Let’s talk about something that has been bothering Hurricanes fans for the past 5-10 years or so (There is a lot of things we could be bothered about). In this article, though, I’m talking about “seniority”. A common word us Hurricanes fans have used for what seems awhile now when discussing the team every year. This article will be hard-hitting, but very necessary.
For those who may not know what I’m referring to, I’m referring to the common opinion (or perhaps fact) that Manny Diaz seems to have a soft spot for favoritism towards older players over the younger/more talented players on the roster. And who could blame Manny? The older guys know the playbook, know the program better, have done community service work, etc...
Only one problem: that doesn’t mean that they are the best player and should automatically be penciled in to start. Let’s take a deeper dive into this “seniority” thing at Miami. There are several positions where I think this issue is the most pressing. Which ones? Let me tell you...
Let’s start with Safety. Now here’s a position that is sort of admired by Miami fans given the history that UM has had at this position. Every Miami fan pays attention to this position and every safety recruit who comes to Miami is automatically compared on a scale of how close they are to Ed Reed or Sean Taylor. That’s just what we do.
The position in the recent past has done fairly well at Miami, with guys like Rayshawn Jenkins, Deon Bush, Jaquan Johnson, and more. Bubba Bolden is next in line to carry the torch as an elite Safety for Miami. Bolden struggled a bit in the second half of the season but looked like the best Safety in the country early on in the year, and I expect him to have an elite year in 2021.
So what’s the problem? The fact that Bolden wasn’t on the field for half the snaps on defense is the problem. The staff made it a point to try and get Amari Carter on the field and sort of spread the playing time out evenly. To say the least, Carter and Gurvan Hall have come up short of expectations at Miami and I’m not sure if that is because of former S coach Ephraim Banda not being a very good developer or some other reason. But, alas, they’ve fallen way short.
Anyone in their right mind could have seen Amari Carter is not a fit Safety (hello, STRIKER/Linebacker) and should not have been taking snaps away from Bolden. Why MUST we force him onto the field? To be nice? My eyes almost bled out watching the UNC game. Taking away snaps from one of your best defensive players JUST to put the veteran in the game is not a very intelligent. If Sean Taylor were on this team would the staff be rotating him out of the game to get an older guy some snaps? Is Ed Reed going to be sat on the bench for a few series’? I don’t know….you tell me.
Now along comes Avantae Williams, a superstar recruit from Deland, FL, and a kid who I am probably more excited to see play than any Miami fan. We’re talking about a kid who hasn’t tweeted in a year, had two kids in high school, and had neck tattoos before he turned 16. Oh, and I almost forgot, the kid is elite at football. Sounds like a first round pick lock to me. Let’s get this kid on the field. Williams sat out last season with a medical issue but has been cleared for this spring. He has been on campus for over a year now so I don’t want to see the “he doesn’t know the plays” excuse. If you know you have a special player, let’s focus on grooming that player into a starting role.
We know what we have in our older guys, we know what Carter and Hall give us already, “experience” is the word. But how about making plays? How about being dynamic?! A combo of Williams and Bolden at Safety could be the best combo at Miami since Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips. Let’s not waste time in getting Williams on the field. And unless Amari Carter magically becomes Ronnie Lott in the next 5 months — he won’t — I don’t think we should be seeing him back there in coverage, but I have a feeling we will.
On to linebacker. In my eyes, a lot of this has to do with Blake Baker not being a very good coach. It’s a 50/50 split being Baker being bad at his job and just overall talent, but this roster does have talent at linebacker, it’s just not being used.
Since Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney left, LB play at UM has been below average at best. A lot of Miami fans, myself included, are curious about guys like Avery Huff and Tirek Austin-Cave, two athletic LB’s who can both hit and fly around. Manny Diaz was actually quoted the other week about the pair stating “Huff and Austin-Cave can run, they can hit, but they need to know where to go”. Well let me intervene right there….Manny, are you telling me Zach McCloud knew where he was going? I don’t doubt Zach is great guy, in fact, I know he is, but he looked the most lost of any player I’ve ever seen out there all year and he’s the oldest guy on the roster this year. You can’t tell me he knew where he was supposed to be going, or what assignments he had. UNC ran a combination of 2-3 run plays all game and McCloud and Jennings couldn’t figure out what was happening. Granted, that game obviously was not solely McCloud and Jennings’ fault, it was an embarrassing showing from the whole roster, but we are discussing LB’s in this section. McCloud has made the move to Defensive End where hopefully he can contribute, and I believe he can.
