It’s been roughly three weeks since Penn State hired Manny Diaz as its defensive coordinator, and fans have had time to think about the future.
There are multiple positives to bringing Diaz aboard. He was a head coach at a major Division I program, and although his tenure ended with a pink slip, it wasn’t a disaster, either. In three seasons at Miami, only one team—perennial powerhouse Clemson—won more ACC games than Diaz’s Hurricanes.
As for what Diaz can do as a defensive coordinator, well, that’s the reason he became a head coach of a major Division I program. In his time running Miami’s defense from 2016-18– and, before that, doing the same at Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas and Louisiana Tech over 10 seasons– Diaz established himself as one of the best in the business
In his three seasons running Miami’s defense, the Hurricanes ranked 12th, 28th and 18th in scoring defense and were among the nation’s leaders in other categories as well, such as sacks and takeaways.
Diaz has a tough act to follow. He’ll be replacing now-Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry. In six seasons running Penn State’s defense, Pry’s Lions finished in the top ten in scoring defense three times and in the top 25 four.
With a similar, aggressive scheme and with past success working in his favor, here are some specific aspects of what Diaz’s defenses have done well in the past.
THE TURNOVER CHAIN
The most symbolic—and, some would say, the most obnoxious—thing about Diaz’s time at Miami was the “turnover chain.”
Diaz’s defenses celebrated a takeaway by showing off a big, gold Cuban chain with Miami’s “U” Logo. The tradition started under Diaz’s watch, and not only did the coach approve of it— it was his idea.
In 2016, Diaz’s first season at Miami, the Hurricanes defense performed well overall but placed just 67th nationally in turnovers gained (for context, Miami (OH) ranked 14 spots higher than Miami (FL)).
Diaz invented the chain as a reward before the 2017 season started to incentivize his players. Regardless of whether or not the chain had a significant impact, Miami took the ball away a lot more in 2017 and moved from 67th in the nation in turnovers gained to tied for third.
In 2018, the Hurricanes slipped back a bit but still finished 16th in the country in turnovers gained. The Hurricanes failed to finish in the top 25 in turnovers generated in any of Diaz’s three seasons as head coach, but when his main job was to run the defense, Miami used the chain quite often.
TACKLES FOR LOSS
The first thing James Franklin cited about Diaz’s past defense was one statistic; tackles for loss.
In Diaz’s last five seasons as a defensive coordinator— with three different schools— his defenses have ranked in the top ten in tackles for loss every year.
The peak came in 2018 when Diaz’s Miami squad placed first in the country in TFL’s.
Diaz’s defenses were good at creating negative plays even before he got to Miami. In 2015, his Mississippi State defense tied for ninth in the country in tackles for loss. The year before that, his Louisiana Tech defense tied for fourth.
When Diaz was Miami’s head coach from 2019-21, his defenses had mixed results overall—this season, the Hurricanes were 85th of 130 teams in opponent points per game—but the ability to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage stayed consistent. The Hurricanes ranked fourth in the country in tackles for loss in both ’19 and ’20, and although they fell back a little bit this past season, they still ranked in the top ten at No. 9.
RUSH THE QUARTERBACK
A big part of Diaz’s success in the tackle for loss department has been sacks. In 2016, Diaz’s first Miami defense ranked 24th in the country in sacks, and that ranking shot up to third in 2017. In Diaz’s last season, the Hurricanes continued to get to the quarterback, albeit finishing out of the top 10. The Hurricanes finished 11th in the country with 37 sacks in 12 games.
Advanced numbers also shed a positive light on Miami’s pass rush in Diaz’s years as defensive coordinator. According to Pro Football Focus, the Hurricanes’ pass rush improved every year from 2016-18, from 44th in 2016 to 12th in ’17 and all the way to ninth in 2018.
YARDS PER PLAY/OPPONENT PASSING EFFICIENCY
A concern some may have about Diaz– and aggressive defensive coordinators in general– is that the furious style could lead to big plays allowed to the opposing offense.
In Diaz’s three years as Miami’s defensive coordinator, however, the Hurricanes placed in the top 20 in opponent’s yards per play three times, placed in the top 10 twice and ranked third in 2018.
In 2016, Miami ranked 46th in opposing passing yards per game. In 2017, it regressed to 50th. But in 2018, Diaz’s most recent season as a college football defensive coordinator, the Hurricanes were first.
Getting a little more advanced, Diaz’s Hurricanes ranked 29thin the country in opposing passing efficiency, improved to 23rdin 2017 and were first in the nation in Diaz’s last season as defensive coordinator.
Time will tell what becomes of the Diaz era. Maybe he disappoints, and maybe he keeps Penn State’s defensive tradition intact, at least until he returns to the head coaching ranks. What’s clear, however, is that Diaz’s defenses will be ferocious, and that will make for some excitement, one way or the other.