Miami will open the season in the not so distant future, and to help you prepare for what is sure to be a great year, we are back to preview each position on the team. We will let you know who is back, who is new, and how each player projects for the 2014 season.
Could UM's defensive backfield, and specifically their corners, be the most improved unit on the team for 2014?
Well first let's take a look at what they accomplished last season.
The Bad News:
Opponents completed 60.2% of their attempts Vs The 'Canes D last season, and Miami was an atrocious 106th Nationally in yards surrendered at 267 per contest.
The Good News:
They were tied for 13th Nationally with 18 picks, and a lot of those yards can be attributed to blown coverages rather than to lack of talent.
So why be optimistic?
Let's break down the key performers and breakdown what can reasonable be expected from each.
Tracy Howard, Junior - 5'11 184. Honorable mention ALL-ACC as a sophomore after registering 35 tackles and a team high 4 picks. The former 5 star recruit from Miramar H.S. was light years better than his freshman campaign. Really matured on and off the field. Has very good instincts and excellent ball skills. Struggled a bit with bigger WRs but overall is UM's best cover corner and should be poised for a break out junior season. An improved pass rush would also benefit the unit as a whole but especially Howard who is equipped to snag errant passes better than most. Anything short of being an upper echelon ACC corner would be a disappointment given his talent and projected continued improvement.
They won't all be this easy, but here is an example of what great anticipation Howard has (ACC Digital):
Ladarius Gunter, Senior - 6'2 198. Tallied 46 tackles and 3 INTs last season, with 2 TDs (One INT and one blocked FG return). Excellent size, athleticism, and balls skills, but needs to be more consistent. Another DB who would benefit greatly from an improved front. Gunter has very solid skill set but not as good as Howard's. Likely to see plenty of balls thrown his way as a result, and should snag a few more picks with the increased opportunities. Can not afford a drop off in play as the next guy on the list is waiting in the wings.
Artie Burns, Sophomore - 6'0 198. Came to UM as a 4 star recruit from the heralded Miami Northwestern program. Raw talent and skill was displayed last season as he had 1 INT, a FG block, and averaged 26.1 yds on 10 kick off returns. This is a kid I am very excited about. Will he make the same jump that Howard made between year 1 and year 2? Perhaps not. But his speed and athletic ability jumps out at you. If the coaching staff can refine his natural abilities he has the potential to be a serious play maker. Listing him as the 3rd CB starter because I expect UM will play him quite a bit in the slot and even spell Gunter with him some if he progresses as expected.
Antonio Crawford, Junior - 5'11 191. Recorded 32 tackles and 1 pick as a sophomore last season. Came to UM as a 3 star prospect and has been about as expected. Solid special teams player and adds depth. Good tackler but has yet to show exceptional cover skills.
Corn Elder, Sophomore - 5'10 182. Elder is my personal favorite as a sleeper to make the biggest improvement from last year to this year. He is a legit 4.4 guy with exceptional ability to change direction, start and stop, and outstanding overall athleticism. A lot like Burns in he has eye popping speed, but needs more experience and to refine his craft. Elder should at minimum be a solid option in the return game. But I wouldn't be shocked if he challenged to be the 'Canes best reserve/nickle DB by season's end.
Ryan Mayes, Freshman - 6'1 185. Early enrolle earned praise on more than one occasion during spring practice. Has ideal size to face up with bigger receivers. Too soon to tell whether or not he is a redshirt candidate or not, but my guess based on what we have seen and heard so far is that he sees early action in dime packages and perhaps special teams.
Nate Dortch, Sophomore - 5'11 180. Has really yet to distinguish himself and is in danger of being at best a special teamer/depth guy. Needs a big fall camp.
Ray Lewis III, Redshirt Freshman - 5'9 190. Still adjusting to the transition to playing CB on the Division I level. With his bloodlines and from what we have heard of his work ethic, could be a factor in time. For now his development has not yet projected to major PT. It will be interesting to monitor how far he comes along, starting in August.
While the Hurricanes have not yet returned to their glorious past when guys like Duane Starks, Kelly Jennings, Antrel Rolle, and Phillip Buchanan made them a nightmare at the CB position for opposing team, they are steadily improving in the talent department. Last season's struggles were far more often due to more often due to missed assignments (especially on crossing patterns) and poor tackling than poor coverage. There should be improvement in both of those areas. Howard offers UM its best chance at an elite player at the position but Gunter is solid and Burns and Elder are intriguing possibilities as well. Far more focus (and rightfully so) has been aimed at the improvement of the defense up front. But this group too has the potential to play better, and I expect they will in 2014 led by Howard and Burns.