Like almost every aspect of the Miami Hurricanes season, the Hurricanes’ special teams were very inconsistent in 2019.
Mediocre might be the best word to describe the unit from top to bottom.
There were bright spots, forgettable moments and downright angering occasions that cost Miami ACC games.
Let’s take a look at how each area graded out this season and what the future holds at each position.
Analysis: There is no doubt that Louis Hedley was the bright spot of Miami’s special teams in 2019. Hedley, who was named special teams MVP at Miami’s postseason banquet, averaged just under 44 yards per punt this season and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 21 different occasions. He had 16 punts go for over 50 yards and only had one punt partially blocked in 13 games. He finished the season ranked No.26 in FBS in punting. That is a huge improvement over what Miami got out of Jeff Feagles and Jack Spicer in 2019, who both averaged under 39 yards per punt and only combined for six punts over 50 yards. Hedley consistently did his job well this season, which is more than can be said of many other players at other positions.
2019 grade: A-. Incredible effort out of a player who did not even grow up playing American football and was playing his first season of Division I football.
Future: Hedley was a redshirt sophomore this season so there is no reason the Hurricanes can’t expect two more seasons of similar productivity from the Australian native. Miami does not appear to be actively recruiting scholarship punters in the 2020 or 2021 class at this point.
Analysis: Yuck. What a mess. The Hurricanes finished the season making just 60 percent (12-of-20) of their field goals between three different kickers. What is particularly frustrating about that number is that Miami finished the season 2-for-6 on kicks 29 yards or less. The frustration starts with Bubba Baxa, Miami’s scholarship kicker for 2019. Baxa finished the season 5-for-10 on field goals, including 3-for-7 on kicks inside 39 yards before losing field goal privileges midway through the season. He missed extremely important kicks against Florida, North Carolina and Georgia Tech before losing the job permanently. Walk-on Turner Davidson took his place but made just one of his three field goal attempts on the season, including getting a game-winning attempt blocked against Georgia Tech. That left Miami with walk-on Camden Price, who performed the best of the trio as he knocked in six of his seven field goal attempts this season and steadied the kicking game a bit down the stretch for the Hurricanes. Making 60 percent of your kicks isn’t good enough at the high school level let alone the Division I power five level. Baxa did well for the Hurricanes on kickoffs as 36 of his 63 kickoffs went for touchbacks and many of his others were high enough to put Miami’s kick coverage team in position to make a play.
2019 grade: D-. Baxa’s performance on kickoffs and Price’s respectable performance down the stretch saves this area from an F, but not by much.
Future: Miami did not wait long to solidify its kicking game for 2020 as it secured FIU transfer Jose Borregales as a grad transfer who will be immediately eligible. Borregales scored 12 of FIU’s 30 points in the upset victory over Miami in November by kicking three field goals and three extra points. For 2021, the Hurricanes have Borregales’ younger brother Andres Borregales of Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna verbally committed. The Hurricanes are hoping the Borregales brothers can fix their kicking issues for years to come.
Analysis: With Jeff Thomas expected to handle most of the punt returns heading into 2019, there were high hopes for Miami’s punt return game heading into the season. Thomas never really panned out into the punt returner many thought he would however as he wound up returning just five punts for 44 yards for Miami this season before replaced on punt returns by K.J. Osborn. Osborn performed better returning punts for the Hurricanes as he averaged just under 16 yards per punt return and had five returns of 23 yards or more after taking over for Thomas as the primary punt returner during the Georgia Tech game. Neither player returned a punt for a touchdown this season so fans lasting memory of punt returns may be Thomas’ key fumble lost on a punt return in the season-opening loss to Florida. That fumble of course gave the Gators field position inside the Miami red zone and changed the momentum of the game in the second half when Florida capitalized on the turnover with a touchdown.
2019 grade: C+. With the athletes the Hurricanes consistently recruit, expectations should always be high for Miami on punt return. Thomas was a disappointment back there this season and while Osborn was better, not scoring a touchdown on punt return keeps this grade in the C range.
Future: Where does Miami go from here on punt return now that both of its punt returners won’t be returning for the 2020 season? Mark Pope or Michael Harley seem like solid options if the Hurricanes want a veteran back there or Jaylan Knighton if the Hurricanes are looking for a freshman to take the reigns.
Analysis: The Hurricanes were pretty mediocre on kick return this season. Thomas and Osborn handled most of the returns and as a team, Miami averaged just 20.4 yards per kick return this season. That ranked No.69 in the NCAA this season. Thomas’ 37-yard return against Bethune-Cookman was Miami’s longest of the year and Thomas’ 32-yard return against Florida in the opener was the Hurricanes’ longest against an FCS opponent this season. It just never seemed like Miami created the holes Thomas and Osborn needed to run through very consistently.
2019 grade: C-. Miami should always be in the top half of kick return yards in FCS with the athletes it consistently recruits. With how bad the offense was at times this season, the Hurricanes could have used a boost from the kick return unit and it rarely got it.
Future: Much like punt return, Miami has enough options to replace Thomas and Osborn in Pope, Harley, Knighton or others. The question that needs to be asked of new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee in regards to both units is whether or not he wants to use key skill position players in these roles. We will find out soon enough.
Analysis: 2019 was Jonathan Patke’s first as the coordinator of the special teams for Miami. Kicking and punting are so specialized that I don’t believe Patke deserves heaps of credit for Hedley’s outstanding season or piles of blame for Miami’s awful season placekicking. It’s tough to blame Patke when Baxa misses a short a field goal or credit Patke when Hedley pins a punt inside the 5-yard line. Those are largely individual positions where players must put in work themselves to fix their own issues or work with specialized private coaches who aren’t employed by the university. Where Patke can have an impact on the special teams is the kick and punt return teams (where Miami was largely mediocre) and the kick and punt return coverage teams. Miami was ranked No.114 of 130 in kick return defense as it allowed an average of 23.93 yards per kick return but was ranked No.28 in punt return defense as it allowed just 5.5 yards per punt return on average. Again, if you average those two things out, pretty mediocre. Patke led a mediocre special teams unit in 2019.
2019 grade: C-. That seems to be the theme here. Miami should be better on special teams with the athletes it recruits.
Future: Adding Jose Borregales should help improve Miami’s field goal kicking percentage and Hedley figures to continue to be solid punting the ball. That leaves coverage and return units for Miami to improve this offseason and where the Hurricanes must take the next step to becoming a more consistent special teams unit.