When the Canes walked off the field in Shreveport the day after Christmas with the scoreboard reading “Louisiana Tech 14, Miami 0”, I honestly wondered if we had hit our program’s lowest point since its meteoric rise in the 1980s. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t deny it. Visions of Mark D’Onofrio’s safeties dropping 25 yards back against Georgia Tech mixed with a halfback heave-ho in the El Paso snow. The hand-to-cheek, 100-mile stares of UM fans caught on camera as Clemson players jogged to the Hard Rock Stadium locker room up 42-0 in 2015.
And yet, somehow, it felt like we had just crashed through those floors and settled into the silt of a new all-time low. Shutout by Louisiana Tech to put the cherry on top of a bleep sundae made of FIU with a little Duke and Georgia Tech sprinkled in. How could we have gotten to such a low?
As such, I get the yeah-well-I’ll-wait-for-them-to-make-me-a-believer-again approach. No one wants to end up on the back of their bald head yet again after Lucy yanks the football away for the umpteenth time since the final gun fired at the 2004 Orange Bowl.
That all being said, something feels different about this year. And it’s taken a little bit of time to get to this feeling. It’s been a wait-and-see approach and some reflection on what’s happened. And there have been some undeniably positive developments that we haven’t seen in recent years.
Yeah, I know, I know. I can already hear your fingers angrily pounding out cynicism on your keyboards as you thumb through this article. And that’s perfectly fine. 2019 was an absolute kick in the teeth to every Canes fan, from the cockeyed optimist to the most guarded skeptic. It was supposed to be different, too, with a new attitude, a new offensive system led by a supposed genius and quarterback guru, and some serious sizzle from a stable of playmaking skill position players, both experienced and upcoming. Instead, it was a perfect storm of failure.
That all being said, there are five important factors that could align for a 2020 season to finally be a successful one.
Look, we talked last year about the navigability of the 2019 slate, and its relative ease (or what should have been) further exacerbates the pain of finishing with a losing mark. 2020 doesn’t really look any more challenging on paper. However, where 2019 and 2020 differ is the layout over the first half of the season. We knew that the offensive line question marks following the 2018 season were left almost completely unanswered, and facing a team with the pass rushers of Florida was a tall task for a group learning to play together, along with a green quarterback making his first career start.
This year, the schedule features an opener against Temple, followed by Wagner, UAB, then a road trip to Michigan State and new head coach Mel Tucker before Pittsburgh at home and then hitting the stride of its ACC schedule. I have little room to call ANY game or opponent easy after laying more eggs than a goose last year, but that, my friends, is as favorable a slate to ease in a new quarterback and offensive playcaller and build overall confidence and momentum as it gets.
This might have been higher, if not for the coups pulled off by Manny Diaz and Garin Justice in the past month on the recruiting trail and transfer portal on the offensive line. One of the more haunting images (at least for me) from the 2019 season was watching Jose Borregales celebrate kick after kick against UM last year. The 29-yarder opened the scoring. The 50-yarder pushed an incredulous score to 13-0 at the half. The 53-yarder just left you screaming obscenities at your TV (if not already done). We know awful luck with opposing kickers (not from Tallahassee) has been a hallmark of ongoing disappointments the last few years, but this kid was playing in another universe that night.
And now he’s one of us. The transfer will fill the shoes of Bubba Baxa, who transferred to Houston and hopefully to greener pastures for both sides, and he should fill them very nicely. For his career, Borregales has made 50 of 66 kicks (75.8%) and 131 of 134 extra points (97.8%). He made 21-29 kicks in 2019, including 5-6 from 40-49 yards and 3-4 from 50+. If Miami had that kind of production last season, they possibly win three more games (almost certainly Georgia Tech and North Carolina and potentially Florida). That’s obviously a huge difference for one player to make. If there’s a crucial kick in a close game in 2020, I’ll feel much more confident about the result.
And the kicking position will hopefully be locked down by the Kickin’ Borregaleses over the next five seasons, as his brother Andres is the nation’s #1 kicker and a Canes 2021 commit.
Dan Enos’ shortcomings were best highlighted by one sad image late in a rainy game at Duke. As the precipitation poured down, Enos struggled to keep his unlaminated play sheet from folding like a wet Kleenex. And it was an appropriate metaphor for both Miami’s sad season and the expectations for Enos coming into 2019. We all remember and reveled in he “Where’s Dan?!” meme that came about from Enos’ supposedly clandestine escape to Coral Gables from Tuscaloosa. Well, as it turns out, Enos was more of a cog in the Alabama football machine rather than a quarterback whisperer and offensive mastermind capable of standing on his own, akin to New England assistant coaches who went out on their own and ultimately flopped after leaving the Pats. Enos just never could (or would) figure out how to get the most out of what talent he had, instead trying to make the talent he had fit his system.
