One of the most obvious deficiencies in last year’s 6-7 season was Miami’s offensive line - 51 sacks (3rd most nationally) and 140 QB pressures (2nd worst in NCAA) allowed, and a struggling run block that averaged 118.1 yards per game (120th out of 130 teams). But a significant reason as to why this unit had its struggles is because players with limited experience were being thrown into the mix. In particular, last season, Zion Nelson started all 13 games at left tackle as a true freshman, Jakai Clark got 12 starts at right guard, also a true freshman, and Redshirt freshman, John Campbell Jr., started twice and played in 11 games.
In order to address the woes, Miami landed a big offseason target in 2020 commit, Jalen Rivers. And while it’s not ideal to throw a ton of youth right into the fire, as evident by last season’s issues, Rivers appears more than ready to handle the assignment, if needed, and is actually eager for the prospect of play.
“It’s good to see that they give young guys opportunities,” Rivers said regarding his partiality towards Miami. “That’s one of the reasons why I want to go there.”
Similarly, early in Rivers’ recruiting process, he liked how the program played a pair of true freshman, Navaughn Donaldson and Corey Gaynor. But, at this point, Rivers appears to be doing all the right things to make a smooth transition to the collegiate level.
Rivers’s Recruiting Ride
Rivers hails from Orange Park (Fla.) Oakleaf High School, which is located in the Jacksonville area. And if the high school sounds familiar to Canes’ fans, there is good reason why. Oakleaf has produced three Under Armour All-Americans who all enrolled at the U. Those three players are Shaquille Quarterman, DE Chantz Williams (2020 commit), and Rivers.
Although there were many suitors, Miami consistently had the inside track on landing Rivers, who was the 50th overall ranked 2020 recruit according to ESPN300 and 128th ranked recruit according to 247Sports Composite.
Despite not committing until June 2019, Rivers remained interested in the U despite turnover at Miami’s Offensive Line Coach in back-to-back seasons when Stacy Searels and Butch Barry had to be replaced in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Rivers spoke highly of both Searels and Barry, but has begun working with new Offensive Line Coach, Garin Justice.
In 2018, it appeared the main competition with Miami in the Rivers’ sweepstakes were the in-state rivals as Rivers said, “Right now, Florida State, Florida, and Miami…It’s close to family, and good academics, and beautiful campuses, and great coaches.”
However, as February 2019 rolled around, Rivers and Chantz announced identical top fives - Georgia, Florida, Alabama, FSU, and Miami. Thereafter, on June 9, 2019, Rivers committed to Miami.
Prior to Rivers’ arrival on campus, Rivers was constantly looking for ways to develop. Despite the fact that he is now a former OL Coach, Butch Barry played a large part in Rivers’ decision and the two were in contact as Rivers sought advice on ways to improve his game.
Even more, Rivers shut down his recruitment process and went south to enroll early at the U this past January, along with 12 other freshman. And while adjusting to college as a student-athlete can be a difficult one, Rivers has had at least one constant on a daily basis as he rooms with Chantz.
High School Career and Skillset
Rivers’ prowess on the Offensive Line was evident throughout his career at Oakleaf where he was featured at left tackle. And while the men in the trenches generally aren’t flaunted in the box scores, Rivers paved the way for current Virginia Tech RB, Keshawn King, who rushed for nearly 2,017 rushing yards and 31 TDs in his senior season.
While listed around 6’5”, 325lbs, Rivers moves quickly and with power as he is able to manhandle defensive lines and maintain position on passing plays, as well as smoothly drive his way into the second level of the defense with conviction during run options. To that point, he definitely excels at clearing lanes in the rushing game. Utilizing his 84.5-inch wingspan as is depicted in the below video, he shows immense promise at the point of attack and he can seal the crease to the inside or outside to open things up for the backfield. He also shows a strong propensity to continue his blocks downfield and looks to pick up assignments until the play is finished - a promising habit and attitude, especially for offensive lineman. Even though his height makes it clear he could project as an Offensive Tackle, the coaching staff has indicated he has the versatility to operate at any Guard or Tackle position.
“He’s playing tackle for us right now, but I don’t know really know where he’s going to end up,” offensive line coach Garin Justice told the media during recent practices. “I put him at guard in the spring so football would slow down for him. Sometimes as a freshman you put them on the edge right away and they can get a little overwhelmed. We had him working with the second group and I didn’t want him to get totally overwhelmed right away, but Jalen in a lot of ways is a guy who can play four positions at guard or tackle.”
