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2020 Midseason Position Review: Wide Receivers

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The Canes’ WRs Certainly Started the Season Slowly but After Breaking Out Last Week Their is Some Optimism for the Second Half

NCAA Football: Louisville at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

As the Miami Hurricanes turn the corner and move upfield toward the second half of the season, it is pretty obvious that the most troublesome offensive unit has been the Wide Receivers. Due to a plethora of dropped passes, and no steady target among the Canes crop of wideouts, this has been a hard-to-miss problem area in an otherwise decent offense.

The lack of production from the WR position comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Canes entered 2020 with the necessary factors to excel at the position. In particular, they welcomed dual threat transfer QB D’Eriq King, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to implement a new spread offense, and WR Coach Rob Likens, who has produced a first round draft pick at WR the last two seasons out of Arizona State University. They also featured a nice mix of viable freshmen and veteran wideouts that display no shortage of speed.

As I detailed in my 2020 WR Position Preview back in August, it was expected that the ball would be distributed (or spread) to the many targets by lining up several receivers with the dual-threat QB in the shotgun formation. And even though Miami’s group did not necessarily enter the season with a clear cut star, it was anticipated that the spread formation would thrive in a deep, but young, wide receiving corps. This is especially true because Likens has previously rotated many receivers. In fact, he had played up to 10 wideouts in a game prior to coming to Miami. In the preview, I also noted that, under the simple offensive scheme, the speedy group full of slot options should thrive - so long as drops were limited.

Six games into the season, none of the aforementioned expectations have come to life. Instead, the dropped passes and underwhelming statistics by the WR corps have left a LOT to be desired. To put things into perspective, let’s compare WR groups over the past five years through the first six games based on the below chart (keep in mind this chart only considers the WR group, thus any passes to TEs/RBs or other targets have been removed):

Miami WR Statistics Through First Six Games:

Notably, this is the worst production from a Miami WR unit through the first six games since 2016, when the Canes’ stable of receivers only put up 40 less yards, but 3 more TDs. In that season, only five WRs had been targeted through the first six games. The five WRs that year? Braxton Berrios, Ahmmon Richards, Stacy Coley, Malcolm Lewis, and Dayall Harris.

The WR units in the last three years have been much more deep, and arguably more talented, as they have included the likes of Darrell Langham, Lawrence Cager, Jeff Thomas, K.J. Osborn, Brian Hightower, Marquez Ezzard, and Richards. However, keep in mind that the WR stats for the last two years were years where the OL was atrocious, so QBs had limited time in the pocket. The Canes also went a combined 13-13.

Despite having four freshmen in this year’s grouping, it was expected that they would at least be in the same ballpark as the previous four years. Instead, the seven WRs targeted to date have put up a subpar stat line through six games of: 65 receptions, 835 yards, and 4 TDs. That’s not great, as will be detailed below.

Miami WR 2020 Games Logs:

The game logs to date look more like a monster game by one WR rather than the cumulative output of nine WRs on the depth chart (seven with targets so far). As a matter-of-fact, comparing the Canes’ entire WR unit to individual performances actually provides some insight into the lack of production this season.

And while the results have been disappointing to date, there is a silver lining as senior WR, Mike Harley, stepped up this past Saturday against UVA by contributing a career-high 10 receptions for 170 yards and a TD, on his way to the ACC Receiver of the Week.

In the monster performance, Harley contributed more than half of the Canes’ WRs’ 18 receptions. He also had 170 of the 265 total receiving yards for WRs. In the Canes’ other five matches, the most yards for the entire WR group was 180 total yards in the 52-10 FSU onslaught - only 10 yards more than Harley’s game.

To break it down even further, Miami’s cumulative WR position is averaging 10.83 receptions and 139.16 yards, per game. In the NCAA, there are two individual WRs with 137.8 receiving yards per game or greater (Marlon Williams/UCF with 150.6 and Jaelon Darden/North Texas with 137.8). There are also four WRs with 10.8 or more receptions per game and another five WRs with 9.0 or more. As for Miami’s WRs’ measly four TDs on the season, there are 16 individual NCAA WRs with more receiving TDs this season. In fact, while he is not a WR, Florida Gators TE, Kyle Pitts, scored 4 TDs in their season opener. That matches Miami WRs total TDs for the season... through six games!

