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State Of The U: A pre-season primer on the immediate future of the ‘Canes

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The 2020 Miami football roster is a Manny Diaz creation, it will be even more so by 2021.

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes struggled greatly in 2019 closing out with three consecutive losses to FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech, and the firing of almost the entire offensive staff. Manny Diaz attacked the transfer portal before the 2019 season, and was back to the portal again this off-season but was more calculated in his acquisition.

After a 6-7 disaster of a season, Diaz and his staff pulled off the 27th ranked signing class per 247 Sports. Miami’s season really fluctuated after a close loss to Florida in the opener, Miami lost to a 7-6 UNC Tar Heels squad on the road after giving up a 4th and 17. Miami handled FCS Bethune Cookman before struggling with Central Michigan at home.

The offense attempted a late comeback against the Virginia Tech Hokies but came up short at Hard Rock Stadium. Miami then knocked off UVA at home, lost to a lowly Georgia Tech squat in overtime, but ran off three consecutive victories. The ‘Canes beat Pitt and FSU on the road before dominating Louisville with a 52-27 offensive explosion.

The ‘Canes then reverted right back to sub .500 by losing to FIU at Marlins Park, Duke in Durham, and Louisiana Tech at the Walk On’s Independence Bowl. Miami finished the 2019 season ranked 33rd overall by Bill Connelly’s SP+ metrics. The ‘Canes offense finished the season ranked 81st, the defense 9th and the kicking game 94th. Compare that to 2018 where Miami finished ranked 27th overall, 66th on offense, 14th on defense, and 97th in kicking.

Heading into 2020, Connelly’s SP+ ranks Miami a pre-season 23rd overall. SP+ projects King and Lashlee to improve Miami’s offense up to 63rd from 81st, and the defense is projected to finish 9th again.

The coaching staff

Miami Hurricanes football practice Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Miami coaching staff is entirely of Manny Diaz’s hiring for the 2020 season. His defensive staff has stayed in tact with Blake Baker as DC and linebackers coach, Jonathan Patke coaching strikers and the kicking game, Todd Stroud coaching the defensive line, Mike Rumph coaching cornerbacks and Ephraim Banda working with the safeties.

The offensive staff is almost entirely new from 2019, with a lone holdover in Stephen Field. Before Dan Enos brought in his crew for ‘19, Diaz had let go of every member of Mark Richt’s 2018 offensive staff. Rhett Lashlee is the new OC/QB coach, Eric Hickson is coaching running backs, Garin Justice the offensive line, Rob Likens is coaching wide receivers, and Field remains with the TE’s.

Before ‘19 Diaz also brought in a new strength and conditioning coach in David Feeley. Feeley, whom Diaz brought in from Temple, returns for 2020.

Personnel

The Miami Hurricanes roster is almost entirely a Manny Diaz creation. As the former Defensive Coordinator, Diaz was responsible for the recruitment, selection and retention of the defensive side of the football. Some of Diaz’s best defensive production came when Al Golden’s players were still on the ‘Canes roster. The defense is now entirely a Diaz creation, as he has been the DC or head coach since 2016, and because Scott Patchan has left the program.

Diaz has hit the transfer portal hard and even the specialists are completely new from the Mark Richt era.


The Offense, 2019 SP+ 81st

Quarterbacks

Miami Hurricanes football practice Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Four of the five quarterbacks on the roster are Manny Diaz guys. The lone holdover from the Mark Richt era is N’Kosi Perry. Perry, entering his redshirt junior season, could potentially return for 2021 or seek another opportunity elsewhere. Diaz will rely on grad transfer D’Eriq King who comes to Miami from the AAC’s Houston Cougars.

After King leaves, the 2021 QB race is wide open. Miami’s roster will have Tate Martell, Payton Matocha, Tyler Van Dyke, possibly Perry, and an incoming freshman (at least we hope). King brings a ton of hype to Miami after 50 touchdown performance in 2018. King chose to leave Houston after playing in four games for the Cougs in ‘19, and redshirted the rest of the season.

Martell the Ohio State transfer hasn’t backed up his five-star “QB1” billing either at OSU or Miami. Matocha and Van Dyke are still young freshmen. Miami is following in the Oklahoma and OSU footsteps in bringing in a transfer QB hoping it will spark the offense.

King played well against P5 opponents in ‘19, scoring three times against Oklahoma and Washington State last year, while not throwing an interception in either game. In 2018, King lit up P5 programs Arizona and Texas Tech with six touchdowns in each game, while not throwing an interception in either game.

