One of the biggest keys to success for the Miami Hurricanes during their three-game winning streak has been the improvement of their offensive line. Once the main target on a struggling team through the first seven games, this unit has pulled it together and have been looking like an entire new group as the season progresses.
This O Line is growing up— Scoop (@scoopontheU) November 3, 2019
While the entire line deserves praise, two of them have made significant improvements lately, true freshmen Zion Nelson and Jakai Clark, who are both just 18 years old.
Enos praising Butch Barry in his ability to coach, and help develop Zion Nelson, and the entire OL— StateOfTheU.com (@TheStateOfTheU) November 4, 2019
That’s not to say the other lineman don’t deserve credit as well, because Navaughn Donaldson, Corey Gaynor, DJ Scaife Jr. and John Campbell Jr. have done an outstanding job, as well OL coach Butch Barry in developing them.
A year ago, Nelson was just a two-star recruit from South Carolina who initially was committed to Appalachian State, until Mark Richt flipped the left tackle to come to Miami.
He arrived at Coral Gables in January standing at 6’6 and weighing only 235 pounds. Though, he got into David Feeley’s weight and conditioning program, bulking up to 290 pounds, and becoming a first-team regular as spring camp ended.
Clark was a three-star recruit out of Georgia, and was another player who Richt was able to flip, convincing the former Illinois commit to switch to Miami.
#WelcomeToTheU, Jakai Clark. Talented OL @j_clark_55 makes his 2nd flip, this time from Illinois to Miami. And just like that, the #Canes have an OL committed in the 2019 recruiting class! #TheU https://t.co/VtLATFm5lD pic.twitter.com/9owHTdj1vo— StateOfTheU.com (@TheStateOfTheU) December 10, 2018
Though Clark was on the second team in August, Nelson continued to take first-team reps as fall camp went along. When the Hurricanes met the Gators for the seasons first game on August 24th, it was the true freshmen Nelson who was Miami’s starting left tackle. While we all knew Nelson wasn’t going to be perfect, we were all excited to see how he would do.
I think Miami fans are going to be shocked in what they have in left tackle Zion Nelson. People who know far more than I do - which ain’t saying much - are drooling over how this kid practices.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) August 24, 2019
To say that his first start didn’t go well would be a little bit of an understatement, as he and the entire offensive line struggled, giving up 10 sacks, with ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit mentioning his name several times throughout the night, for the wrong reason.
JABARI. ZUNIGA. He's so fast off the ball (and Zion Nelson is so slow). Easy sack. What speed! pic.twitter.com/Q35pfJECAM— Fed Scivittaro (@MeshPointScout) August 25, 2019
While Nelson definitely struggled against UF, head coach Manny Diaz stuck with him at LT, and also moved Clark to starting right guard for the Hurricanes second game against North Carolina.
Even in the Miami loss, Clark made an impact and made people notice. Nelson also was significantly better against the Tar Heels.
Jakai Clark. Been telling ya kid is a difference maker. Offense is gonna have to carry the defense which sucks cuz we ain’t there yet. Who would’ve thought.— 2-Pod Shakur (@DaPrinceRicky) September 8, 2019
However, as the weeks went by, Nelson and Clark regressed, as did the whole OL, and the scrutiny came from every which angle.
Jakai Clark got beat by the slowest swim move in football history— Brody Logan (@BrodyLogan) September 21, 2019
Against Central Michigan, Nelson especially had a rough game, when he gave up sacks on back-to-back plays. This Miami offense, which was predicted to light up scoreboards, was being held to 17 points against teams like Central Michigan, and the line was the main reason why.
Zion gets beat like an effing drum. Offensive line went backwards against CMU, and it’s infuriating to watch pic.twitter.com/lQyzCLcJgd— Bring Daz To Miami (@hurricanesmarsh) September 25, 2019
Then against Virginia Tech, it was clear that the offensive line, plus Nelson and Clark were going straight backwards, giving up seven sacks against the Hokies in the loss. Nelson was again the center of criticism, while Clark left early with an injury. At that point, it was hard to envision any kind of improvement in 2019.
