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Spring Football Position Preview: Safeties

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After losing both starters from last season, the middle of the defensive back field will look much different in 2019

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the return of Coach Manny Diaz, not only did Miami retain one of the best defensive minds in college football, but they also held onto a transfer-market ninja who could make sure the effect of attrition on the program is minimal. The combination of Diaz and safeties coach Ephraim Banda has been one of Miami’s most productive in recruiting and player development, which makes the safety position a major case study on the direction of Canes football.

For the past couple seasons, the safety position has been in secure hands with the combination of Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. Even before Redwine assumed the starting role, the combination of Johnson and Deon Bush made the back end of the defense pretty solid. Johnson was a heralded local recruit who lived up to his billing by garnering All-American and All-ACC honors while also becoming a vocal leader for on of the top defenses in the nation.

Redwine was Johnson’s high school teammate, but wasn’t as hyped coming out of Miami Killian. Still, the coaching staff was able to convert him from cornerback and develop him into a solid safety that has a legitimate chance to be drafted this spring and made some valuable contributions to the defensive culture via the turnover chain:

In 2019, both of the previous starters will be gone, and the Canes return only 3 safeties with playing experience at the position: Amari Carter, Gurvan Hall Jr, and Robert Knowles. Carter currently projects to be a starter, while Hall was a talented four-star recruit, and Knowles has been having a solid offseason according to Coach Banda, who spoke with the Miami Herald earlier this week. The Surge 19 recruiting class includes another intriguing prospect in four-star recruit Keontra Smith, and one of Coach Diaz’s first returns from his bountiful trip to the transfer market was former HS All-American and USC player Bubba Bolden. Also supplementing the talent in the room is former-striker Derrick Smith, who Coach Banda told the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson has reportedly made the shift over to safety this spring.

The striker position has been utilized by Coach Diaz for the past few seasons, and the S-LB hybrid position brought elevated production in 2018 thanks to the improvement of Romeo Finley, who will be entering his senior season in 2019. Other players that could see time at the striker position are Gilbert Frierson and linebacker Zach McCloud.

Let’s take a look at the likely contributors at Safety in 2019:

Amari Carter

As a four-star prospect out of Palm Beach, Carter has always possessed a physically-imposing frame at 6’2” and 200lbs, which would bode well for approaching the line of scrimmage and running downhill to blow up short-yardage plays.

What still needs to be determined, is Carter’s ability to consistently cover receivers in the passing game. The majority of Carter’s snaps have been as a part of special teams, meaning he generally needs more exposure to the passing game at the college level (as almost all of the current safeties will need). Carter was able to tally 3 pass break-ups in 2018, so in limited action he has flashed potential, but his development in this area will be crucial for the defense in 2019.

Gurvan Hall Jr

Miami has an abundance of safeties with solid size and plenty of toughness but limited experience. Gurvan Hall Jr also fits that mold, but appears to flash a little more potential than the others. Hall was a consensus four-star recruit who spent time on both sides of the ball in high school, showing how dynamic of an athlete he can be. Coach Banda has expressed an intention to employ a true committee at safety this season, so while Hall saw action in 12 of 13 games in 2018, he’ll get plenty more opportunities in 2019. Like Amari Carter, it remains to be seen how solid Hall can be in pass coverage. However, with his exposure playing offense in high school, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hall has the ball skills and hip flexibility to excel in coverage.

Robert Knowles

Arguably the most experienced member of the safety corps, Robert Knowles has struggled to make an impact and carve out a regular role for himself due to the presence of Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. He’s another local product out of Miami Edison High School, and boasts solid size at 6’1” 200lbs. As a redshirt-senior, this is his last chance to make a name for himself, so hopefully that helps light a fire to make some impact plays in 2019.

Derrick Smith

A newcomer to this group is one of the elder statesmen of the locker room, former striker Derrick Smith was converted back to the safety group to provide needed depth this spring. Despite sitting behind Romeo Finley for the majority of the last 2 seasons, Smith boasts much more experience than many of the other options. Coach Banda pulled Smith from Duval County back in 2016, telling the Miami Herald ““I’m more excited about this group than I’ve ever been. I recruited [striker] Derrick Smith, know how dynamic he can be.” The junior has the size (6’2” 215lbs) to be an enforcer on the back end, and based on his highlight tape, the coaching staff saw something in him to be a playmaker in this defense.

Keontra Smith

The lone safety commit in the Surge19 class, Keontra Smith was a strong get for the coaching staff. The consensus 4-star recruit out of Chaminade-Madonna Prep doesn’t have the optimal height for the position at 5’11”, but 247sports scouting report lists the following: “Excellent closing speed and a fearless hitter. Really thrives in run support and playing near the line of scrimmage. Coverage skills are a concern and not something he has been asked to do much throughout his high school career.” Smith has the potential to make an impact in his first season, but will have to catch on quick as the freshman won’t be on campus until the summer. Still, Smith can be a major piece of the defense going forward.

Bubba Bolden

The latest addition to the safeties in Coral Gables is USC transfer Bubba Bolden. A former high school teammate of transfer QB Tate Martell and TE Brevin Jordan, the 6’3” 200lb Army All-American was as highly-touted as they come. While Bolden didn’t settle in at USC, the upside doesn’t get much higher. He won’t be on campus until the summer, but the Bishop Gorman product will definitely be in consideration for a starting job by the start of the season.

While the safety position will look completely different in 2019, the Canes are fortunate to have plenty of quality options to choose from.