Through three games, Miami is No. 1 in the country in tackles for loss with 35 and rank first in third down conversion percentage defense, holding opponents to a 16% conversion rate. The entire Hurricanes defense is proud of its accomplishments and eager to maintain its status atop the NCAA.
"That is just a testament to the entire defense," defensive lineman Pat Bethel said. "Whether it's the coaches calling the plays and stuff like that or all of us on the defensive side are playing together like that and stopping dudes before they get to the line, that's always a big deal. And being able to lead the country is huge. We will try to keep that up."
The Canes have 17 different players that have combined for 35 tackles for loss over three games. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Gerald Willis leads the Canes with 7.0, while sophomore defensive lineman Jonathan Garvin has 6.0.
"It starts with the style of play here," defensive line coach Jess Simpson said. "We talk about getting our feet across the line of scrimmage, running off the ball, never void of fundamentals – for the most part, our guys have done that really well. We can obviously do it even better. That's kind of our mindset and where we start from. That's ground zero for us."
Many assume that Miami is racking up tackles for loss because it is constantly blitzing, but defensive coordinator Manny Diaz assures that the Canes' success has nothing to do with trickery or exotic blitz schemes.
"We blitz very infrequently…it's not a ton this year," Diaz said. "We always are accused of blitzing more than we actually do because we play so downhill. Mike Pinckney made a tackle for loss last week for a seven- or eight-yard loss on a running play that looked like a blitz, but it's not. The gap opened, he read 'run' and shot in there before the lineman could get him. Our guys want to play downhill. We want to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. When you've got guys like Gerald that are causing disruption amongst the offensive line, it's easy for the linebackers to find cracks in there to get TFLs."
Willis and Garvin have been especially impressive in 2018. In the first two seasons under Diaz and his defensive coaching staff, Miami had a total of six individual game performances of at least 3.0 tackles for loss. The Canes already have four such games in 2018 – two by Willis and two by Garvin.
"It means we're doing what we're supposed to do because that's a goal we set and we're achieving it," Garvin said. "All we have to do is keep being in our playbook, being in film study, and keep doing what we're supposed to do so we can make it happen."
Diaz has been very impressed with Willis, who will serve as team captain for the second time in four games when the Canes face off against FIU on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Hard Rock Stadium. He leads the ACC and ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss, averaging 2.3 per game.
"Gerald is playing as good as anybody we've had here, for sure," Diaz said. "He has always been quick and disruptive, but he's playing so strong and physical at the point of attack. You've got to give some credit to Jess Simpson and the way he is working with all of our guys on the defensive line. Our TFL [tackles for loss] numbers and sack numbers are all spread out among a big group of people, but Gerald certainly leads the charge."
Willis' success has been pushing his fellow defensive linemen to try and match his performances. The internal motivation has resulted in consistent excellence on Saturdays.
"We make it a big part, especially, not just on the defense or on the team, but especially on the D-line to kind of fire each other up," bethel said. "And you know, guys seeing him do that is like, 'okay, I got to get him now. I have got to compete with him now.' And I think that is a big part about pushing each other."
Other defensive linemen have benefitted from Willis' dominance, as teams are forced to try and double-team him and that opens opportunities for the rest of the talented players to wreak havoc in the backfield. Garvin has noticed teams have begun adding more layers to their protection schemes to try and slow the charging Hurricane defenders.
"What everyone likes to do is not leave any of us with one-on-one matchups since the first game," Garvin said. "Since the first game, they did that once and regretted it. It won't just be double teams on him."
While Willis has been the headliner, the Canes have gotten plenty of disruption in the opposing backfield from a variety of defensive linemen.
"Joe Jackson has played really, really hard and been really, really solid," Simpson said. "Jonathan Garvin has done a super job and is a rising star. He could really be a great player. He cares about the game, it's important to him. Some of those other young guys have done a good job as well."
Sophomore Jonathan Ford and freshman Nesta Jade Silvera are two other young linemen that have caught the attention of their defensive line coach. Simpson loves how well the 6-foot-5, 300 lb. Ford is moving and penetrating and is encouraged with the growth Silvera has shown since he arrived on campus over the summer.
"I've seen a guy who's hungry and wants to learn, who knows he has a lot to learn but has had a great attitude about it," Simpson said of SIlvera. "I always talk about getting one percent better. If you look at his progression through camp, you can slowly see him starting to climb and do things a little bit better every day. That's what ball is – the details of learning how to do the fundamentals, the details of the fundamentals and being able to take those drills to the field and being able to execute in those 11-on-11 situations."