It’s a pivotal season for Al Golden and the Miami Hurricanes. Every year the question at the beginning of the season gets asked: “Is the U back?” And every year, since the move to the ACC, the answer has been a resounding “No.” Some fans and alumni are starting to get restless with both Golden and Mark D’Onofrio, the defensive coordinator, and progress will need to be seen this year. Will it happen? Let’s take a look at the 2014 Miami Hurricanes.
Quarterbacks: Since Stephen Morris departed and Ryan Williams got hurt, the starting job was completely up for grabs. True freshman Brad Kaaya seized his opportunity with a strong fall camp, and will start the opening game against Louisville, beating out Kansas/BYU graduate transfer Jake Heaps. This is the right decision. There is no doubt that Kaaya is the most talented QB on the roster, but what surprised the coaches was how mature and confident he was coming in to campus. He has everything you want for a big time college QB, other than experience, at this point. He isn’t the most mobile QB in the world, but in Coley’s offense, you don’t necessarily need a mobile QB. It’s fair to expect some ups and downs with him this season- he is a true freshman, after all- but while QB was a big question mark coming into fall camp, I think there are other things on the team more worrisome than Kaaya. Heaps is a capable backup who also had a fairly strong camp. As for Williams, he’s targeting to come back a few weeks into the season, so if Kaaya does struggle, he could become a factor as well. But it’s Kaaya’s job for now and for the next few seasons.
And a fun fact about Kaaya: this is his mother.
Running Backs: Duke Johnson returns from injury and is as healthy as he’s ever been. There isn’t too much that needs to be said about him- he’s one of the best running backs in the country, is the biggest threat to Jameis Winston in the ACC Offensive Player of the Year race, and, with a strong start from both player and team, could even find himself in the Heisman race. He won’t need to do all the work, though. True freshman Joe Yearby has drawn comparisons to where Johnson was as a true freshman. They are very similar type of players- good speed, ability to make people miss, and, like Johnson, while he isn’t the biggest back, he’s still strong enough to break tackles. The third running back who will see carries this year is Gus Edwards. At 235 pounds, he’s the power back on the roster. He may not have the shear brilliance of Johnson or Yearby when it comes to breaking a long play, but he will wear down teams more than the other two.
Wide Receivers: Receiver may be the deepest position on the team. While the ball will be spread around quite a bit among this group, the most feared receiver on the roster is Stacy Coley. He may be the most explosive player in the conference, and one of the most in the country. A crazy stat with Coley from last season: he gained at least 20 yards 37.1% of the time he touched the ball. No other player in the ACC (among those with at least 20 touches) was above 26%. He’s dangerous as a receiver, as a return man, and even took a jet sweep 73 yards for a TD last year. Joining Coley is Philip Dorsett, who may be the fastest player on the team. He reportedly ran a 4.18 40 during the offseason. I’m skeptical of that time, but he is a legitimate mid-4.3’s player. He got hurt halfway through the year last year, but is healthy now. Those will be the main two, but there are four others who should see significant time on the field: Herb Waters (more of a slot guy), Braxton Berrios (true freshman, another slot player), Malcolm Lewis (has battled injuries his whole career), and Rashawn Scott (their biggest, most physical receiver). The biggest questionsabout the unit is if they can stay healthy, as Dorsett, Lewis, and Scott all have had injury concerns.
Tight End/Fullback: Not a ton of depth here, especially with Beau Sandland transferring during fall camp, but there is a solid 1-2 punch with Clive Walford and Standish Dobard. Walford is the better receiving threat of the duo, while Dobard is probably a little bit better blocker. Walford will likely be considered the starter for most (if not all) games, but Dobard will see the field a ton as well. Beyond those two, though, it’s hard to see someone get on the field unless there is an injury. Jake O’Donnell or maybe Chris Herndon could be the third tight end, but I think the coaches would prefer to redshirt Herndon (a true freshman) if they can. When the fullback is utilized, Walter Tucker will get most of the action. The coaching staff did shift Tucker over to LB recently, however, so if they decide to keep him solely on the defensive side, Ronald Regula will get the snaps.
