WE GET TO HAVE SORT OF FOOTBALL SOON!
Seriously though, I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the spring football sessions to start. It may not be full on game action, but at least it will get us ready for what is to come. We get a look at the new offense, the hopefully improved defense, and a handful of players we didn't see or even have last year. To help get you ready for what you can expect during this year's spring session, I've compiled a list of things to look for.
1) The Defense
Obviously this is every fan's current sticking point with the team. The D was horrid last year 98% of the time, and when that amazing 2% reared its head, it was often too late to matter. The offense was forced to score fast and often to make up for the fact that the defense struggled to prevent the other teams from doing the same.
This year, the squad will have lost a few players, but certainly none that were key to the future success of the team. Vaughan Telemaque was the headliner of the guys who are gone, and he wasn't really even a stand alone starter towards the end of the year last year. Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins stole the spotlight, and should be the starters at the safety spot.
Look for the defense to be improved, because really, it won't take much, with another year under Coach D'Onofrio and the off season programs. More experience, especially along the defensive line, is always a good thing. The Canes have somewhere like 18 defensive linemen, both interior and edge linemen, on scholarship, and it's hard to think that out of those 18, no body will step up and become the impact players the Canes need. The line backers will be a bit of a worry, with about as much youth as experience (more on that in a bit), and the secondary looks to be improved. Tracy Howard will take over along with Ladarius Gunter, and guys like Crawford, Hope, and Dortch will look to earn their stripes.
2) Potentially Replacing Eddie Johnson
I want to go ahead and get this out of the way, because it's an ongoing situation that could see an official end any time now. After a few weeks of talking to people and gathering what little info we could, the bottom line is this: It's up to Eddie Johnson at this point whether or not he wants to be back with the team. As of now, he is indefinitely suspended, and is not currently listed on the roster. The people we spoke with all had the same basic thing to say, and that was "don't expect him to be on the team this year." We even had a couple of people try and put a number on it, and the general consensus was that the chances of him being back are less than 5%.
At this point, it's more a question of when he is officially removed, than if. In my opinion, the Canes need to start looking at the options they have to replace him. Not only does finding a full time starter to take his spot give continuity to the LB unit, but it's pretty much par for the course in Golden's regime. He would undoubtedly handle EJ44 the same way he did Seantrel, if he decides he wants to be a Cane. EJ would start on the practice squad and be forced to earn his way back.
When things get started, you're probably going to see Denzel Perryman on the outside again, flanked by either Kirby or Bond. In the middle, I think you work Cornelius or Armbrister in due to their height, although Figueroa may get some looks there too. The good thing is that the Canes have a bit of flexibility with the guys they have. Some can play on the outside or the inside, and they have a good range of heights to try out. Rest assured that with the talent we have behind Perryman, things will come out fine. Look for Blue, Kirby, and Figs to step up big.
3) Running Back Depth
There's no question that the absolute biggest worry on this year's team is the depth chart behind Duke Johnson. Sure, some will say the defense, but there, you're depending on almost a full roster of guys to step up. Here, you have the unquestioned starter and a handful of guys that you aren't really sure about.
The guy who would normally be the first backup option, Eduardo Clements, has been sidelined for a while with a knee injury, and there's talk that it could cost him this season. If he is able to go, then great, but it is not looking likely. That forces the Canes to go behind him, where they have Dallas Crawford, Danny Dillard, and two guys that you probably haven't heard of in Jameson Labady and Brandon Yosha.
In that scenario, you have to think that Crawford will get the majority of the workload, since he has the experience. Danny Dillard is a bit of a wildcard, since he came in as a sort of dark horse guy, but ended up red shirting to learn the offense and work on his body a bit. The word that I have seen so far of him is that he has made tremendous strides since last year, and I'm in the camp that there's a good chance he surprises a lot of people.
The real backup help doesn't come in until the fall, and will have to get acclimated extremely quickly. Gus Edwards, Corn Elder, and potentially Ray Lewis III will add their skills to the mix. If you want my expected backup to Duke, I'm hedging my bets on Gus Edwards being the guy, even with the shortened time to get everything ready.
