By Brentley Weissman
Over the weekend, the Miami Hurricanes suffered their worst loss of the season against North Carolina. The game featured a ton of future NFL prospects and it was a great game for talent evaluators to sit and watch some of the best talent that college football has to offer. Sitting at 8-2 and 18th in the polls, the Hurricanes are no longer contenders for the College Football Playoff, but this team and its players still have a ton to play for.
The Hurricanes have a rich tradition of supplying the NFL with top talent through the draft. We have seen countless players make the leap from Hurricane to star NFL player, and the talent-rich program always seemingly has more players waiting in the wings—and this season is no different.
In 2019, the Miami Hurricanes saw sophomore defensive end Gregory Rousseau enjoy a breakout season in which he recorded 15.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Rousseau was truly a game-wrecker, and with his blend of size, length, and freakish athletic ability, it was clear he was going to be a top-10 pick whenever it was time for him to enter the league. Rousseau elected to opt out of his junior season and focus on preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. The decision to opt out for Rousseau was one that would normally be crippling to a college football program, as whenever you lose a talent like Rousseau, replacing him is pretty much impossible. Well, in Miami’s case, it was very possible.
Even with the loss of a future top draft pick, the Hurricanes still boast arguably the best pass-rushing duo in all of college football. EDGE rushers Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche have stepped up nicely in their first years as Hurricanes and have made the impact of losing Rousseau almost non-existent. The duo has combined for 12.5 sacks, 30 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles, firmly establishing themselves as not only a fearsome edge-rushing pair, but also future top NFL picks.
Roche decided to transfer to Miami back in January, after playing three full seasons at the University of Temple. In Roche’s three seasons at Temple, he accounted for 26 sacks, 29.5 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles. In Roche’s last season with the Owls, he was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, finished his junior season with 13 sacks, tied for seventh most in the country, and was named a first-team All-American. With that type of production, it was impossible for talent evaluators to not pay attention to Roche and he was firmly a guy that was on every NFL team’s radar.
Phillips is another transfer the Hurricanes were able to grab, but he came to Miami facing a bit more adversity than Roche. Phillips was the No. 1 recruit coming out of high school back in 2017 and originally committed to UCLA. Phillips wound up leaving UCLA due to various medical issues and would actually retire from football to focus on his other passions in life. Eventually, Phillips decided to pick the cleats back up again and Miami was able acquire his services as a transfer back in 2019. Phillips redshirted the 2019 season in order to get his body back in football shape and was prepared to be the third rusher for Miami behind Rousseau and Roche but was thrust into the lineup once Rousseau opted out. Phillips has been one of the biggest risers in all of college football and has been a dominant player for the Hurricanes this season.
Both players have excelled in their one year playing for the Hurricanes, and both should expect to hear their name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Roche is listed at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds per the University of Miami’s website. He has a tremendous burst and has one of the best first steps of all the draft-eligible edge rushers. Roche is your classic speed rusher who wins by beating the tackle out of the blocks and getting to the edges. Roche has a unique ability to turn the corner when he does get the edge, and his ability to dip his shoulder while also having the ankle flexibility to turn the corner is special. He has above-average use of hands and has a relentless motor both rushing the passer and playing the run.
The cause for concern for Roche as it pertains to him being a top prospect is he is a little on the finesse side stylistically as a player. Rarely do you see him overpower tackles with a bull rush, or stack and get off blocks with power in the run game. His frame suggests that he will struggle at the point of attack in the NFL and tackles will be able to cover him up if they are able to get their hands on him. I worry about his effectiveness as an every-down defensive end at the next level.
Phillips is a prospect who has all of the physical tools you would ever want. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, he has outstanding size and length for an NFL defensive end. Phillips is extremely athletic for a man this size. He has good short-area quickness and has good burst off the line of scrimmage. He has very good change of direction, flexibility, and body control to turn tight edges and bend the corner.
As a rusher, Phillips can beat you in a variety of ways. He has the quicks to win with speed, but also has excellent power to bull rush. His length is outstanding, and he is able to keep his body clean through contact, while also having above-average hands to swipe and clear the block. Many of these traits transfer over in the run game. He has an outstanding ability to set the edge and is strong and firm at the point of attack. He uses his length to strike, stack, locate the ball carrier, and then close with quickness. His motor is outstanding and will chase plays 20-plus yards down the field. Phillips will overrun plays at times and will also play high at times this losing leverage. Medicals and character evaluations will be big for his overall pro evaluations.
It is extremely clear that both of these edge rushers will be solid contributors at the next level early on in their careers. The question that many are asking right now is which one of these Hurricane rushers will be a better pro?
The answer for me is definitely Phillips, IF, and only if, his character and medicals check out. Phillips has just as much physical upside as almost any edge rusher in this class save for maybe Rousseau or Michigan’s Kwity Paye. Phillips' ability to affect the game both as a pass rusher and run defender sets him apart from Roche, and Roche just doesn’t offer the same physical and athletic upside.
This is not meant to knock Roche. He is a fantastic player who I think if used correctly could be a threat to record 7-8 sacks as a rookie. I believe Roche’s success depends on which scheme he goes in, as I think he will actually have the most success as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Phillips, on the other hand, could play in a 4-3 and 3-4 and has the versatility to play many positions across the defensive line. Phillips is a player who is truly just scratching the surface and his best ball is ahead of him.
While the Hurricanes may not have much to play for this season, Phillips and Roche will have plenty of reason to continue to play at a high level and continue to raise their draft stocks. It’ll be interesting to see how both of these players test at the NFL Scouting Combine, and they each will be guys worth monitoring as we get closer to the 2021 NFL Draft.