Special teams is the unsung third leg of any football team, but looms large in dictating the success of a teams on offense and defense. Offensively, poor field position can drastically limit play-calling, while great field position gives a play-caller a great advantage to attack a defense. This holds true on defense as well. Protecting a short field consistently puts undue pressure on the defense while a longer field lets them pin their ears back and attack.
What was viewed to be a possible strength coming into the 2019 season, the kicking game, all things being equal, likely cost Miami 3-4 victories. Bubba Baxa, now a current entry in the Transfer Portal, was the main culprit. A 5 for 10 performance by Baxa low-lighted a total 12 for 20 performance by the kicking unit. Two missed field goals vs North Carolina and three missed vs Georgia Tech cost clearly cost Miami two wins. Distrust in that kicking game surely led to leaving the offense on the field in field goal range. To stabilize the kicking game, Manny Diaz brought in Jose Borregales, FIU’s record holder for points (281). Borregales should provide a noticeable upgrade, as FIU ranked 45th in Field Goal Efficiency nationwide while Miami was 123rd, per footballinsiders.com. Notably Jose’s younger brother Andres Borregales is currently committed to Miami 2021 class as the #1 rated kicker in the nation.
Last year, Manny Diaz made it a point of emphasis to fix the punting game to combat short fields the defense was encountering far too often. in 2018, Miami’s special teams unit was as inconsistent as any. Sophomore legacy punter Zach Feagles and Junior Punter Jack Spicer were abysmal in 2018. Feagles’ averaged 38.9 yards on his 30 punts, while Spicer only averaged 37.7 yards on 34 punts.
Enter Louis Hedley.
The top ranked Juco punter set the Canes off-season on fire with his wild back story coming from scaffolding and tattooing in Australia, to his similarly unorthodox journey from Rugby player in the Outback to top Juco punter in the United States. Better yet, he backed up the hype. Hedley returned Miami to the standard of punting we have grown accustomed to over the last few years from Matt Bosher and Pat O’Donnell. Hedley ranked 26th in the nation with 43.9 yards per punt. Per footballinsiders.com, Miami’s Punt Efficiency jumped from 104th in the nation during 2018 to 30th in 2019. A return to this standard or better in 2020 will surely aid the Hurricanes on both sides of the ball.
A few scampers like this one wouldn’t hurt either.
With the departures of Deejay Dallas, KJ Osborn and Jeff Thomas to the NFL, Miami’s Punt Return job is up for grabs. In recent years the duties have been handled by sure hands (Malcolm Lewis, Braxton Berrios, Osborn) or dynamic playmakers (Jeff Thomas, Dallas). 2020 should be much of the same. This is a position that should be a point of emphasis heading into spring. Likely candidates reflective of history look to be Cam Harris, Jaylan Knighton, Mike Harley, Mark Pope and Jeremiah Payton. Miami has ranked in the top 20 in Punt Return Efficiency for the last 3 years.
With more rules in place than ever to prevent kick returns, the opportunities here have become more and more limited resulting in less game breaking plays. With that said, kick returners still need to have reliable hands and the ability make plays with the ball in their hands. The options in play for punt returners should be the same here. It would be great to have a niche player here that has a talent for navigating gunners and open avenues on kick returns. Best case scenario would be anything resembling Duke Johnson the returner, who averaged an incredible 31.4 yards per return during his time at Miami. Look for Jaylan Knighton to take his best shot at cementing a role here and in the punt return game with his ability to create creases and corners, his display of body control and ability to change direction.
Bonus: Kick/Punt Coverage
With the likes of Jimmy Murphy, Shaq Quaterman and Robert Knowles moving on, the special teams unit will be in need of leadership on the coverage units. Look for Amari Carter to take on a larger role on special teams and for the returning slew of linebackers to be tasked with roles here as well to provide further upperclassmen leadership.
Miami ranked dead Last within the Coastal (92nd nationally) in Special Teams Ratings (SFEI) according to Football Outsiders. For a team that lost 3 games by less than a touchdown, 5 by one score and 7 total by 2 scores, special teams must have a stronger showing overall in 2020.