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NFL-bound Hurricanes expect big things from UM, Manny Diaz

While at the recent NFL combine, Jaquan Johnson did his best to try and catch the attention of league scouts and personnel.

He was measured and weighed. He ran the 40-yard dash and participated in several other drills that gauged his strength, speed and agility. He went through extensive interviews, with both potential future employers and media outlets from across the country. And during the entire process, he never shied away from discussing how his time as a Miami Hurricane prepared him for this moment.

The safety also made it clear that even as he and several of his former Miami teammates had high hopes for themselves as they begin the next stages of their careers, he couldn’t help but be excited about his alma mater’s future, particularly now that former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has taken over as coach.

“I think coach Diaz is the perfect fit for the University of Miami job,” said Johnson, a preseason All-American who led the Hurricanes with 92 tackles last year. “Just the way he can gather a group of guys and make them run through a wall, the type of fire he brings, the strategies that go into his game planning, the staff that he hired around him to support him. Everything is falling right into place. They just have to go out and do it now.”

Former Hurricanes running back Travis Homer agrees.

“I think coach Diaz is going to do a wonderful job at Miami,” said Homer. “You can already feel the momentum changing. I know a lot of my teammates were happy about having coach Diaz and not someone else come in.”

Of the six Hurricanes invited to this year’s combine, five — Johnson, fellow safety Sheldrick Redwine, defensive end Joe Jackson, defensive tackle Gerald Willis III and cornerback Michael Jackson — know Diaz particularly well, playing as part of his defenses at Miami the last three years.

Last season, Diaz and that group of veterans helped Miami have one of the top defenses in the nation, allowing just 278.9 yards per game and 4.3 yards per play. Both of those numbers ranked in the top four of FBS programs. The Hurricanes’ pass defense — which allowed just 135.6 yards per game — was the best in the nation. And no one stopped opponents better on third downs than Miami, which had just a 25.27 opponent third-down conversion percentage.

But with so many leaders from last year’s defense gone, one of the questions facing the Hurricanes ahead of the start of spring practice on March 19 is whether Miami’s defense can remain that productive next season.

Those outgoing veterans say yes — especially because they believe in Diaz and the leadership from players like linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney and striker Zach McCloud, all of whom made the decisions to return for their senior years.

“On that defensive side, you’ve got a lot of guys. You’ve got safety Romeo Finley, Amari Carter, you got [Jonathan] Garvin, you still have Shaquille, you still have Zach, you still have Pinckney, so that itself, those might be the three best guys on the defense themselves and in that group with them is Jonathan Garvin,” Joe Jackson said. “It's going to be that core, that linebacker core [that leads the defense], with the help of additional people. I’m just stating the main guys that I know are going to be on top of everything, someone acts out or whenever there's something that needs to be addressed, Shaq, Pinckney, Zach, they're going to be on top of it. You also have Pat Bethel as well.”

As for their futures, the six Hurricanes who were at this year’s combine agreed it is now their turn to continue adding to Miami’s NFL legacy.

“Just being a part of that University of Miami brotherhood, it speaks for itself what they did in the league — Hall of Famers, Super Bowls,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to continuing that tradition with this new wave that we have. I’m definitely looking forward to that opportunity.”

Staff writer Safid Deen contributed to this report.

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ccabrera@sun-sentinel.com; On Twitter @ChristyChirinos.

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