Offensive Line: The left side of the line is very good. Ereck Flowers at LT could be a first or second round draft pick in the future. Jon Feliciano at LG and Shane McDermott at C also return, with McDermott being named to the 3rd team all-ACC last season. So there is talent and experience on that half of the line. The right side of the line is a bigger question mark, more due to lack of experience than lack of talent. RG seems to be locked up by Danny Isidora, who was hurt last year but has had a strong camp. RT is still up in the air between Taylor Gadbois and a pair of true freshman in KC McDermott and Trevor Darling. I could see Gadbois being the starter the opening game, but one of the freshman (perhaps McDermott) overtaking him by midseason. Art Kehoe, the OL coach, does rotate his lineman in-and-out, so all three should see action at tackle. Likewise, Alex Gall and Hunter Wells will rotate in at the interior line positions. Overall, the OL as a group might be slightly behind the skill position players, but it shouldn’t be a huge concern either.
Defensive Line: I think this is the position that will make-or-break this team. In general, they have been the unit that has most underperformed on the team. The defensive ends, at this point and time, are ahead of the tackles. Anthony Chickillo is the leader of the front. He hasn’t been quite the pass rusher that most were hoping for when he signed here, but otherwise he has been the consistent defensive lineman on the team the past couple of years. Ufomba Kamalu will likely back him up. The other DE spot on the defense is more of a hybrid DE/OLB that is generally used for the stronger pass rushers. The starting job is still up in the air, and multiple players will see action here, but Al-Quadin Muhammad is the most likely to be named the starter. But Tyriq McCord will see action (he had a huge game last year against Florida, before Florida went in the tank), as well as a pair of true freshman in Chad Thomas and Trent Harris. Thomas was the star of the 2014 recruiting class, and has been impressive in camp. Thomas is also big enough to see snaps at both end spots.
The defensive tackles are a problem, and are likely the weakest point of the team. Olsen Pierre is solid, but not somebody you have to gameplan around, and he’s the clear top DT on the roster. Miami brought in a pair of JUCO DT’s, with Michael Wyche being the bigger recruit. Wyche, however, showed up to camp too big and has spent more time working to get his weight down, leaving the other JUCO DT, Calvin Heurtelou, as the starter. He hasn’t done anything to really jump out at you during camp, but he’s been better than the others. Kamalu could see some time at DT as well. Others in the mix are Wyche, Earl Moore, Corey King, and maybe Jelani Hamilton. But somebody needs to step up here.
Linebackers: The leader of the defense is Denzel Perryman, who will have another monster season as the Miami MLB. Other than Duke, he’s the player most likely to end up on an all-American team this season. He’s a ferocious hitter, and just has a knack of getting to the ball carrier. He’s extremely strong against the run, while he is continuing to develop his play against the pass. Raphael Kirby will be the top OLB- he’s always had the physical tools to be a great LB, but now the mental aspect of the game is starting to come around. Thurston Armbrister will likely be the other starter, with Jermaine Grace pushing him. Beyond those four, however, there is almost zero depth. Two LB’s, Alex Figueroa and JaWand Blue, were kicked off the team after being arrested. Blue hurts for depth reasons, but Figueroa’s loss is bigger, as he would have been a starter on this team. Walter Tucker, the fullback, is Perryman’s top backup, while Darrion Owens and Juwon Young may be needed to contribute as true freshman. Miami is in trouble here if any of the top four (but especially Perryman) go down.
