Miami’s new coaches have been high on DJ Ivey for months. The CB is finally showing why

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Al Diaz/

Before Saturday, DJ Ivey had never had a performance like the one he put together in the Miami Hurricanes’ 17-9 loss to the Texas A&M Aggies, but his coaches figured one would be coming.

After four up-and-down seasons to start his career, Ivey was back for a fifth year, and third different coach, and Mario Cristobal and Co. saw the same sort of attributes the previous staffs were tantalized by — the long arms, the high character, the willingness to tackle.

They also, of course, saw the film from his first four years — when he started more than 20 games and still was never entirely reliable, too often getting burned by deep throws or slow reactions — but they trusted instead what they saw in the offseason, when he performed well enough for his coaches to talk him up to the Senior Bowl staff and get him on the watch list for the annual showcase game.

“We were excited just watching his level of commitment to the program, the way he worked and the way he practiced,” Cristobal said Wednesday. “Practice performance is a real strong indicator of what it’s going to look like on game day.”

It finally all translated to game day last week, when Ivey broke up two passes and only gave up one catch on four targets in College Station, Texas. He was, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades, the Hurricanes’ third best player in the top-25 showdown and helped Miami hold then-No. 24 Texas A&M to just 140 passing yards and 264 total.

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It was exactly the sort of performance the Hurricanes (2-1) knew he was capable of, even if it took almost half a decade for it to happen.

“He didn’t disappoint,” Cristobal said. “He played big, he played strong.”

Any excitement about Ivey begins with his physical tools. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Ivey has prototypical size for a corner, especially with arms measured at 32 3/8 inches, according to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. Even though there were questions about his speed, Ivey was a four-star cornerback coming out of Homestead South Dade, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, because of the way he could use those long arms to recover and bat down balls in the middle of the field.

It meant Miami didn’t hesitate to get him on the field as a freshman back in 2018. Ivey played 11 games in his debut season, then started six as a sophomore in 2019 and all 11 as a junior in 2020.

Last year, his role shrunk slightly — he started only four games — and yet the Hurricanes’ new coaches liked everything they saw from him in the summer.

“We were excited just watching his level of commitment to the program, the way he worked and the way he practiced,” Cristobal said.

Miami coaches always liked the way Ivey performed in practice, though. Kevin Steele said the defensive back now has a better plan to make it translate into games.

“He’s playing game speed more in the week now because he understands that he’s going to have to play it in the game,” the defensive coordinator said Monday. “He’s playing his technique, his speed like a game, so if you’re going against a scout-team receiver, who obviously may not be as fast as the guy or as quick as the guy you’re going to play on Saturday, he doesn’t go out there and play to that level. He’s practicing at a high level and it’s showing up on Saturday.”

The No. 25 Hurricanes will need more of it when they face the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, too. Middle Tennessee (2-1) runs an air raid offense, meaning cornerbacks have to be on their toes against constant four-wide receiver looks and quick passes.

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With a foundation of press man-to-man coverage, the Hurricanes will try to throw off the timing so essential to the Blue Raiders’ offense.

Ivey knew he had to get better in press coverage, which can leave corners on an island and susceptible to deep shots, and his two passes defended last weekend — both on third downs — came in the middle of the field, where physicality often wins.

He didn’t do anything different last week, he said. He just played the same type of game he always tries to play, only better.

In Coral Gables, it didn’t surprise anyone.

“I just let the game come to me and the game came to me. I just made the plays that I was supposed to make,” Ivey said Wednesday. “Honestly, I didn’t do anything special. I just did what I was supposed to do.”