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2020 Miami Hurricanes Position Review: Offensive Line

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The Offensive Line Improved From An Abysmal 2019, Especially In Pass Blocking, But Still Have A Lot Of Room For Improvement, Especially in Run Blocking

Florida v Miami

In 2019, the Miami Hurricanes offensive line played more comparable to a set of doors than a wall as they allowed 51 sacks on the season. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), last year’s offensive front was ranked 109th in run blocking and 110th in pass blocking as the Miami QB platoon was constantly under duress and the starting lineup allowed an unimpressive 140 pressures.

Even though the situation could only theoretically go up from the baseline mediocrity, there were a few other reasons to expect marked improvement in the offensive front in 2020. Namely, the Canes were returning a slew of experience, including all five 2019 starters. In addition, Miami welcomed transfer tackle, Jarrid Williams, as well as freshmen, Jalen Rivers, Chris Washington, and Issiah Walker Jr. (Walker was ineligible as he transferred from University of Florida).

From a personnel perspective, Miami hired OL coach, Garin Justice, and OC, Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee was expected to operate an uptempo spread offense, a formation that implements heavy-shotgun presence and quick QB reads - both of which would benefit the OL as it wears down defensive formations.

SEASON BREAKDOWN

Over the course of the season, Miami’s offensive trench did indeed make huge year-over-year leaps. However, there is still significant room for continued success as some stats did not paint a great overall picture for the Canes.

In particular, Miami allowed 30 sacks in their 11 games played, or 2.73 sacks per game. This ranked T-98th out of 124 NCAA teams as the unit gave up 190 opposing sack yards. For reference, in 2019, Miami ranked 127th out of 130 eligible teams as they allowed 4.25 sacks per game, so there was some progress. The Tackles for Loss Allowed is not great either as Miami allowed 7.91 TFL per game. The 87 TFLs, which resulted in 310 lost yards ranked 117th out of 124 teams.

As for the personnel, there was some shifting as the season went on. Before the season opener against UAB, the starters from left-to-right were listed as John Campbell, Ousman Traore, Corey Gaynor, DJ Scaife Jr., and Jarrid Williams. In that opener, Gaynor and Williams played all 82 offensive snaps, Campbell, Traore, and Scaife played 79 snaps, and Cleveland Reed Jr., Zion Nelson, and Jakai Clark were in relief duty for 3 snaps.

Midway through the season, the starters changed to Campbell OR Nelson, Clark, Gaynor, Scaife Jr., and Williams. Against Pittsburgh, Campbell and the remaining four starters played all 78 snaps. Finally, in the Cheez-It Bowl 2020 finale, Nelson, Clark, Gaynor, Scaife, and Williams played 81 snaps, while Redshirt Senior, Navaughn Donaldson, was also on the field for 2 snaps as he returned for the final few games while retaining his redshirt status. The most notable changes over the season were Campbell relinquishing the blind side tackle spot to Nelson, and Clark taking over LG for Traore.

Best Game for the OL

While Miami boasted a gaudy 337 rushing yards in the opener against UAB, the Canes OL held their own against a Duke DL that features two potential draft picks this April in Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimujeke. In the 48-0 win, Miami only allowed 1 sack, 6 TFLs, and also rushed for 220 yards to contribute to 524 total yards on the evening.

Worst Game for the OL

Clemson. This game was bad for everyone, including the offensive line. They didn’t play much better the following week against a stout Pitt defensive front - 26 total TFLs allowed in the two-week span.

Most Valuable Cane

Corey Gaynor, Center

While Gaynor has been a reliable fixture at a normally stat-less position, Center, the four-year veteran brought the intangibles by way of his leadership for an otherwise inexperienced OL. After a turbulent 2019 season, Gaynor was a soundboard for positivity and encouragement.

Gaynor made it a priority to put the poor 2019 season behind Miami’s OL. He worked on developing chemistry and timing with transfer QB, D’Eriq King. He also set the tone in the weight room amongst his peers on the front line.

As far as his play, Gaynor came out of the gates blazing en route to winning ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week Honors during opening week against UAB. The Miami backfield contributed 337 rushing yards and produced 495 total yards in the 31-14 win over UAB. King ended up with the best PFF grade for the Canes against UAB while Gaynor also paved the way for RBs, Jaylan Knighton and Cam’Ron Harris, who had the 2nd and 4th best PFF grades, respectively, in that game. Gaynor continued the strong play throughout the season as the season progressed as he maintained the highest run-blocking grade amongst the offensive lineman.