Running Backs

Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Miami Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Returning running backs Cam’ron Harris and Robert Burns are from the Mark Richt era. Both could return for the ‘21 season as they’re a junior and redshirt junior, respectively. Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney are true freshmen and Diaz era players. Harris ran for 576 yards and five touchdowns with another receiving touchdown in ‘19, while Burns caught one touchdown of his own.

Knighton and Chaney are highly regarded freshmen backs that will be hard to keep off the field in 2020. They’ll be expected to share the load of 2021 moving forward as it’s hard to imagine Harris returning for his senior season when so few RB’s do.

Wide Receivers

Mike Harley, Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins, the three expected starting WR’s, are Richt era players. Harley is a senior while Pope and Wiggins could potentially return for ‘21. Diaz’s staffs have brought in the other five receivers. Jeremiah Payton is expected to get a lot of playing time outside, while the freshmen (Xavier Restrepo, Michael Redding III, Dazalin Worsham, and Keyshawn Smith) will have to learn and grow but could be vital to the success of Lashlee’s hurry up no huddle model.

Wiggins is the deep ball threat of the Richt trio having averaged 16.8 yards per catch and scoring four times. Harley averaged 12.8 yards per catch and scored three times. Pope, in limited duty, averaged 14.8 yards per catch a year ago.

Tight Ends

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory are Richt era recruits while Larry Hodges and Dominic Mammarelli are Diaz players. Jordan and Mallory are expected to be the starter and next man in for 12 personnel sets. Jordan and Mallory are juniors but barring injury I cannot see Jordan back in 2021, he’s expected to be a 1st round NFL Draft choice in ‘21. In ‘19, Jordan caught 35 balls for 495 yards and two scores but with the bad QB play and play calling wasn’t able to shine to his ability. Mallory was explosive when he wasn’t suffering the drops. Mallory averaged 18.3 yards per catch from the tight end position.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is the most maligned position on the ‘Canes, coming in before even the QB position. Miami has attempted a variety of methods to bolster the line from finding a new OL coach, to pulling Issiah Walker back from the Florida Gators, to signing a JUCO talent in Ousman Traore, to shuffling positions and possibly adding grad transfer Jarrid Williams also from Houston.

Half of the offensive linemen on the roster are Manny Diaz era players. The other seven are Richt guys. Those Richt guys are Cleveland Reed, Navaughn Donaldson, Kai-Leon Herbert, Corey Gaynor, John Campbell, DJ Scaife, and Zalon’Tae Hillery. The Diaz guys are Jakai Clark, Zion Nelson, true freshman Jalen Rivers, Traore, Chris Washington, and Adam ElGammal.

If Miami does land Williams, he could potentially be pushed to move from right tackle to left tackle with Miami desperately needing improvement from Nelson’s performance in ‘19. That wasn’t Nelson’s fault, an undersized and unheralded true freshman shouldn’t have had to start against the Gators or any ACC defensive ends that soon.

Every offensive lineman could potentially return in ‘21 except for Donaldson, the lone senior. Donaldson, however, has been injured, and could potentially redshirt in 2020.


The Defense, 2019 SP+ 9th

Georgia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The defensive personnel is 100% Diaz players. As DC and now head coach he had the pick of the players on the defensive side of the football. The lack of depth at inside linebacker, the question marks at cornerback and the yet unrealized ‘potential’ of Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall- those are Diaz players and problems.

Defensive Line

I would assume that Greg Rousseau will leave for the NFL Draft if he has even an average season in 2020. Rousseau logged 19.5 TFL and 15.5 sacks in ‘19. He’s a potential day 1 NFL Draft selection in ‘21. He’s a clear starter and will be joined by Quincy Roche, the Temple transfer, who is a senior. Roche and Rousseau make a formidable group on the edges. Roche put up great numbers in 2019 but half of his production came in two games against USF and Tulane. The starting duo is backed up by UCLA transfer and redshirt junior Jaelan Phillips, and young guys in Jahfari Harvey and Cameron and Chantz Williams.

Central Michigan v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

At defensive tackle there’s senior Jon Ford. Ford has seen a lot of playing time at Miami but has been hit or miss. The majority of the defensive line should return for ‘21, but guys like Nesta Silvera and Jaelan Phillips are juniors and could potentially leave early to keep with the trend at The U. Silvera has a ton of talent but was injured a year ago. Jason Blissett and Jalar Holley are two young players that could have an impact in 2020.

Linebacker

The lone senior linebacker at Miami for the 2020 season is Zach McCloud. McCloud moves from outside to inside linebacker after redshirting in ‘19. He’s joined by redshirt juniors Waymon Steed and Bradley Jennings Jr- neither of which have done much to leave early for the ‘21 Draft. The LB corps has a ton of potential but so far it’s untapped.