Defensive Backs: The secondary will be the strongest group on the defense. The Hurricanes go five deep at corner, led by 3rd team all-ACC Tracy Howard. He’s the best corner on the roster, but there is still a lot more room for him to grow- if he reaches his potential, he can be a shutdown corner. The other starter looks to be Ladarius Gunter, but he is being pushed by Antonio Crawford. Both players bring experience, and Crawford in particular has made a lot of plays during the fall. The other two corners are Corn Elder and Artie Burns. Neither of them have much experience, but both are great athletes that have the potential to break out if given the opportunity. At the safety position, they have three guys the coaches feel they can rely upon in Deon Bush, Dallas Crawford, and Jamal Carter. Bush was a Freshman All-America before struggling with injuries as a sophomore last year, but he’s healthy now. Crawford transitioned from RB to safety this spring and has been making plays ever since the move. Carter is probably the third guy at this point in time. He has good range and is a big hitter, but he’s still a bit raw compared to the other two. With Rayshawn Jenkins out for the year, one of the true freshmen, Marques Gayot or Kiy Hester, may have to contribute as a backup, but they should otherwise be relegated to special teams.
Specialists: Matt Goudis returns as kicker. He was fairly dependable last year, though he doesn’t have the biggest leg in the world. Punter is still a competition between Ricky Carroll and Justin Vogel, a transfer from Florida. Vogel appears to have the slightest of edges at this time. The return game should be a strength, even if the coaches decide both Duke Johnson and eventually Stacy Coley are too valuable to use as returners. To start the year, I do think Coley will be the main kick and punt returner, with Corn Elder, Braxton Berrios, and Artie Burns also contributing.
9/1: @ Louisville
9/6: Florida A&M
9/13: Arkansas St.
9/20: @ Nebraska
10/4: @ Georgia Tech
10/23: @ Virginia Tech
11/1: North Carolina
11/15: Florida St.
11/22: @ Virginia
It’s a difficult, but not impossible schedule for the Canes to maneuver through. There are five games that Miami absolutely should win: Florida A&M, Arkansas St., Cincinnati, @ Virginia, and Pittsburgh (I know Pitt is getting hype as a Coastal division sleeper. I don’t buy that at all). On the flipside, even though strange things have happened in this rivalry, and even though it is at home, I struggle to see Miami beating FSU. This leaves six games in the tossup category: @ Louisville, @ Nebraska, Duke, @ Georgia Tech, @ Virginia Tech, and North Carolina. Among those, the two home games against Duke and UNC, as well as the game at Georgia Tech, I feel good about Miami’s chances. I feel everything just came together for Duke last year and they will take a step back. We generally play well against the GT option. UNC is probably the toughest of the three, but they have issues surrounding their program right now with the whole potential hazing situation. Plus it’s in south Florida. They may lose one of those, but no way they get tripped up by all three of them. The away games at Louisville, Nebraska, and Virginia Tech are trickier, and games where Miami is probably a slight underdog. I doubt they go winless, but things would have to break just right to win all of them. I think the Nebraska game is the toughest of the three and would lean towards a loss there, but they can split the other two games, and winning both wouldn’t stun me. I’ll say they beat Louisville, as the loss of Davante Parker will hurt them, but lose to the Hokies.
Best Case scenario: 11-1
Worst Case scenario: 6-6
My prediction: 9-3
Duke Johnson and Brad Kaaya will get almost all of the attention at the start of the season, but this season will come down to seeing improvement from the defensive front seven. Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onorfio (and, by proxy, Al Golden) has been under a lot of scrutiny for underperforming on that side of the ball, and this is a put up or shut up type of season for him. I mentioned that a lot of fans and alumni are getting tired of Golden and D’Onofrio at the beginning of the article. My opinion: I am still an Al Golden believer, but I tend to agree that D’Onofrio leaves a lot to be desired. If the D has another bad year, there needs to be a change on that side of the ball.
That being said, I do think they make another step this season, and that will help Miami finally reach the ACC Championship game. I don’t think they are quite ready to be ACC champions, though, and they’ll fall short against FSU again. But I do expect them to be more competitive against FSU than they were last year (which, people forget, was a fairly competitive game until Duke got hurt). And, in the ACC bowl pecking order, I expect them to be third behind FSU and Clemson. So while I don’t think you will be able to say after this season that ‘the U is back,’ progress is definitely being made to get their sooner rather than later.