We’ve talked at length on here recently about the Canes wide receivers, the running backs, secondary, etc. One unit that hasn't been discussed as frequently however, is the offensive line. For the last couple years, the Miami OL has been looked at as a weakness on this team, and at times has been very underwhelming, and that’s putting it very lightly.
That being said, with all 5 starters returning, along with plenty of unproven talent, is 2021 finally the season where the o-line becomes a strength for the Hurricanes?
Miami's offensive line only gave up ONE sack and averaged 5.3 yards a rush on the ground.— rOmaN (@Romancane) September 20, 2020
System matters. #canes
Most Improved Offensive Lines from 2019 to 2020 (Power 5)— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) January 26, 2021
• Sack Rate / Pass Protection
+80 Texas A&M (from 84th to 4th)
+61 Mississippi State
+49 Kansas State
2019 was of course a disaster for this unit, as UM had one of the worst performing lines in all of college football. 2020 we saw improvement up front with new OL coach Garin Justice and the up-tempo offense of Rhett Lashlee, but there was still many problems with the group.
offensive line struggling tonight https://t.co/fWpLzq2CaB— StateOfTheU.com (@TheStateOfTheU) October 25, 2020
Miami was 10th in the ACC in 2020 when it came to sacks allowed per game, and 9th in run blocking. So yes, there’s PLENTY of work to be done. Still, with plenty of experience and depth on the line, there’s more optimism compared to past years.
Heading into 2021, Miami’s OL now serves as perhaps one of the stronger position groups on the the entire team.
Junior left tackle Zion Nelson is the poster child for this offensive line, bouncing back in 2020 after a rough freshman year in 2019. During the 2020 season, Nelson gave up 3 sacks and 12 QB pressures, and in the final six games of this last year, Nelson surrendered just two sacks and five pressures, establishing himself as one of the best left tackles in the ACC.
Zion Nelson being projected as a first round OT in the 2022 draft is huge! pic.twitter.com/rvSSA3sMGi— EndoGains (@EndoGains) January 25, 2021
On the right side, Jarrid Williams returns for his 7th season. Williams transferred to Miami prior to the 2020 season from Houston, and gave up only two sacks and 12 quarterback pressures.
Miami Right Tackle Jarrid Williams will return to the Canes next season. Williams is using the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes. Williams started for Miami last season, but played through a hand injury that hampered his ability. Should have a better season next year. pic.twitter.com/hD9cF9zNeJ— Robby Espin (@CanesAccess) January 16, 2021
While they need to improve in their run blocking, Nelson and Williams gives Miami arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the ACC.
Behind them at tackle are two notable guys in John Campbell and Issiah Walker. Campbell is a redshirt sophomore and has several starts under his belt, and he’ll likely be Miami’s third option at tackle. Walker has been medically cleared to play, and has tons of potential. Spring practice will be a great opportunity for him to establish himself. Depending on how quickly he can develop, he’ll hopefully get some experience this season, working towards becoming a starter in 2022.
The other sure thing for Miami’s OL is 5th-year senior center Corey Gaynor. Throughout his UM career, Gaynor has started 25 games, and is considered one of the leaders for the Hurricanes. As far as the OL goes, Gaynor was perhaps the most steady and consistent player up front for Miami last season. 2020 was a big step forward for Gaynor, and I expect him to improve even more during his final season.
Then there’s the offensive guards, who are not quite as polished and consistent as the tackles and centers. D.J. Scaife has been a steady starter on the OL through his first three years, but 2020 we saw him struggle mightily at right guard.
Once again DJ Scaife looking around and unable to find a guy to block— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) November 14, 2020
Does Scaife keep his starting job in 2021? This is where things get interesting on the o-line, because I think we could potentially see someone like 2nd-year player Jalen Rivers have a great spring and crack the starting lineup. Rivers has impressive explosiveness as well as great size for a guard, while maintaining a high level of athleticism.
Rhett Lashlee says he thinks the offensive line will improve its depth next season.— Josh White (@_JoshRWhite) December 27, 2020
Lashlee expects highly-touted freshman Jalen Rivers to factor into the rotation moving forward.
Ousman Traore started several games in 2020, but wasn’t consistently good enough to maintain that starting role, how will he look in 2021? Cleveland Reed is another player to watch, and can find himself contributing at guard.
Navaughn Donaldson has recovered from his knee injury he suffered in 2019, and we saw him play well when he came in towards the end of the 2020 season, especially in run blocking situations. He’s started 28 games at right/left guard during his career, and I think by the start of the regular season, we’ll see him starting at left guard.
The run game was a big topic of discussion and the offense delivered. What a giant hole the OL gave Harris. Look who’s in at left guard...big Navaughn Donaldson. Welcome back young man. pic.twitter.com/5G3gda8QPn— Canes Legacy (@CanesLegacy) December 6, 2020
There’s also Jakai Clark, who struggled at times, but took over Traore’s starting spot at LG. But now that Donaldson is once again healthy, does Clark remain the starter? I think Clark fits best at center, and could become the starter once Gaynor is done.
Corey Gaynor on Jakai Clark, who has moved up on the Canes depth chart this week: "He's a football player...he's got a great feel for the game. Very knowledgeable. It's like having a second center on the field."— Christy Chirinos (@ChristyChirinos) September 15, 2020
So while there’s confidence in the returning starters at tackle and center, there are questions with the guards. The biggest position battle for me on the offensive line is going to be between Scaife and Rivers at right guard.
We saw the OL improve in 2020, and now heading into Garin Justice’s second season with the unit, I have a lot of faith in his coaching that we’ll continue to see improvements.