Sam Brooks, Patrick Joyner, and Avery Huff return from a year ago and true freshmen Tarik Austin-Cave and Corey Flagg are new to the program. The biggest question mark is who will start alongside McCloud who seem to have been anointed as the starter at MIKE.

Gilbert Frierson and Keontra Smith are the two Strikers on the roster. Frierson is a redshirt sophomore and Smith is a true sophomore. Frierson hasn’t done enough to prove he’s the guy at Striker, but Miami also used a true nickel package quite a bit in ‘18 and ‘19.

Defensive Back

Virginia v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The defensive backs have experience mixed in with their youthful proteges. Safety Amari Carter is a senior, and he’s joined by juniors Bubba Bolden and Gurvan Hall. Hopefully Keshawn Washington, a freshman, doesn’t need playing time at safety but can contribute on special teams or in blowouts against Wagner, UAB, and potentially another team. So far this group has been all potential and little production. Carter has never stayed in the starting lineup and Bolden transferred and then got injured celebrating. Hall has been hit or miss but did have 66 tackles in ‘19.

Cornerbacks Al Blades Jr and DJ Ivey (3 interceptions) are juniors while while Te’Cory Couch and Christian Williams are sophomores. Blades has the potential (6 passes defensed, 2 interceptions) to be a true star at Miami while Ivey’s focus has lacked at times. Ivey gave up the fake punt to Georgia Tech which seemed like a mix of coaching and allowing poor discipline.

Couch and Williams are highly regarded young players at cornerback. The entire defensive backfield should return, outside of Carter, for ‘21 but that dedication remains to be seen at Miami versus somewhere like Clemson.

The specialists, 2019 SP+ 94th.

Placekicker Jose Borregales and Punter Lou Hedley are both Diaz guys. Borregales, the transfer from FIU, is a redshirt senior while Hedley is a redshirt junior. If Hedley has another great season hunting I doubt he returns for 2021. Miami might be stuck trying to find a kicker and punter once again heading into an opener against Alabama in ‘21. The ‘Canes will have to replace KJ Osborn who took over on punt returns and did a fantastic job, and find a replacement for both Osborn and Jeff Thomas on kickoff returns.


Recruiting

Tulane v Temple Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes have done a solid job of recruiting, by staying mostly inside of the top-25 of the college football recruiting world, per 247 Sports. The preliminary efforts for the class of 2021 is a 14th ranking. The 2020 class rated 13th after the 6-7 season, which is quite the boon considering how poorly the year ended.

Miami’s 2019 recruiting class, Diaz’s first after the quick layover in Philly as head coach at Temple, was rated 27th. The 2018 class, Mark Richt’s last, was ranked 8th. However, Miami has only signed one five-star prospect since Chad Thomas back in 2014. That five-star prospect was current Florida Gator running back Lorenzo Lingard.

Miami has added former five-star prospects in Tate Martell and Jaelan Phillips, but while Martell played sparingly in ‘19, Phillips redshirted. The Hurricanes came away with a “trade” by getting four-star tackle Issiah Walker to transfer over from Florida. Miami also landed Roche and Borregales in the Transfer Portal.


The Schedule

Miami kicks off the 2020 season with a home game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL against the Temple Owls on September 5th. The ‘Canes then face FCS team Wagner before hosting the UAB Blazers on a Thursday night game on Sept. 17th. Miami s a clear favorite in the first three games of the season.

The ‘Canes then head to East Lansing, MI to face the Michigan State Spartans on Sept. 26th. MSU has a new head football coach and if they can keep continuity on defense while improving their offense the Spartans will be a hard out for Miami on the road. The ‘Canes then return home to face Pitt, who has given Miami fits over the past few seasons. Pitt has a bad but improving offense and a top 25 defense every season.

Miami then hits the road to face Wake Forest on Oct. 9th before their off week on Oct. 17th. The ‘Canes then host the UNC Tar Heels, who in the pre-season are a favorite over Miami. Miami heads to Charlottesville, VA on Oct. 31st to take on the Cavaliers who have also been a tough out for Miami recently.

In November, Miami hosts rival Florida State on the 7th and their new coach Mike Norvell. FSU has talent but the offensive line is still a giant question mark for the ‘Noles. Two road games for The U follow the FSU game with trips to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech, and then Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. Both teams knocked off Miami in ‘19. The regular season the ends with a Nov. 28th game against the Duke Blue Devils.

Prediction: 8-4.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Bethune-Cookman at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images