Yet, despite The New Miami blowing up in his face, Manny Diaz did something that others before him hadn’t: he moved quickly to fix his mistake. And he hired a young, innovative coach in Rhett Lashlee who helped turn an SMU offense into a human version of NCAA 2014 on easy mode. In his first year in Dallas, his offense finished 27th nationally, then took a leap in 2019, finishing 7th in scoring (41.8 ppg), 13th in passing (309 ypg), and 9th in total yards (489.8 ypg). His offense did that with what had statistically been just a decent quarterback in Shane Buechele. He’ll have an even better QB in D’Eriq King, with the best tight end in the ACC, the two best young freshman tailbacks in the state of Florida, and a bevy of young wideouts with a lot of juice. If you want specifics as to his schemes, check out Justin Dottavio’s excellent breakdown of Lashlee’s offense.
But it might actually be Justice who has been the most impressive coach so far this offseason. Having already landed commitments from south Florida OL recruits Ryan Rodriguez and Michael McLaughlin, he helped land two of the biggest fish in the transfer pool in offensive tackles Issiah Walker from Florida and Jarrid Williams from Houston. If he can help Miami’s stable of young lineman find their proper positions and start to improve week to week - something Butch Barry could not do, then this could be the coup of hires this offseason.
2. Offensive tackles
Some say the most important position on the football field next to quarterback is a good left tackle, and Miami might have just landed two solid candidates in less than a month that could pay dividends in 2020 (and beyond). Miami was never able to find a combination of its young linemen that gelled into a respectable group in 2019, but the 2020 version will now have an experienced tackle in Williams to help provide some stability and productivity at one of the tackle spots. Williams started 13 games in 2018 with Houston at right tackle and the first four games of 2019 before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
He gets his hands on his man, turns his shoulders, and finishes strong by slamming his man on the ground. Jarrid Williams is a stud pic.twitter.com/2X2WHXy2O8— Joe Broback (@joebroback) March 4, 2019
Whether he assumes the right tackle spot he held in Houston could depend on whether Walker is granted a waiver by the NCAA to play in 2020, and hopefully the chaos of the pandemic and returning home to family will help that request be granted. If Walker and Williams both are available in 2020, you have to love Walker’s chance to win the left tackle spot, and it doesn’t take much to understand why. Just watch him move guys like Quinton Aaron did to that mouthy defensive end in The Blind Side....
Having two solid tackles makes the options even greater in finding the best starting trio on the inside. That being said, if Navaughn Donaldson is healthy and ready, he and Corey Gaynor seem like they would claim the left guard and center spots, with Jakai Clark and D.J. Scaife in a fight for the right guard spot. Also, if Walker has to sit out 2020, Williams could potentially play either tackle spot, with John Campbell, Zion Nelson, and maybe Scaife fighting it out for the other one. But, honestly, at this point, anything could seemingly happen, as Justice is still trying to find the best combination.
Hurricanes O-line coach Garin Justice on Zoom today: “When you’re coaching the offensive line, it’s like you’re trying to fix a beat up car. And right now we’re trying to fix the engine.”@NBC6Sports pic.twitter.com/YZiwInEysm— Ruthie Polinsky (@ruthiepolinsky) April 3, 2020
1. D’Eriq King
Although I can’t find an official stat, I would wager it’s been a long time since Miami has had a quarterback as a top five Heisman trophy candidate among the betting sites like King is currently listed. And while that doesn’t mean anything come September, it does reflect that Miami picked up the best quarterback available - via recruiting or the transfer portal - for the 2020 season. Look, the Tate Martell hype last offseason was out of this world, and turned out to be one of the biggest letdowns in years. Martell’s very limited tape at Ohio State and high school pedigree projected a standout ability. Projected, being the key word. King has already proven he can play at a high ability at this level.
In his last full season (2018), King completed 219 of 345 passes (63.5%) for 2982 yards, 36 TDs, and 6 interceptions, good for a 167 passer rating. He also ran for 674 yards and 14 TDs. 50 total touchdowns in 2018 and 78 for his career, y’all. He could play a probably a quarter of the 2020 season and still surpass Joe Burrow’s career touchdown mark of 91 touchdowns. He also set the FBS record for most consecutive games with at least one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown with 15, a record he will carry into the season opener against Temple. That’s production, kiddos.
Now, think about what Lashlee did with Buechele in 2019. After struggling in Austin, Buechele was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country last year, stuffing the stat line to the tune of 307/490, 3929 yards, 34 TDs, 10 INTs, 148.8 rating, 105 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs. That’s an absolutely insane step up in production for a guy who was just ok in his prior stop.
With King’s dual-threat prowess and steady arm, he should be a nightmare in RPO situations and give Lashlee numberous play action and rollout options in the playbook. I can’t wait to see how he utilizes King’s skills and hopefully turns him into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country.