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Spring Football Storylines: What to Watch For in Miami’s 2021 Spring Practices

Starting Today, Miami Begins a Slate of Fifteen Spring Practices and we get a Glimpse Into Early Offseason Questions: Who is QB2? Will Second-Year Coaches Take the Leap?

Miami Spring Game Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

After a derailed spring season in 2020 that only consisted of four official practices for the Hurricanes, Miami is set to begin their 2021 slate after an offseason so far filled with turnover amongst the coaching staff, a successful transfer portal campaign, and several departures for the NFL. And with that, after ending their 2020 season on a sour note with two tough losses, the spring will represent a chance to transition and to blossom with newfound energy and enthusiasm.

For the most part, the 2020 season was a positive shift, especially with culture changes. However, especially towards the end of the season and in the more challenging games, Miami left a lot to be desired. For 2021, the expectations are even higher as Miami has brought in a strong and what appears to be filled-out roster on paper.

And today, as the offseason progresses into the first glimpse of Canes’ on field action, we will have the opportunity to get a preview of what to anticipate this fall. The 15 spring practices/possible Spring game should give a small display of what Miami will look like when they take the field when it really counts in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta, Georgia.

As the wounds of last year’s struggles have mostly healed and we look forward to the first few practices with a newfound optimism that seems to find a way to creep into Miami fans’ minds around this time of year no matter the preceding year’s results, let’s look into the key questions surrounding the 2021 Miami Hurricanes this spring:

How Will the Offensive Line Be Configured?

One area of Miami’s game that made some progress last season but still has room for improvement is the offensive line. Namely, Miami welcomed new OL coach, Garin Justice, and OC, Rhett Lashlee, last season, the latter of which welcomed a new uptempo spread offense.

For the most part, Miami’s offensive trench made some strides relative to 2019. However, the Canes ranked T-98th out of 124 NCAA teams as the unit gave up 2.73 sacks per game and 117th out of 124 teams in allowing 7.91 Tackles for Loss per game.

Throughout the season, Miami had a few changes on the offensive line. Notably, Zion Nelson won the Left Tackle position over John Campbell, as did Jakai Clark at Left Guard from Ousman Traore. Corey Gaynor maintained steady presence at Center, and DJ Scaife Jr. and Jarrid Williams patrolled Right Guard and Right Tackle, respectively. Navaughn Donaldson returned for the final four games in 2020 in order to maintain his redshirt status, but did not see much action. As it relates to Donaldson, Diaz noted he was inspired by his work ahead of the spring.

Going into spring camp, Zion Nelson’s LT position appears safe as he prepares for a potential NFL bid in 2022, Corey Gaynor seems to be a lock at Center, and Jarrid Williams is favored at RT. As for Left Guard, Jakai Clark was steady in 2020 after earning the job over Traore. However, Donaldson, who is stout and has versatility to move inside, could challenge for the starting spot. Lastly, at Right Guard, Scaife is not a lock as Jalen Rivers could certainly prove a viable candidate in his second year.

Will the Second Year (and First Year) Coaches Take the Leap In a “More” Normal Offseason?

This question relates more to coaches like OC Lashlee, OL Coach Justice, WR Coach Rob Likens, and TE Coach Stephen Field, all of whom are entering their second season, but can be equally applied to the likes OLB Coach Ishmael Aristide, DB Coach Travaris Robinson, and Defensive Quality Control Coach Bob Shoop, who are all joining the Miami coaching staff after a couple months of coaching turbulence.

A big key to success in the college football realm is consistency and working well together as a unit. As Miami has solidified a capable coaching staff, it will be important to see what the players and coaches can accomplish working in tandem during a more hands-on offseason.

After the Dynamic Duo of Mike Harley Jr. and Charleston Rambo, Which Wide Receiver(s) Will Emerge as the Next Most Productive Targets?

With the return of Harley and addition of transfer, Rambo, the Canes’ receiving corps has the potential to enter 2021 with a sure-handed slot receiver and accomplished downfield threat. However, after that, Miami has 10 additional players on the depth chart who will need to show they are effective in Lashlee’s uptempo spread formation and establish a rhythm early and often. At this point, there will be seven returning players in spring camp because the three four-star freshmen will be expected to arrive later this summer.

The competition, similar to last year, appears like it could be an open competition after Harley and Rambo. Juniors who are hailing from Miami Southridge High, Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins, both are the most experienced wide receivers, but were often criticized due to dropped passes in 2020. Jeremiah Payton is entering his third season on the team, but has yet to put up much production.

And Michael Redding III, Keyshawn Smith, Xavier Restrepo, and Dazalin Worsham enter their second season. Smith appears most primed for a breakout season among the latter four. Even though the receivers will not be catching passes from D’Eriq King as he continues to rehab his knee injury, the strides they make during the spring could be a good indication who could be lining up on Saturdays this fall.

Which QB Rises Behind King on the Depth Chart?

