Jay Peterson, the new defensive coordinator for the Miami Redhawks, took over a unit that separated itself as one of the best in the MAC.
Now his job is to keep it from falling back into the pack.
The Redhawks were top 50 in the country in scoring defense (22.9), passing defense (195.2 yards per game) and total defense (372 yards per game) last year. However, graduation took away two of Miami’s better defenders and has forced Peterson to shuffle the depth chart.
Miami’s defense is off to a slow start, but that is to be expected when two of your first three games are against Ohio State and Boise State. The Redhawks are ranked 11th in the MAC in rushing defense and are 10th in total defense. Their best performance was against Southern Illinois, an FCS opponent that has started the season 1-2.
The Redhawks’ true colors will start the show during the coming weeks. They kick off the MAC slate against UMass this weekend before going on a three-game road trip to Akron, Cincinnati and Bowling Green, respectively.
Miami has been in a state of rebuilding its linebacking corps after losing Jerrell Wedge and Ryan Kennedy to graduation. That duo combined for 159 tackles last year and helped anchor the Redhawks’ defense.
Peterson, who was Miami’s linebacker coach last year, has gotten a little creative with this group.
Most notably, Pat Hinkel, a former strong safety, has been moved to weakside linebacker. The undersized athlete (6’1, 199 pounds) has made the most of his position change and is currently second on the team with 21 total tackles. Hinkel brings speed and coverage ability to the linebacking spot – evidenced by his three interceptions this season.
Chris Wade is filling in at the strongside linebacker spot and currently leads the team in tackles with 27. The 6’1, 226-pound Louisiana native impressed during fall camp and overtook a number of upperclassmen that had multiple starts last season.
Fifth-year senior Jaytee Swanson and redshirt freshman Kent Kern are duking it out for the middle linebacker spot. Swanson has been relatively productive this year with 10 tackles and two forced fumbles. He was also named one of the team’s co-captains for the season. Kern is an Ohio kid that chose Miami over a number of MAC schools, including his hometown Toledo Rockets. He has 10 tackles and two sacks so far.
The productivity of Miami’s defensive line begins at defensive tackle.
The Redhawks rely heavily on tackles Austin Brown and Mike Johns, two seniors who have been mainstays on the line. Brown was listed as a First-Team Preseason All-MAC tackle by Athlon Sports and Second-Team by Lindy’s. Johns has seven tackles, with 3.5 for loss so far this season, while Brown has four tackles and a recovered fumble.
The backups at tackle is First-Team All-Name Team Mwanza Wamulumba and Luke Kelly. Both Wamulumba and Kelly made the switch from defensive end to tackle.
At left end is Wes Williams, a big Texan that has nine tackles so far. Williams is an example of what a college-level weight training routine can do for an under-recruited athlete. Coming out of Houston, Williams was 6’3 and 210 pounds with only slight interest from a few programs. Now he’s 244 pounds and has overtaken the starting defensive end spot at Miami. Pushing Williams is freshman Bryson Albright, a Cincinnati kid who was originally recruited as an outside linebacker.
Jason Semmes is holding down the right end spot. Semmes has gotten decent production so far with 11 tackles and a sack. His younger brother, Justin, is competing for the starting running back spot.
The Miami secondary allowed only 195.2 yards per game last year and bring back a big reason for that production.
Cornerback Dayonne Nunley may be the best defensive player on the team. The junior had nine interceptions during his first two years on campus and is considered a Preseason All-MAC cornerback by several preseason magazines. Nunley has already made his presence felt this season and has 18 tackles (three for loss) and two passes defended. While Nunley was posterized by Ohio State’s Devin Smith, he is a highlight-reel player who will be a major problem for UMass’ passing game.
Chrishawn Dupuy and Trey Payne have split time at the other corner spot and should continue to push each other for playing time.
D.J. Brown has been doing a solid job at free safety and has 18 tackles so far this season. Brison Burris, a sophomore from Texas, was originally slated to play the free safety spot but was moved over to to the strong safety spot after Hinkle took over at linebacker.
Burris and Justin Bowers, are vying for playing time with Burris holding the slight edge.
UMass will face off against a much smaller defense than it has grown accustomed to. Instead of towering Big 10 defensive lines or gashing UConn linebackers, the Minutemen will face a team that covers well and uses its speed advantage to force teams to make mistakes.
The Redhawks’ 4-3 scheme is predicated on the fact that its defensive tackles can stop the run while its linebackers serve as an adequate first-line of defense against the pass game. The secondary does a great job when teams try to spread them out.
Mike Wegzyn has done a admirable job not forcing anything the past two weeks. He needs to continue this practice this weekend, because if he makes one mistake on a slant or deep route, the Redhawks will make him pay.
After a better performance against Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mike Cox get a few more carries this weekend. While Miami has decent size and experience at defensive line, UMass should be able to open some holes – especially with Anthony Dima back.
The question will be whether UMass can finish what its starts on offense and actually put the ball in the end zone.
Southern Illinois was able to do it – on the ground – twice.