College Sports

Manny Diaz’s human ‘eraser’ is back for UM-FSU showdown. He joins impressive company

Miami Hurricanes striker Romeo Finley (30) is joined by defensive back Al Blades Jr. (7) after Finley returns an 83 yard interception for a touchdown against North Carolina at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Thursday, September 27, 2018.
Miami Hurricanes striker Romeo Finley (30) is joined by defensive back Al Blades Jr. (7) after Finley returns an 83 yard interception for a touchdown against North Carolina at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Thursday, September 27, 2018. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It seemed like everyone joined in the fun last week for the University of Miami defense.

With six forced turnovers and three returned for touchdowns against North Carolina, the 17th-ranked Hurricanes remain one of the strongest defenses in the nation as they prepare for a Saturday showdown with Florida State.

Coach Mark Richt even promised 6-5, 265-pound defensive end Joe Jackson, who almost resembled a gazelle returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown, that he would turn him into a tight end or receiver every game for a couple of plays — as long as the highly rated junior returns for his senior season.

“It was awesome,’’ Richt told WQAM earlier this week. “It was fun. Threw a screen right to his gut and he took it to the house.

“I told him in the locker room after the game, I said, ‘Joe, I promise you a minimum of two jump balls in the end zone as a tight end or receiver, OK? And every time you catch one I’ll throw another one to you.’ And I said, ‘That’s my promise to you — next season.’’’

“They don’t have anything to worry about,’’ joked Jackson about the tight ends after the game. “I can’t handle doing both ways. That’s the old me. It brought me back to high school days.’’

This week, with preseason All-American safety Jaquan Johnson set to return after sitting out the past two-and-half games with a hamstring injury, that defense will be fortified even more.

How important is Johnson, one of just four defensive players named among 15 semifinalists for the 2017 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, to this game?

Last year, in UM’s last-second 24-20 victory in Tallahassee, Johnson led all defensive players with 12 tackles — twice as many as the anyone from either team.

“Jaquan’s our guy,’’ UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said Wednesday after practice. “I mean, everybody just seeing him ... When he takes the field he has a presence about him that makes everybody else in the secondary, everybody on defense, feel more reassured. He’s our big eraser back there.

“Emotionally, he is the heartbeat of our defense. Everybody knows that. The guys performed admirably in his absence, but we’re a lot better with Jaquan.”

The Hurricanes (4-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who also will have middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman back against FSU (3-2, 1-2) after he hurt his ankle Thursday against UNC, remain No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss, averaging an astounding 12 per game. They also remain No. 1 in third-down conversion percentage defense, stopping opponents nearly 83 percent of the time, and are No. 1 in passing yards allowed (138.8 yards average).

UM is No. 2 in overall defense (244.8 yards allowed per game) and No. 4 in turnovers gained (12).

And even in rushing defense, which appears to be their “weakness’’ — 215 yards allowed to UNC and 268 to Toledo — the Canes are 23rd nationally of 129 FBS teams ranked, allowing 106 ground yards a game.

Conversely, the Seminoles’ offense has proven to be its weakness: 122nd in third-down conversions (29.7 percent), 120th in rushing offense (97.4 yards a game), 109th in scoring (22.2-point average) and 96th in total offense (372.8 yards).

FSU’s offensive line, which has allowed 2.4 sacks a game, is its most challenged unit.

“I don’t think we have any concerns,’’ said UM safety Sheldrick Redwine of FSU. “It’s mainly us. We have to go out and play our game. It’s not who they are. It’s what we do.’’

UM’s Romeo Finley, whose striker position is a cross between a safety and linebacker, scored on an 83-yard interception return Thursday with 13 seconds left in the UNC game. He said the Canes will be “afraid of nothing’’ Saturday.

“They’re a pretty good team, got some good slot receivers, good running back,’’ Finley said. “We just do what we gotta do and go from there.”

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