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Canes Football Mid-Season Progress Report

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As we pass over the halfway point of the season, let’s take an extensive look at the wild ride of the first six games of 2018

NCAA Football: Miami at Louisiana State
This team seems so far removed from the group we saw Labor Day weekend in Dallas
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes head into Saturday’s matchup with Virginia riding high off of a second straight victory over FSU and a 5-game win steak. While it feels like forever ago, the season started with a drubbing at the hands of LSU that made the fan base question all of our expectations for the season. It was a long, dark night in Dallas as LSU dominated nearly every phase of the game, and Miami fell from a top-10 team with Playoff aspirations to a team that needed to figure things out before contending for the Coastal Division crown.

NCAA Football: Miami at Louisiana State
CMR has shown improvement over the half of the season
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The concern from Canes fans has subsided for now, as Miami appears back in control of their schedule and winning out seems to be a possibility. There is still plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, but let’s take time to appreciate the strides taken by the players and coaching staff from that dreadful evening week 1 to the surging Canes looking for their 6th straight victory:

Passing Offense

We know where this is going. Malik Rosier didn’t start off his year quite in the way he would’ve hoped, completing only 15 of 35 passes for 259 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. N’Kosi Perry was waiting in the wings (although not for the LSU game) but would not see meaningful game action until week 2 against Savannah State. Rosier staved off the inevitable with a 5 touchdown performance against Toledo, but another slow start against FIU allowed Perry to take hold of the reigns and push this offense to new gear. In his last 3 games, Perry has thrown for 8 touchdowns and only 2 picks. His 55% completion percentage and 553 yards in that span aren’t ideal, but the passing game is now running with the efficiency that was originally expected from a Miami team with the our collection of weapons.

Jeff Thomas emerged in Ahmmon Richards absence to lead the receiving corps, starting off with a bang by racking up 132 yards against LSU. He has slowed down a bit after a torrid start, but Thomas still leads the team with 396 yards. Lawrence Cager needed a couple weeks to find his place, but has emerged as the Canes’ premier red-zone target. Cager leads the team with 6 touchdowns, including 2 against the Noles in last week’s comeback victory. Freshman Brevin Jordan has also come on strong in the last couple of weeks, showing that he is as good as advertised.

Rushing Offense

The rushing attack was expected to be a steadying force in the Canes offense, but LSU limited Miami to only 83 yards. Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas took the onus on themselves to fix the issue, with each back producing 100 yard rushing games in the following weeks. The Canes two-headed monster has been effective during the 5-game win streak, with Homer and Dallas rushing for 434 and 369 yards respectively. They could do a better job of getting in the endzone, as Malik Rosier still leads the team with 5 rushing touchdowns despite not playing the last 3 weeks. Still, Homer and Dallas have been good enough to hold off talented freshman Lorenzo Lingard Jr, who has given glimpses of future stardom in his limited carries so far.

Defensive Secondary

Led by seniors Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine and Michael Jackson, the Canes expected to have the back end of the defense locked up. For the most part, that has been the case, as Miami ranks 5th nationally in passing yards allowed, and 7th nationally in yards per attempt. The talented group has intercepted opponents more than they’ve allowed them to score (8 ints to 6 TDs) so overall fans should be pleased with this group. Depth has proven to be a concern for the DBs, as the backups have given up the majority of big plays, and the health bug has bitten this group, with Jaquan Johnson missing two games already this season.

Rushing Defense/Pass Rush

A position room that experienced the most turnover this season was the defensive front, as Chad Thomas, RJ McIntosh, Kendrick Norton, and Trent Harris were all departures who contributed heavily last season. Their absences were felt against LSU, as the Tigers gashed the Canes front early and often, with RB Nick Brossette finishing with 125 yards and 2 touchdowns. That performance ended up being the kick in the pants that this group needed, as the Canes rush defense has been one of the best in the nation, ranking 18th in rushing yards allowed, and 7th nationally in yards per attempt allowed. The real strength of the front seven has been their propensity for negative plays, as the Canes are far and away the best team in the nation at bringing down opposing ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Miami has 21 more tackles for loss that the next closest team. Gerald Willis III has been the dominant force the Canes needed to make up for all of the departures up front. Willis has been the TFL king, racking up 12.5 through 6 games, to go with 28 total tackles. His frequent trips into the opponent’s backfield haven’t gone unnoticed, as he’s been added to the Bednarik Award Watch List:

The pass rush has been outstanding as well, as the Canes have racked up the third-most sacks in the country, with Joe Jackson leading the charge with 5 sacks. Jonathan Garvin and Shaquille Quarterman have brought down the quarterback 3 times each as well. As long as the front seven continues to dictate the terms at the line of scrimmage, Miami will be in a winning position in every game.

Special Teams

The Miami special teams has been (and continues to be) a work in progress this season. Freshman kicker Bubba Baxa missed field goals in the first game against LSU and last week’s game against FSU, but other wise has been pretty steady, missing only one extra point all season (out of 32 attempts), and converting all of his other 4 field goal attempts. For a freshman, things could be worse.

Punting has been a completely different animal. Starting the season off with Zach Feagles, the Canes gave LSU great field position all game, with their 5 punts traveling an average of 36.4 yards. Miami made a switch to Jack Spicer against North Carolina, and the results have been slightly better, with Spicer averaging 39.5 yards per punt. This type of weakness could come back to haunt the Canes, although it hasn’t so far.

The return game has been a secret weapon for a Miami squad that requires a jumpstart at times. More specifically, punt returns have served as that spark, as the Canes have averaged a gaudy 23.7 yards per punt return. Jeff Thomas and Deejay Dallas reward the defense when they get stops with momentum shifting returns.

Coaching

For a group that appeared to have zero answers against LSU, the Miami coaching staff looks like a well put together group that is getting the most out of their players. The Turnover Chain continues to be a stroke of genius, as the defense remains motivated to attack the ball. Mark Richt pulled the trigger on the QB switch that transformed the offense, and both the offense and defense have continued to perform despite losing key contributors to career-ending injuries. The culture within the program has proven to be strong, with players rallying around each other when they experience hardship on and off the field. Recruits are starting to notice, and special things happen when the coaches foster a great atmosphere (like 20-point comebacks in big games).

As the Canes start the second half of their season this evening, the work they’ve put in since that opening week letdown should allow them to push for an ACC Championship once again, but as games with Boston College, Duke, and Virginia Tech loom, they’ll need continued progress to get them there.