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Miami Hurricanes 2020 Position Preview: Wide Receivers

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With a New Spread Offense there is Plenty of Opportunity for Success in the Canes’ WR Group, but which one(s) will Breakout?

Get ready for fast and furious as new prolific Miami receivers coach takes the helm Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Despite having a rich history of wide receivers (Andre Johnson, Michael Irvin II, Reggie Wayne, Leonard Hankerson, Randall Thrill Hill, Santana Moss) and consistently producing NFL talent at the position (recent/active NFL products include Allen Hurns, Phillip Dorsett, Travis Benjamin Braxton Berrios, K.J. Osborn, and Jeff Thomas), this year’s crop of Miami wideouts is relatively unheralded. With that being said, and due to alterations across the offensive front, there is plenty of opportunity for the current cast of characters to make names for themselves. And with the positive changes, the prospect of a wide receiver - or two - breaking out is absolutely on the horizon.

Snapshot of Roster and Personnel:

Key Returnees: Dee Wiggins, Mike Harley, Mark Pope, Jeremiah Payton, Marshall Few
Newcomers: (All incoming Freshman) Michael Redding III, Keyshawn Smith, Xavier Restrepo, Dazalin Worsham
Key Departures: KJ Osborn (NFL - 6th Round Pick), Jeff Thomas (NFL - Undrafted) Brian Hightower (Transfer)
Coaching Additions: Rhett Lashlee (Offensive Coordinator) and Rob Likens (WR Coach)
Coaching Departures: Dan Enos (OC) and Taylor Stubblefield (WR)

As a general overview, this offense and its distribution to receivers should look completely different than last year. And considering this is a team that was shut out in their bowl game to Louisiana Tech and only had one receiver amass more than 40 receptions during the season, the new look is much needed.

Factors Surrounding the Wide Receivers:

The coaching staff and style of offense will be the biggest new look on the field. Namely, new Offensive Coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, introduces the spread offense to Miami. And it is about time they make this transition.

The uptempo spread formation is designed to benefit speedsters, and as indicated below, there is quite the speed component in Miami’s group. In addition, as its name indicates, the offensive concept is meant to distribute (or spread) the ball to many targets by lining up several receivers while the dual-threat QB is in a shotgun formation. Again, this will benefit a Canes WR group that does not necessarily have a clear cut star, but may have a wealth of quality options.

Miami fired their previous OC, Dan Enos, after the Louisiana Tech Bowl Game. They now bring in former SMU Coach, Lashlee, who has been incredibly effective at getting the most out of his receivers by assimilating them into the offense. The most recent example of this is Baltimore Ravens rookie WR, James Proche. The fun to watch slot receiver with reliable hands, Proche, was the highlight of the SMU offense by collecting 93 receptions and 111 receptions in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, respectively.

For a direct comparison of Lashlee’s impact, Proche only garnered 40 receptions in 2017 and 57 receptions in 2016, the years prior to Lashlee’s SMU arrival. Before SMU, Lashlee coached at UConn for a year, but also had a stint with Auburn between 2013-2016 as OC/QB Coach. In that timeframe, Lashlee coached four WRs who ultimately ended up in the NFL: Darius Slayton, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray, and Sammie Coates. Prior to 2015, when Coates was drafted, Auburn had not had a WR drafted to the NFL since 2007.

In addition to Lashlee, new WR Coach and former Arizona State OC, Rob Likens, has also exhibited an ability to optimize his WRs. N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk were drafted in the first round of the 2019 and 2020 NFL drafts, respectively, out of ASU. Both Harry and Aiyuk displayed strengths as possession receivers. Notably, Aiyuk never dropped a deep pass of 20+ yards in his career at ASU. Miami could use someone who assists with limiting pass drops, an issue that was very prominent in 2018. Likens replaces Taylor Stubblefield who coached Miami for one year and now joins Penn State.

The big name receivers come with the territory of operating a successful offense. However, the ability to successfully distribute production is equally important, especially with Miami who has a deep, but young, wide receiving corps. This component should be no issue for Likens who is used to rotating many receivers and has played up to 10 receivers in a game.

In order for the spread attack to be effective and successful in an Air Raid system, it is important to have a dual-threat QB. That is exactly what Miami has picked up in D’Eriq King through the Transfer Portal. At Houston, King employed a similar concept to his coaching counterparts by relying heavily on a slot machine. Marquez Stevenson, King’s favorite target at Houston, has received the fourth most slot targets in the nation over the past two seasons. In 2019, Stevenson amassed 75 receptions for 1019 yards. While we’re on the topic of other non-WR players who should contribute to the WR corps’ likelihood of success, expect strong pass catching TE, Brevin Jordan, to assist as a key receiving target and the leading returning pass-catcher.