For the first half of the season, one of the biggest culprits for the WRs’ poor play has been the dropped passes, as they have registered at least one drop in every game. Miami’s wideouts have also been unable to create ample separation or win coverage battles against their opponents’ secondaries, especially for the outside targets. Instead, the passing offense has largely been created by Miami’s strong TE play and broken coverage plays where the passing backs get open.

However, prior to Harley’s big performance, there has not been a go-to deep threat in the WR arsenal. Harley’s first catch on Saturday night was a 43-yard reception where King found him deep. Harley also had a 38-yard TD the prior week against Pitt where he slipped open under coverage along the sideline. In addition to the recent emergence in Harley’s deep play capability, Mark Pope also made a phenomenal 38-yard contested catch along the sidelines on Saturday night.

Prior to last Saturday’s game, Coach Manny Diaz put everything at the WR position up for grabs. Diaz called for an open competition of the nine WRs on scholarship. That is, Miami’s veteran trio of Harley, Pope, and Dee Wiggins was competing with the other six scholarship guys: Jeremiah Payton and Marshall Few, as well as Freshmen Xavier Restrepo, Keyshawn Smith, Michael Redding III, and Dazalin Worsham. All nine targets were listed on the depth chart as co-starters competing for three WR spots.

Diaz took the change as a literal chance to open up and spread the offense: “The rotation itself, what we want is to play a lot of guys. We want more guys that feel like they can do it and certainly the young players are improving and getting better…We are trying to get more guys that can play because that is ultimately what makes the whole football team better.”

But Senior WR, Harley, took it as motivation and stepped up accordingly: “I reacted to it like, OK, I have to step up. Honestly, I shouldn’t be in that position coming in as a veteran, but coaches got to make some changes and some guys got to make plays.”

Let’s go through each weapon in this group, what they have done through six games, and what we can expect for the final five games (2020 Stats through Six Games):

The WR Depth Chart Report Card:

Mike Harley/Senior: (27 receptions, 344 yards, 2 TDs), Mid-season grade: B+ Coach Likens said he loved Harley’s leadership and described him as “courageous across the middle. He’s not afraid and that’s what you need with some guys that are going to play in the inside.” Due to these attributes and decent production in 2019, I expected Harley to be the breakout threat amongst the WR corps. As evidenced by his career night, Harley has emerged directly into this role the past couple of weeks. As Miami anticipates the return of a healthy Brevin Jordan, and if they are able to limit drops, Harley should continue to thrive as the offense continues to hits its stride.

Mark Pope/Junior: (18 receptions, 236 yards, 1 TD), Mid-season grade: C The former five-star recruit has been plagued more on Special Teams as a punt returner than at the WR position. Pope fumbled one punt and muffed another one. However, Pope has also come out flat on the offensive side of the ball. After an acrobatic 50/50 catch along the sideline against UVA, Pope may be on the right track to being a trusted target on intermediate-to-deep passes.

Daquiris “Dee” Wiggins/Junior: (12 receptions, 154 yards, 1 TD) Mid-season grade: C In 2019, Wiggins emerged as a capable deep threat. However, in 2020, Wiggins leads the team in dropped passes. Also, most of those passes unfortunately have been on shorter passes. The Miami native was expected to be a solid deep target and red zone threat due to his 6’3” frame. Neither has consistently surfaced thus far. With that being said, Wiggins has recorded receptions of 24, 26, and 40 yards this season. The latter of which being a TD where he found himself wide open on a slant down field during the blowout over FSU.