Zion Nelson might be the one offensive linemen's name that every commentator or opposing fan watching the game learns— rOmaN (@Romancane) October 5, 2019
And not for the right reason if you're a #canes fan
Still, coach Diaz continued to show confidence in his young lineman, and showed nothing but encouragement.
Manny Diaz: "We're happy as hell to have Zion Nelson. We're happy as hell to have Jakai Clark."— Josh White (@_JoshRWhite) October 7, 2019
A few weeks later, things started to change when the Hurricanes played Georgia Tech. Again, even in a loss, Nelson showed tremendous improvement and played his best game up to that point.
Want to applaud true freshman Zion Nelson. He played his best game vs GT. Kid has been put on an island in more ways than one.— rOmaN (@Romancane) October 22, 2019
Then add you have crack shot YouTube dudes posting him getting beat at times( )
But that kid deserves recognition this week. Thought he played well.
Week by week, these two, as well as the entire OL began to play better and better. Against Pitt, Miami held the Panthers to just two sacks, even though they had entered the game leading the nation and averaging five per game as a defense. Their protection of quarterback Jarren Williams on Miami’s final drive was key in the Canes 16-12 win.
Jakai Clark on the O-line coming along and what he expects going into his first game in the UM-FSU rivalry. pic.twitter.com/4zfgLGB6kR— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) October 29, 2019
Just like so many other Hurricanes, Nelson and Clark’s best performances have possibly come in the last two weeks. Against FSU, another team that had been getting after the quarterback, both of these freshman stepped up big. Look at the time both Nelson and Clark gives Williams on Miami’s first touchdown drive as he connects with Jeff Thomas.
Earlier in that series, Clark was seen running downfield and providing blocks on a screen to DeeJay Dallas on a huge gain that extended Miami’s drive.
While he had his best day as a pass-blocker, Nelson was also huge for the Hurricanes rushing attack. In the fourth quarter with Miami facing a 3rd-and-12, Dallas takes the handoff and Nelson blocks about three Seminoles, helping DeeJay pick up the first down and milk more clock.
3rd and 12, Dan Enos calls a run to DeeJay and Miami picks it up. This play more beautiful than the Mona Lisa pic.twitter.com/A2rVk1YKdA— Bring Daz To Miami (@hurricanesmarsh) November 6, 2019
In the 27-10 UM win, Nelson received much, well-deserved recognition, whether it was by the fans or Miami coaches. Following the victory, offensive coordinator Dan Enos told reporters, “they’ve all improved really, but I will say Zion Nelson, in particular, is looking much more comfortable out there.”
Zion Nelson best game yet was today.— Jonoflo (@JonofloSwag) November 2, 2019
Give the young man some much needed love canes fam. He deserves it.
The next week, the two again showed improvement against Louisville, helping the Hurricanes to a 52-27 win in their best offensive performance of the season. Case in point, and this play nearly brought tears to my eyes, but look at the hole the line creates for Cam’ron Harris on this run. Look at Nelson remove the Cardinals defensive end on the play.
Look at the hole that the offensive line creates for Cam Harris. Gaynor, Zion, Campbell. This line continues to improve each week and you love to see it. pic.twitter.com/y3yMPw5Vxd— Bring Daz To Miami (@hurricanesmarsh) November 11, 2019
One of the reasons why Williams was able to throw for a school-record six touchdowns that game was because of the protection the line gave him. This kind of protection, especially by Nelson or Clark, certainly wasn’t there a month ago.
Best throw of the day by Jarren Williams. Put it only where Mike Harley could get it. Also great protection by the line pic.twitter.com/eiyAJUup7R— Bring Daz To Miami (@hurricanesmarsh) November 11, 2019
Against Louisville, the OL had its finest showing of the season, allowing just one sack and plowing the way for nearly 500 yards of offense, including 197 yards on the ground, their highest total of the year against a P5 opponent.
During Miami’s three game win streak, the Canes offense is averaging 31.7 points per game, and a big part of that has to be accredited to the line, and more specifically the two youngest members on the line growing up.