In high school, Rivers landed a spot in the coveted Under Armour All-American Game. Even more, Rivers impressed many with his perfect score of 5.0 on the Tracking Football Player Athletic Index. Tracking Football is an evaluative tool utilized by various college football recruiting staffs, which measures a players’ overall athleticism. The Index’s database is currently nearing 100,000 participants, and some of the former Canes’ players to score a perfect 5.0 include Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, and Greg Olsen.
As for football drills, Rivers completed the short shuttle in 5.09, the 40-yard dash in 5.67, and registered a 21-inch vertical jump at the Orlando Opening Regional. In addition, Rivers shined in the shot put competition in high school, where he won the 2019 Class 4A FHSAA state championship after heaving the shot put 54’4”.
His work ethic and aspirations to grow as a player has certainly not gone unnoticed, even in early practices:
“He is continuing to progress,” Justice said. “He is a very conscientious guy. He tries to do everything right, which being such a perfectionist it can sometimes hinder his growth, but he’s also the same type of guy that if you coach it he’s going to do everything in his ability to make sure he does it exactly the way you’re coaching it. He’s going to be a really, really good football player here and we’re excited about his future.”
Expectations for 2020
When Rivers enrolled early this past winter, he was one of only two offensive lineman in Miami’s class along with three-star recruit, Chris Washington. However, Freshman OL, Issiah Walker, Jr., technically transferred from Florida in May - because he enrolled there early - but was also a highly touted 2020 recruit (157th ranked recruit according to 247Sports Composite). And then graduate transfer OT, Jarrid Williams, transferred from Houston in June.
Soon after Williams’ arrival, the Canes’ most seasoned offensive lineman and Senior, Navaughn Donaldson, opted to redshirt for this upcoming season. As evidenced by these players recent decisions’, there has been significant movement among the offensive line unit as the season approaches, which makes it unclear who Justice will utilize across the formation in just a few short weeks. Due to Rivers’ imposing size, versatility, and eagerness to play right away, he could be used similar to Donaldson, who has played guard and tackle at the college level and got ample playing time his freshman year. His athleticism would certainly be a plus for the spread offense.
At this point in the first few practices, Rivers has been mostly employed at Tackle on the second team with sophomore John Campbell, Williams, and junior Kai-Leon Herbert, even though Rivers played at Left Guard during the four spring practices. How Justice decides to fill in his offensive line could depend on Walker’s status, which is contingent on receiving a waiver. Regardless, Justice likes the idea of Rivers as a ‘thumper’-type lineman.
“Jalen’s a bigger body than Issiah, he’s more of a thumper in that he’s got more in his legs, he’s thicker in his legs,” Justice told the media after a recent practice. “He’s a bigger-mass guy so Issiah is probably quicker of foot, but Jalen is going to be better at holding the point, holding the anchor, moving guys from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ so they have different skill sets. That’s why we played Jalen a little bit at guard.”
Garin Justice said Jalen Rivers is "more of a thumper" than Issiah Walker. That's why Rivers played guard in spring. He says Rivers can play all four positions at guard or tackle.— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) August 9, 2020
If Rivers does not start right away, it may help him fine tune his frame as he is trying to cut his weight down to 315lbs (from 330), while still adding muscle. Another benefit of easing Rivers in is that he has a good shot to be the next man up at any of the Guard or Tackle position.
Despite not being around the team or playing for the Canes yet, Rivers already appears to have a chip on his shoulder after last year’s poor season for the program. To that end, when he enrolled at Miami, he made it clear to reporters that he’s ready to block out the haters and put in the grunt work necessary to make Miami a winning program again.
“Our mentality is to come in, block out the negativity,” Rivers said after enrolling early. “Miami has a lot of people in their ear, and the fans and all that will say some nasty stuff, other people will say some nasty stuff. Just try to block that out, come in with a great attitude, work and get better and give ourselves that opportunity that’s provided to us and go run with that.”
In order to eradicate the issues as a whole, improvements on the Offensive Line are needed. With Rivers leading the charge as a new addition, Miami should be in a good position to make those strides in 2020 and beyond.