RedHawks uncertain about defense heading into season opener

Miami will go into the 2022 season opener at Kentucky on Saturday with substantial experience on the offensive side of the ball.

Even after spring and fall practice sessions, the RedHawks still have questions about their defense.

Ninth-year Miami coach Chuck Martin and his new-look defensive staff spent the preseason looking for players to replace nine of the top 12 tacklers from last season’s team, which finished 7-6 and beat the University of North Texas, 27-14, in the Frisco Football Classic.

“Defensively, we have a changing of the guard,” Martin said on Monday during the first of his weekly football media sessions. “We lost a lot, but we have a group of guys we’re really excited about. (Broadcaster Steve Baker’s) going to be calling a lot of new names on Saturday night.

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Among the names familiar to Miami fans going into Saturday’s seasonopener are seventh-year senior linebacker Ryan McWood, who led the 2019 team in tackles before missing the 2021 season with an injury. Also back are fourth-year defensive back Matthew Salopek and third-year defensive back Jaquez Warren, who grabbed his first career interception against North Texas. Salopek finished second on the team in tackles in 2021.

Martin also is counting on defensive linemen Austin Ertl, Anthony Collier and Kobe Hilton to help plug the gaps, along with sophomore defensive back John Saunders Jr., who had a pick-six against Cincinnati last season. Saunders led Miami with three interceptions last season.

“They’ve all played a lot of football,” Martin said. “McWood, Sakopek and ‘Quez’ are three guys we feel good about. Ertl, Collier and Kobe Hilton have played a lot of football. Saunders didn’t play a lot of lot, but he played good football.”

The player roster isn’t the only part of the defense with new faces or new titles. Bill Brechin, in his ninth season at Miami, is the RedHawks’ new defensive coordinator after previously coaching wide receivers and safeties. Former Michigan State assistant Ron Burton is the new defensive line coach, while former South Carolina defensive graduate assistant Joe Bowen has taken over coaching linebackers and former Notre Dame player Robert Blanton is handling cornerbacks.

Upheaval isn’t unexpected.

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“Obviously, fall camp has its trials and tribulations,” the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Ertl said Monday. “It has it’s ups and downs. We don’t know who’s going to be out there in Week One. We’re going to have to help those guys. We’ll be really quick to help them with that.”

“There are still some jobs that need to be won,” Martin said. “We’ll be playing a lot of guys. Practice is great, but we’ll see what happens when the lights go on. The game is the game. Their quarterback is bigger than everybody on our defense except maybe our nose guard. They’ve got great skill guys, and their line can block out the sun.

“It’s something you have to have an appetite for. You might not be cut out for it. Maybe they know they are, but you can’t know until you get into the arena.

“It’s all a part of the process of becoming a college football player. It’s different than high school. In high school, you can be physically dominant over your opponent. At this level, you’re probably not going to be dominant. Against a team like Kentucky, you’ll probably be at a physical disadvantage. That’s OK. You’ll be up against it physically. Mentally, it’s about how hard you’ve prepared, how much better you know what you’re doing, how much you play with your brain, how much better you be where you’re supposed to be. Those guys go from A to B quicker than (Mid-American Conference) guys.”

The RedHawks, who finished second in the MAC East Division behind Kent State last season, were picked to win the division in the preseason media poll and second in the coaches poll behind Kent State. Defending MACchampion Northern Illinois, which beat Kent State in last season’s conference championship game, was picked to repeat in the West and as overall MAC champion in both polls.

SATURDAY’S GAME

Miami at Kentucky, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 980, 1450

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