As has been noted early in this offseason, the King’s return is anticipated by the season opener against Bama as his knee rehabilitation has been on pace as Diaz noted King is “smashing every benchmark” in his torn ACL recovery. However, should there be any setbacks, it is important to see what Miami’s insurance policy looks like.

To that end, if it was not for the stable play of N’Kosi Perry in the Cheez-It Bowl after King went down, then the game likely would have been over well before the fourth quarter. Perry’s rise to the occasion also opened the door for him to other opportunities as he is expected to transfer.

Not only will this spring give the team a chance to see what they have in store behind King, but it will provide a preview of what to expect from the heir apparent to D’Eriq, as all the backups are underclassmen.

The favorite at this point is rising Sophomore, Tyler Van Dyke, who rose to third on the depth chart last season as a true freshman and Diaz has described as a “beast” in the way he works and does things right, and “top of the charts.” The pocket passer has the frame to shine in an uptempo scheme as a 6’4” 220-pound signal caller that tallied over 4600 passing yards and 39 passing TDs in his final two high school seasons.

Another young gun who has garnered much excitement is true freshman, Jake Garcia. Garcia initially committed to USC but is now enrolled early at the U. Like Van Dyke, Garcia has a reliable 6’2”, 195-pound pocket passing frame who shows immense promise working across the middle-of-the-field as well as a flashy deep ball. It must be noted that Garcia will be limited for first few practices battling a small foot injury.

The darkhorse candidate is Peyton Matocha, who has been a Greentree practice hero on the scout team to date after putting up eye-popping numbers at St. Thomas High School (TX). The athletic passer pairs dual-threat capabilities by evading pressure with nice touch. Of note, Coach Lashlee indicated Matocha’s athleticism and selflessness was evident when the QB stepped in and took reps at safety due to a decimated roster in the COVID world. He could rise up on the depth chart as he enters his third season with the Canes and based on Lashlee’s anecdote, he’s definitely a player Miami should be happy to have in their QB room.

What Will the Transfers and Newcomers Bring to the Table?

The transfer class once again proved why Miami has been TransferPortalU as the Canes welcomed Georgia DB, Tyrique Stevenson, Tennessee DE Deandre Johnson, and Oklahoma WR, Rambo. All three should have an immediate impact and improve their respective positional groups. However, this storyline relates more to players who have previously been on the roster but have yet to have much involvement in game play.

Specifically, Safety, Avantae Williams, has been cleared for football activity and has all the makings to be a star. Besides Tae, second-year offensive linemen, Issiah Walker Jr. and Jalen Rivers could have a chance to carve out a niche for themselves. At Wide Receiver, Keyshawn Smith, Michael Redding III, Xavier Restrepo, and Dazalin Worsham could usurp the more senior options on the depth chart. Tight Ends, Larry Hodges and Dominic Mammarelli need to be a strong fixture behind Will Mallory as he seeks a breakout season as the true TE1 due to Brevin Jordan’s departure. This is especially true as Mallory will not be participating in spring practices due to a shoulder injury. And lastly, Defensive End, Chantz Williams, enters his sophomore season and could get extended play after the mass exodus of Greg Rousseau, Jaelan Phillips, and Quincy Roche for the NFL.

Can the Defense’s Back Seven Prove to be more Reliable in 2021?

There are also a number of players who could come out of the wood work in the linebacking and defensive back groupings. Led by Safety, Bubba Bolden, the expected return of CB, Al Blades Jr., who has been cleared but will not participate this spring, the addition of Stevenson through the portal, and Jalen Harrell’s move to CB, Miami looks pretty strong on paper in the secondary. However, a huge point of worry in the back seven was ability to finish tackles.

At the linebacker position, there are a lot of question marks that need to be answered, including who will start. There is a possibility Miami looks to the portal after spring practices to nab a quality linebacker such as Palaie Gaoteote IV or any other players who enter portal after spring camp, which Coach Diaz has recently alluded to as a possibility.

Similarly, Miami’s usage of Zach McCloud during camp will be telling. All signs point McCloud getting reps at Defensive End after he started at the position in the Cheez-It Bowl. But it could be a nice boost if McCloud is placed at linebacker, where he is more familiar and experienced.

As it relates to the back seven generally, we may have to wait until live game action to get an indication of the progress.

Which Freshman Shines?

The early high school enrollees are QB Jake Garcia, TE Elijah Arroyo, Striker Chase Smith, Safety Kamren Kinchens, OT Michael McLaughlin, LB Thomas Davis, and Kicker Andres Borregales.

Extra Point:

Kicker and freshman, Andres Borregales, has a big shoe (singular) to fill as his brother, Jose, departs for the NFL after a monster final season. Canes fans are definitely happy to keep this spot in the family.

What storylines are you looking forward to during these spring practices? Let’s get excited for 15 spring practices, which will hopefully culminate in a spring game on April 17. Comment below and Go Canes.