4) We Finally Have A Tight End! No, Like...A Real One!
Since Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham left, the tight end position has been a bit lacking. Asante Cleveland and Clive Walford have shown that they can play at certain points, but neither has put together any sort of amazing year. Before them, it was pretty much Chase Ford, and well....yeah.
But not anymore! Now we have a actual, NFL style, potentially NFL ready tight end in new guy Beau Sandland, who enrolled early and will be a day 1 participant in spring ball. His game is probably the one thing that I, personally, am most excited about. I love the TE position, and I have said from the time that Sandland to Miami became a thing that his game reminds me of Jeremy Shockey. That is exactly what Morris needs in a tight end, a reliable option on short passing downs that can, at any moment, turn a short gain into a big breaking play. His mid- and long-range game is also great, which will hopefully show Morris that he can, in fact, throw it to the tight end.
Walford will also be a player to watch, as he came on very strong towards the end of the year, and hopefully will carry that into 2013. With Sandland and Walford alone, the TE position would be set. Except the Canes also have a great future player in Standish Dobard, who also enrolled early. Dobard has all the skills needed to be a great tight end, he just needs a bit of molding both physically and fundamentally. It's going to be fun watching him develop, especially under new TE coach Larry Scott, who will no doubt turn him into the weapon he certainly can be.
The other new kid who could potentially bolster the TE corps is Derrick Griffin. Assuming he makes it into Miami, all signs are pointing towards him landing at this spot rather than at WR, and that's just fine by me. His size and speed is better suited for the TE position anyway, although he could definitely be split out wide in certain sets. Here's hoping that he gets his grades in order, because if he does, he's just another ridiculous weapon that the Canes will have on offense.
5) Watching The Receivers Weed Themselves Out
This will most likely be the most fun part of the spring. With a senior quarterback and just about 2 stables worth of wide receiver talent, it's no surprise that recruiting the position this year was labelled a luxury. Of course, adding the best receiver in the state of Florida in Stacy Coley was also a luxury that the Canes couldn't pass up.
Coley i just one name in a sea of guys who could potentially step up in a big way. Griffin, mentioned above, is another name, although, as I said, I think he winds up at TE if he winds up at Miami. Coley has a very good chance to break into the starting lineup on his skill set alone, but it's no secret that he has quite a mountain to climb. Phillip Dorsett leads the way here, with Allen Hurns not far behind. There's almost no chance of those two not being the top two targets for Morris. Behind them, the Canes are stacked.
Rashawn Scott is an upper classman who could provide consistent help, although I'll hold me breath on that based on career track record. Malcolm Lewis could very well be the third receiver if his rehab goes as planned. Herb Waters is a guy who came on strong out of almost nowhere last season, and will be a name to watch. Robert Lockhart will be a VERY good player for the Canes once he gets healed from late-season surgery. Outside of those guys, we will get our first looks at Jontavious Carter and D'Mauri Jones, two guys that the coaches really like, and have had the benefit of a red shirt year.
One way or another, Morris will feel very comfortable with the guys that he throws the ball to, as long as they fix their problem with drops. You can rest assured that the coaches will be working with them on this issue, and the hands of the receivers should be much improved this year.
6) The Quarterbacks Behind Morris
Morris will be the starter. Period. Golden will tell everyone that the position is just as open for competition as the rest of them are, but he won't be fooling anyone. The guys behind Morris, however, will be interesting to watch. Ryan Williams is there, along with Gray Crow and Preston Dewey. David Thompson's name is also still on the roster, although I don't think he gives up baseball to fight for position on a depth chart. Kevin Olsen, the apparent QB of the future for the Canes, will also be there, although he will almost certainly red shirt his freshman year.
Last year, Williams easily won the backup job, mostly because everyone else was so young and inexperienced. That's not to say that Williams can't do the job, he showed that he could when he wasn't being asked to throw three yard swing passes down after down. He is your typical efficient guy with a decent arm, although it will be interesting to see just how much he improved this year after another year out of Memphis and under this staff.