Most Improved Cane

Zion Nelson, Left Tackle

The road for Zion was tough in 2019 but he was able to make a significant leap in 2020. As a true freshman in 2019, Nelson was thrown directly into the fire as he started the season opener at the QB’s blindside against a University of Florida DE duo that featured Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, both of whom were drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. In that game, Nelson finished with a PFF pass-blocking grade of 1.4 (out of 100). He did develop as the season progressed as PFF graded him a 73.9 in the game against FSU, but still had a ways to go.

Over the offseason, Nelson continued to fill out his frame in Coach Feeley’s Strength and Conditioning Program as he rocketed up to 312lbs (he clocked in at 240lbs in January 2019 upon joining Miami and was 285lbs by the start of the 2019 season). Zion’s more robust frame and athleticism resulted in more dependability at LT in Miami’s uptempo spread offense.

Nelson only played three snaps in the opener but ultimately took the starting job from Campbell. In doing so, he earned the best overall PFF grade amongst offensive lineman on the season with a 70.3 Even more, PFF credited Nelson for allowing just 12 pressures and three sacks during the 2020 campaign - a marked improvement from the 38 pressures and 12 sacks he allowed in 2019. While it is early, Nelson is already being projected as a potential first round pick in many 2022 NFL mock drafts. If the improvement continues, he, and the OL, should reap the benefits.

Honorable Mentions:

While I have selected MVP and MIP, there were another three standouts, and by process of elimination, you could probably guess they occupied the three other starting positions on the OL.

Jarrid Williams, Right Tackle:

The transfer RT completed the 2020 season with a 69.6 PFF Grade. Even though he was new to Miami, he had the most NCAA experience as he was entering his 6th season. As a transfer from Houston, the same school as King, the rapport with the QB paid dividends as he finished with a 79.3 pass-blocking PFF grade. Williams returns for a 7th year in 2021 in a final effort to attempt to boost his draft stock.

Jakai Clark, Left Guard:

Clark impressed on the interior at LG as he ended up taking the job from Traore. Similar to Zion, the second year player improved immensely and finished the season with a 60.2 PFF grade, which included a 77.5 pass-blocking mark.

DJ Scaife, Right Guard:

At the other interior position, RG, Scaife ended up with a 61.3 PFF Grade. In a similar theme, his pass-blocking grade was more impressive than run-blocking. Scaife enters his fourth year, but, as discussed below, the guard positions are not locked up.

OUTLOOK FOR NEXT YEAR

The #runitback campaign was unanimous across the board for the OL as all five starters return. The OL has not had the luxury of this much experience or depth in some time. Even though Miami returns all their personnel, that should not lead to the foregone assumption that these will be the starters or names on the depth chart in 2021.

END OF SEASON DEPTH CHART
LT
John Campbell (6-5, 310, R-So) OR Zion Nelson (6-5, 312, So.)
Navaughn Donaldson (6-6, 350, RSr.
LG
Jakai Clark (6-3, 320, So.)
Ousman Traore (6-3, 310, R-So.)
C
Corey Gaynor (6-4, 300, R-Jr.)
Cleveland Reed Jr. (6-3, 320, R-So.)
RG
DJ Scaife Jr. (6-3, 314, Jr.)
Jalen Rivers (6-5, 325, Fr.)
RT
Jarrid Williams (6-6, 308, R-Sr.)
Chris Washington (6-7, 300, Fr.)

In addition to the above, there is a slew of a depth. Namely, Jalen Rivers will be an incoming sophomore and should be expected to contend for playing time at either interior position. While the wings appear well-occupied with Nelson and Williams, Donaldson has immense experience at multiple positions as he comes off a redshirt season. He could shift inside due to his versatility. Gaynor should continue to be the main guy at Center.

As well as the starters and potential challengers, there is significant depth as an astounding 18 offensive lineman will contend for playing time or be able to answer the call in backup duty/injury insurance.

This includes Kai-Leon Herbert and Zalon’tae Hillery, who have college level experience, as well as Walker Jr. and Adam ElGammal, who will both be eligible for the 2021 season, and freshmen Laurence Seymore, Ryan Rodriguez, and Michael McLaughlin.

While the pass protection graded out well across the line, this unit needs to take the next step in delivering consistency in the run blocking attack. Miami will have a deep backfield led by Cam’Ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton, Don Chaney Jr., and Thad Franklin. However, the battles are won and lost in the trenches so the run game must be established at the point of attack, which was lacking last year.

In 2021, the Canes may finally be able to establish themselves as a solid OL after a few years of disappointment. OL Coach, Garin Justice, enters his second season given another full offseason to adapt the spread offense, Miami returns nine players who are entering their fourth year or later, and they have 18 players vying for the five spots. There is reason for optimism. However, as Justin Dottavio wrote last week, and this 2020 recap article attempts to convey, there is significant room for improvement.