr., is recovering from a shoulder injury.

Diaz has confidence in Burns as the only other veteran tailback on the roster besides Harris.

“Burns showed he can have a role on this team,” Diaz said. “One of our best special teams players. He is a different [and difficult] guy to tackle.

“[And] since we came back in the offseason program, I don’t think anyone has done any extra more in the weight room than Cam Harris. Everything he has done with his work ethic has primed him for a big year.”

Diaz said the fact UM didn’t have a logjam at running back is “part of why we could get Chaney and Knighton to come here together.”

Diaz explained why he brought back guard Cleveland Reed after he left the team to enter the transfer portal last September.

“There is no manual for that,” he said. “It’s a new era in the portal. You have to take every one of those cases one by one. Cleveland felt he he had made a mistake and that’s kind of the trick. These are young men and you don’t want one day or a bad choice to impact them for the rest of their careers.”

And Diaz noted “it’s hard to find linemen. Because of the rule of initial scholarships, you can’t replace that. As more people want to transfer out, you can’t make yourself whole at 85; you are limited by the 25 [annual] cap.”

But Diaz said he has given Reed “parameters in terms of how he has to work” and the need for him to fit into UM’s “culture.”

It’s too early to know if Under Armour All American freshman Jalen Rivers can wrest a starting job at right or left tackle, but Diaz likes what he saw in the offseason program.

“We’ve known Jalen since ninth grade [in Oakleaf]; he was so big and athletic for his size,” Diaz said. “They did a great job coaching him up [in high school]. The most exciting thing you see with those freshmen, especially a big guy like Jalen, is we throw a tug of war rope out of there and have him go up against older guys, and seeing him compete and seeing if he has some dog in him as a young guy. Watching him compete early on has been very encouraging.”

Diaz reiterated he’s told everyone “come take someone’s job. We’ve got to get out of this comfort zone of guys being comfortable.”

UM is fortunate that Zach McCloud decided to redshirt last season and thus return in 2020 — and Diaz agreed to that — because there wouldn’t be much healthy at linebacker without him this spring.

Patrick Joyner Jr., Waynmon Steed and Avery Huff are also competing this spring, while four linebackers are out injured — Sam Brooks, Bradley Jennings Jr., and freshmen Tirek Austin Cave and Corey Flagg.

“The idea came from me,” McCloud said Monday. “I don’t know if anybody else wanted it. This is a business move.”

UM wants him to be more than simply a run stuffer. They want him to mentor the young linebackers. “You come to the U, you want to be good at everything,” he said.

Life without Shaquille Quarterman and Mike Pinckney will be an adjustment, but Diaz said there’s more leadership being displayed by more players in different defensive position groups.

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“There will be more position group accountability,” Diaz said. “You see a guy like Rousseau become more vocal. [Safety] Amari Carter becoming more of a vocal guy. And [cornerback] Al Blades.”

McCloud said “it’s a different feel not having” Quarterman and Pinckney around after four years here. “People feel the pressure whereas in the past it was a little more relaxed because we knew we had some guys to make sure this thing was steered right. Those guys are gone. We need more to step in and hold this thing together. It can’t just be what it has been in the past.”

Colleague Susan Miller Degnan will have a full report later today on the first day for UM’s new offense and quarterback D’Eriq King.

This story was originally published March 2, 2020 1:06 PM.

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