The real fun will come with seeing how Preston Dewey and Gray Crow have evolved, and will continue to evolve, under James Coley. Dewey was fairly highly regarded coming from the Midwest, and Crow was a raw kid with a heck of an arm. Both had a chance to learn the ropes last year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see either of them give Ryan Williams a run for his backup money this spring. As I touched on above, while many will want to see Olsen in the lineup, he will red shirt. He has been pretty public about wanting to, since he realizes that he won't beat out Morris, and he needs to get a bit bigger and learn the offense. It's great to see a guy come in who already knows his place, and is eager to work towards the future.
7) The Growth of the Secondary
Howard was a 5 star recruit that no one thought Miami would get, but they did. He came in heralded, and then went through the expected growing pains that most freshmen do. It didn't help that he was having to try and play immediately against some of the best competition around, either. He held his own, though, and late in the season he started showing why he was regarded as a great corner. This year, the secondary is his. Sure, Gunter will also be there, but the general feeling is that Howard will be the best corner on the team this year, and will assume the role of leader.
As mentioned above, Gunter will likely start opposite of Howard. He was a great player for the Canes down the stretch, and earned the assumption that he will be there. Behind them, the depth is a bit concerning, but the talent that is there more than makes up for it. Antonio Crawford, the kid that Golden flipped from Georgia Tech, will look to continue to improve this year. He has blinding speed, but needed to work on the other facets of the game.
Nate Dortch is a guy that red shirted last season, but coaches and players alike have been raving about his abilities. I would not at all be surprised, based on what I have read, if Dortch comes out of the gate strong and gives the rest of the position a run. The two guys in the back are Larry Hope and new kid Artie Burns. Hope was a guy that enrolled early in 2012, then red shirted. He had the coaches' eyes last year with his development, and certainly should not be slept on this season.
Artie Burns is a bit of a mystery, since most folks are undecided as to whether or not he plays corner back or safety. He could easily excel at both, which is why I think you do him a favor and you put him at one position and you leave him there. With his speed, desire to wreck people, and the foundation he has to be able to play like a cover corner, I think you put him in the backfield and let him go to work. Our safety position is covered for a while with Bush, Jenkins, and Jamal Carter. Burns is better suited at corner back.
8) Who Will Return Kicks?
This team is absolutely loaded when it comes to guys who can return kick offs and punts. Phillip Dorsett, Duke Johnson, Dallas Crawford, Antonio Crawford, and Rashawn Scott are just a few of the current guys who would be fantastic at the job. However, there will be more to choose from once Artie Burns, Stacy Coley, Ray Lewis III, Jamal Carter, and Corn Elder get to campus.
The main issue to figure out with this spot on the depth chart is exactly how much do you want to risk injury? Obviously Duke Johnson is far and away the best return man that we have, but he is also our starting and most important running back. If you put him back to return a kick, and he gets hurt, that puts a serious kink into the Canes' running game. The general feeling is that although you would lose a dynamic return guy by taking him off returning duties, you have to do it for the sake of his health.
Besides, it isn't like the other guys on the list aren't just as capable. I would give Crawford and Dorsett the same consideration. You simply can't risk injury to your starting wide out and a very important corner back. If I had my way, you give the job to guys like Scott or Crawford if you want to go with guys that are more experienced. The other, and perhaps better options, will come along in the fall.
Once he steps foot on campus, Stacy Coley will be hands down one of the most dynamic play makers on the team. With the depth that we have at receiver, I see no issue with letting him be one of the main guys to return, unless of course he comes in and is unarguably a starter at the receiver position. If he proves he can play, but not well enough in his first year to give the other WR's a run for their money, then you let him learn by returning the ball. Outside of him, I would give the second spot to either Burns or Carter. Carter is a physical guy with deceptive speed, and most likely will not be looking at a ton of time at safety with the 4 experienced guys ahead of him. Burns has insane speed, and would be suited for the return game, although risking injury to him would of course be on the minds of the coaches as well.
Regardless of who the coaches put back there, the one thing you can (or should) expect, is that Duke and Dorsett will not be the guys. They are too important to the success of the offense to risk having them get a knee blown returning a punt for 15 yards.