This Canes WR group appears speedy and slot heavy, which should be a match made in heaven for King and Lashlee who have recently relied on slot options in Proche and Stevenson, and Likens who successfully utilized speed demon, Aiyuk, for the Sun Devils last year.

Lashlee also told Brandon Marcello last month on 247Sports’ Social Distance series, “I’ll say this: One thing I did get watching the cut-ups of our individual players here and having those four practices we had (in the spring), we have speed, we have length and we have athleticism. We have some guys that if we can put them in the right position and help them maybe play to their strengths, hopefully, we can turn things around quicker than people think in some areas.”

Key Departures in the WR Unit:

While the on-the-field scapegoat was the offensive line during 2019, the WR corps’ failure to get open had to be a contributing factor to QBs’ lack of time in the pocket based on Miami’s abysmal 51 sacks allowed. This is especially true considering two of the players from the Canes’ 2019 receiving group are currently on NFL rosters - KJ Osborn (Minnesota Vikings) and Jeff Thomas (New England Patriots) - which indicates the group was talented.

Last year, Osborn led the team in receptions with 50 catches for 547 yards and 5 TDs. Osborn was known as the hard-working leader in the unit, but was not known as the most naturally gifted athlete, and his make-it attitude is likely what led to being drafted ahead of Thomas.

Thomas, on the other hand, only played in 10 games because he was suspended for two, but contributed 31 receptions for 379 yards and 3 TDs. Thomas is described as an electric athlete but lacked maturity, according to scouts, which resulted in his undrafted status. The Canes also lose Brian Hightower to transfer, who had 8 receptions for 88 yards, but was the 154th ranked overall recruit in the 2018 class.

These weapons were likely a reason why the 2020 WR class received fewer targets and is now relatively inexperienced, but there are several players who are on the cusp of breaking out.

Meet the 2020 WR Class:

Key Returnees:

When referring to Harley, Wiggins, Pope, and Payton, Likens stated they “all to me showed flashes of the type of guys that you want to have in this offense, that’s for sure.”

Mike Harley: (2019 Stats - 13 Games Played, 38 Receptions, 485 Yards, 3 TDs) Mike Harley was the most productive returning WR in 2019 as he heads into his Senior season. As mentioned above, it is very possible that a slot receiver ends up dominating in the spread offense this year, and Harley seems most capable of breaking out there.

The 5’11, 180lb slot target will also be looked on to replace Osborn as the leader of this group. When talking to reporters during this year’s spring practices about Harley, Likens said he “loves his leadership.” Likens also praised Harley’s experience.

As to his on the play capabilities, Likens likes how Harley is “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.” Harley also has the speed to match out of the blocks, which should assist on quick slant patterns. When hearing these leadership and on-field traits as a tough slot guy, Harley appears primed to take on a role similar to Braxton Berrios and Osborn.

Harley’s best game last year came against Louisville where he amassed 6 receptions, for 116 yards, and 2 TDs in a 52-27 blowout. In that game, Harley exhibited a strong YAC-ability, where he picked up an extra 15 yards on one of his TDs and another 28 extra yards on a quick slant where he separated across the middle of the field.

Daquiris “Dee” Wiggins: (2019 Stats - 12 Games Played, 20 Receptions, 335 Yards, 4 TDs) The next wideout with the potential to emerge as a big threat is junior, Dee Wiggins. The three-star product is listed at 6’3”, 195lbs and is another speedy target. While Wiggins did not put up eye-grabbing stats in 2019, he showed flashes of his skills in back-to-back weeks against Florida State and Louisville where he collected a combined 7 receptions, for 169 yards, and 3 TDs in those two contests. In those games, Wiggins had a 56-yard TD against FSU and a 67-yard TD against Louisville.

The Miami native is the most experienced biggest WR target so could be a good red-zone weapon. Add in the speed dynamic and Wiggins should be the lead candidate King will use to throw the ball deep and take the top off the defense.

Mark Pope: (2019 Stats - 12 Games Played, 18 Receptions, 266 Yards, 2 TDs) Former five-star recruit, Mark Pope, stands at 6’1”, 172lbs. The Junior should be the other lead candidate that has an opportunity to thrive.