Jeremiah Payton/Redshirt Freshman: (2 receptions, 18 yards) Mid-season grade: D After playing 4 games in 2019, Payton retained his redshirt eligibility and also returned with some experience. As a capable route-runner and rangy target, Payton was expected to take on a more significant role. Again, the results have been disappointing to date. Due to the open competition, Payton should continue to get opportunities.

Marshall Few/Redshirt Junior: (2 receptions, 12 yards) Mid-season grade: C Few is more of a fan favorite than someone who can anticipate a pronounced role in the offense. Few could still be utilized when other players go down to injury, such as this past week when multiple freshman wideouts were out.

Keyshawn Smith/Freshman: (2 receptions, 58 yards) Mid-season grade: B Likens has said Smith has elite speed and could really factor into playing time down the road. But Likens also says he sees an extremely bright future once be becomes “assignment-sound.” This may be reading between the lines, but Smith may need additional time before emerging as a steady weapon. If he is ready, he could be primed to take on the deep threat role if Wiggins cannot continue to develop in that area.

Michael Redding III/Freshman: (2 receptions, 13 yards, 1 TD) Mid-season grade: B Redding is another freshman who has seen solid action, which included a TD. The big-bodied receiver could continue to be used, especially as a red zone threat or on short passing downs on screen passes. Redding offers a different dimension as a nice addition on short jump balls and an offensive bruiser that can play punisher on undersized CBs

Xavier Restrepo/Freshman: (No Targets) Mid-season grade: Incomplete Restrepo is beginning to carve out a role as the team’s punt returner. The young leader and tough competitor could continue to be assimilated into the offense, where he could be another slot receiver option on short passes across the middle or sweeps across the backfield.

Dazalin Worsham/Freshman: (No Targets) Mid-season grade: Incomplete Currently listed at 170lbs, it seems like Worsham may need another year to develop and put on some weight. He shows some quickness and an ability to operate out of various routes with reliable hands, but that may need to wait until next year.

Expectations For Second Half:

The obvious change that will be instrumental to Miami’s WRs’ success is limiting drops. The drops have derailed an uptempo spread scheme at pivotal times when King & Co. have tried to operate the hurry-up offense.

There is immense promise that things could pan out going in the final five games and postseason. Harley has seemingly emerged as the go-to guy at WR as both a slot option and someone who is able to get open deep. The U also has a variety of options of both the freshman and veteran variety: Wiggins and Smith could both be used as pure deep ball threats; Redding III could be used as a redzone, jump ball weapon; Pope and Payton could be the rangy route-runner options; Restrepo could complement Harley’s slot capabilities as a more traditional across-the-middle receiver; and Few and Worsham are nice insurance policies in case there are any injuries. It truly is an open competition as to who will breakout, especially because the freshman also have the potential to do so.

With Miami’s most dangerous weapon, TE Brevin Jordan, expected back, the passing game will be even more pronounced. Lastly, the catching RBs in Cam’ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton, and Don Chaney Jr. should complement the WR attack as well. Even though the first half of this article has been lambasting the WR group, it must be noted that the drops have been offense-wide. Jordan, who is projected to be a potential first round pick for 2021, has dropped three passes out of his 21 targets.

In order for the spread offense to really flourish, the WRs need to make their presence known by getting open and winning 1-on-1 battles, as well as limiting drops. It is going to take more than one breakout game from Harley. Rather, it will mean a consistent presence across the formation and emerging stars throughout the Canes’ deep WR group. All of whom must be more reliable. If they can overcome their first half of season woes, it will pay immense dividends for the second half.

Projected Stats for Remaining Games: (6 Games - assuming a Bowl Game)

Harley: 42 receptions, 550 yards, 6 TDs
Wiggins: 15 receptions, 220 yards, 3 TDs
Pope: 30 receptions, 300 yards, 3 TDs
Payton: 10 receptions, 100 yards, 1 TD
Restrepo: 6 receptions, 40 yards
Smith: 4 receptions, 120 yards
Few: 3 receptions, 20 yards
Redding III: 4 receptions, 20 yards, 2 TDs
Worsham: Redshirt

Go Canes.