Not long after Manny Diaz broke the news to the world about Gregory Rousseau’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season, Jaelan Phillips crafted the perfect tweet for the occasion.
He was once upon a time the No. 1 recruit in the country, but it didn’t even look like he was going to start for Miami this season. Rousseau, a potential top-10 pick, was penciled at one defensive end spot. Quincy Roche, an All-American last season for the Temple Owls, was penciled in at the other.
“It’s by far our deepest position, probably, on the defensive side of the ball,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said.
Rousseau’s decision Thursday to sit out the upcoming season and enter the 2021 NFL Draft puts a dent in the depth. This position group, however, is the one most well positioned to survive the loss of a player like Rousseau.
As Phillips wrote on Twitter: “No need to fear...” He, Roche and fellow defensive lineman Jahfari Harvey still form a reliable, intriguing top three for the Hurricanes.
No need to fear...
— Jaelan Phillips ; (@JJPhillips15) August 6, 2020
“I know going into this camp we felt really, really good with the four guys,” Baker said. “I think now we just have to figure out who that fourth and who that fifth guy is.”
Beyond the top three, Baker specifically mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen Jason Blissett Jr. and Jared Harrison-Hunte, both whom arrived as defensive tackles, as options on the edge. Miami also has a pair of freshmen defensive linemen who arrived earlier this year as four-star recruits — Orange Park Oakleaf’s Chantz Williams and Miami Columbus’ Elijah Roberts — and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Cameron Williams as options in the rotation.
Phillips is the ultimate X-factor, maybe even on the entire Hurricanes roster. He was the No. 1 overall prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2017 and began his career with the UCLA Bruins. Injuries derailed Phillips in Los Angeles and he even briefly retired in 2018 before he transferred to Miami last year.
Now the 6-5 redshirt junior, who hasn’t played a game in nearly two years and has only even participated in four practices, will potentially be counted as a starter from Day 1 in Coral Gables opposite Roche.
The redshirt senior from Temple is well established, coming off a 49-tackle, 13-sack season in Philadelphia. Phillips, who had 3 1/2 sacks as a freshman and just one as a sophomore, remains an unknown for Miami, but his physical gifts alone have Baker salivating.
“I feel really good about him. I think he’s 265 pounds and did a standing backflip the other day from a standstill position, so those kind of guys don’t really exist very often,” Baker said. “It’s like creating a player on NCAA Football, when they used to have that video game.”
Miami’s other defensive position battles
The Hurricanes are less established elsewhere on defense, most notably at linebacker. Baker also weighed in on the competitions at defensive tackle, linebacker and striker.
On the defensive tackles: “I feel really good about our defensive tackle room. [Nesta Jade Silvera] was having a phenomenal spring and he has come back in phenomenal shape. He’s another guy I could’ve mentioned that really took care of his body over the quarantine, really has been very positive, been fun to be around. Jordan Miller, obviously, and then the young guys that I talked about — there is a lot of athleticism in that group. Probably top to bottom, I would say, one of the more athletic groups. If you looked across the country, I would say our defensive tackles are going to be near the top of that group. Now they’ve got to put it all together. I’m not saying that they’re going to be one of the best defensive tackle units in the country. They still have to put that on tape, but they have the potential to be that.”
On the linebackers: “Right now, Zach McCloud’s looked really good in walkthroughs, BJ Jennings, Sam Brooks, Corey Flagg’s picked the defense up really, really quickly. That room is going to be so competitive. I’m so excited to watch it this fall camp because there are so many guys that can really take that starting job and it’s so much different, obviously, from last year, coming into a situation where we had Shaq [Quarterman] and [Michael] Pinckney, who had really entrenched themselves as starters. I always think it spices up the competition when they know that there’s an open spot to take, so I’m excited to watch that group.”
On the strikers: “They’re both doing a really good job for us. Gilbert [Frierson], obviously, has more experience there than Keontra [Smith], but Keontra has looked really, really good early on. We’ve played around with some different lineups out there. Tirek Austin-Cave has played there and he’s played some ‘Will’ for us. It’s such a unique year. We’re trying to cross-train a lot of guys. I think our depth chart—really from all three linebacker positions, that could be very fluid week to week depending on maybe who we’re playing.”