When referring to Pope, Likens told reporters Pope “Is the kind of guy I really like — the 6-footish-type guys somewhere around the 180 realm. I’ve had success with those guys in my past because they really have good lateral moment. Even though they may not be the 6-4, 6-3 body frame, they’re able to get off press coverage.”

Likens is likely referring to the success he had with Harry and Aiyuk at ASU. Due to Pope’s natural talent and physical gifts, he could theoretically line up inside or outside. In addition, Likens plans to keep the playbook simple, which should help Pope, who has been rumored to have difficulty adjusting to the college playbook.

Regardless, Pope has been underwhelming thus far at the college level, as his biggest game last season came against Bethune-Cookman where he recorded 3 catches for 92 yards. Pope was also high school teammates with Wiggins.

This is a huge chance for Pope to seize the opportunity and realize his potential on the field as one of the few returning WRs. According to Pope’s offseason workout videos, he may be ready to take the leap. However, if he comes out flat in four and five-receiver sets, then the coaches may begin to assimilate the freshman options into the mix.

Jeremiah Payton: (2019 Stats - 4 Games Played, 1 Reception, 23 Yards) The next quality returning player is Jeremiah Payton, who retained his eligibility by redshirting as a true freshman in 2019. Payton is listed at 6’1”, 195lbs and exhibits strengths as a capable route-runner as a long, rangy target with good ball skills. During the offseason, Payton focused on gaining weight. At this point, Payton is looking to break into the starting rotation but should expect significant reps in 5-receiver sets.

Marshall Few: (2019 Stats - Played in 11 games, largely on Special Teams) Marshall Few is entering his Junior season. The former walk-on ended up earning a scholarship but should mainly contribute on special teams.

Incoming Freshman:

In this group, any of the receivers could redshirt, so the expectations for this group in 2020 are relatively tempered. However, one or two may emerge as suitable benefactors of the WR-friendly spread system.

Michael Redding III: Redding is the most highly-touted recruit as he comes in as 179th overall nationally, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. The 6’1”, 191lb WR has a bright future ahead of him as a player with excellent skills in contested routes. Redding missed the spring practices due to a wrist injury.

Keyshawn Smith: Smith is a three-star product who joined Miami late in the recruiting process. Smith hails from California and decommitted from Washington State the same day he committed to the U. With his speed, the 6’0”, 170lb receiver has the capability to break plays open on deep patterns or simple screen passes.

Xavier Restrepo: At 5’10”, 190lbs, Restrepo is another slot-running target who could be utilized if he does not opt to redshirt. The Deerfield Beach product displayed an ability to get it done as a slot receiver and on Special Teams as a return man prior to enrolling early at the U. If he does not redshirt in 2020, his initial role could be in the punt return game. Restrepo has been highly praised as a young leader and tough competitor, which has resulted in comparisons to - you guessed it - Berrios.

Dazalin Worsham: Daz Worsham comes from Alabama and committed to the Crimson Tide early on in his high school process. Worsham is listed at 6’1”, 170lbs and shows some quickness and an ability to operate out of various routes with reliable hands.

Predictions:

The lead candidates to breakout are Harley and Wiggins, who should complement each other as a quality slot option and a long, deep target. Pope and Payton were both talented prospects and should have significant opportunities to be impact weapons. In the spread offense, there should be some contribution from the freshmen as well. On the flip side, due to the unknowns in this group, there is always the possibility that the WRs do not emerge and frustrate similar to 2019.

The experienced additions to this unit, Lashlee, Likens, and King, are all used to working with speedster and slot receivers. In the spread formation, this group should absolutely reap the benefits as the operators of the offense should feed off each other’s strengths. So long as mistakes and drops are limited, the speed in this group should thrive in this new-look system.

As mentioned with regards to the playbook, Likens appreciates the intuitiveness of the Air Raid concept as he told reporters “If you’re thinking, you’re stinking. We have got to get rid of that process where players are thinking so much and just let them play ball.” I’m optimistic the speedy targets should benefit from the simple schemes that optimize slot targets’ potential, especially with a relatively balanced group.

Projected Stats:

Harley: 65 receptions, 850 yards, 8 TDs
Wiggins: 35 receptions, 500 yards, 7 TDs
Pope: 45 receptions, 650 yards, 4 TDs
Payton: 30 receptions, 350 yards, 2 TDs
Restrepo: 8 receptions, 85 yards
Smith: 15 receptions, 150 yards
Redding III: Redshirt
Worsham: Redshirt

Go Canes.