Was it Blake Baker? Lack of development? Either way, those 2 were clearly not the best options. Ryan Ragone? Let me stop right there, I don’t need to go further than that. This isn’t a feel good story attempt or game show, this is The U. We should not, at any time, be playing walk-ons, present or former, unless we’re up by 7 touchdowns. We lucked out with Santana Moss, that’s not a typical walk-on. Spare me on that comparison, please. I saw Avery Huff come in for 3 plays against Florida State and make 2 tackles. I saw Tirek Austin-Cave shoot through the line against Florida State and make a great tackle in the backfield. I saw Sam Brooks shoot across the field against Clemson and drill Travis Etienne who was the best RB in the country last year…. and then they took Brooks out the next series, never to be seen again.
Bottom line, in the very short time period we saw the younger LBs on the field, they made plays. More plays perhaps than the two seniors who played before them made all year. Corey Flagg will likely be a starter at LB this fall, a kid who I think fans should be excited about. Not the most athletic LB in the nation, but a kid from Texas who is smart and instinctual and ACTUALLY does know where he’s going on the field. Let’s find our guy who is going to be standing beside him, a guy who is actually the best player for the job and not just the guy who’s done the most community service or been around longest.
The staff does well recruiting the type of players they want. Manny Diaz and company knew they needed fast, athletic, instinctual linebackers, and they got them. So now that we have them, how about we use them?
Sophomore Don Chaney Jr. is likely the best RB on the roster and should probably be the starter. Complete package with speed, power, quickness, vision, hands. Jaylan Knighton is a fast, shifty and physical running back despite his size. When he runs it looks like he has no regard or no fear for hurting himself or anyone else, which I love. Will either one start? Doubtful.
Miami fans have their varying opinions on Cam Harris, who truthfully has been a solid back at UM, but again, here come two younger guys like Knighton and Chaney who are probably better players than Harris. All 3 are UM caliber backs and Miami rarely has RB problems. Always keep the pond stocked. But I will be shocked if Harris isn’t taking the first snaps against Alabama week 1 being he is the older player.
RB doesn’t bother me as much because each of these guys will see plenty carries. It would be one thing if Harris wasn’t all that good and was still getting the majority of the carries. Sometimes he could be inconsistent and appear that he wasn’t running hard. Every time I saw Knighton or Chaney get a carry I was thinking to myself “who pissed these kids off?”, because that’s how hard they ran every single time. Harris is a good and more than serviceable back, but, the best guy should still get the starting job and the bulk of the carries, nonetheless.
Here we go. I know Miami fans love this group. The WR group at Miami was fantastic last year, best I’ve ever seen it, perhaps. Caught everything. Made every play possible, and then some. Incredible job by that group.
...You caught that sarcasm, right?
No, I think it’s pretty self explanatory at this point with this group, and probably the position group that Miami fans wanted to rip their hair out the most about. They are underwhelming, to put it extremely nicely. The favoritism for seniors at this position specifically cost Miami a few wins.
Let’s get this out of the way now, Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope are who they are. If you are hoping for two 4th year players to “improve” or “prove people wrong” in their SENIOR (or super junior) year, I cant help you. That project is over. I don’t need to be worried about hoping that a senior finally becomes halfway decent his last go-round. Wiggins and Pope led the ACC in drops (16.2% and 15.8% drop rate in 2020, respectively) and yet continued to be the starters. I don’t see how that is even possible to keep putting them out there.
Only thing that makes sense is that they were the older more “experienced” guys. Yes, but what good is “game experience” if you are not a good player. I can jog my ass out there against Alabama, line up at WR and drop 4 touchdowns and fumble 5 times and have “game experience”, that doesn’t mean I’m Terrell Owens.
The staff so-called “opened up” the WR competition mid-season to challenge the older guys who weren’t performing up to par. Yeah, that doesn’t seem like something to do mid-season. That should probably be done in Spring and Fall camps. Especially when it didn’t seem like that mid-year “competition” was really “open” to begin with and they ended up playing Wiggins and Pope the most the following week anyway. Mike Harley was quoted last season, “we were doing the bare minimum in practice”, not really something you want to hear from your junior WR who is supposed to be setting an example. Kudos to Mike though, because he took it to heart and ended up having a great finish to the season and has completely flipped his attitude, and performance, around. I can’t say the same for the other two.
But it makes me wonder, your older guys are doing the “bare minimum” in practice and still getting the starting nod? Again, in my opinion that’s complete insanity. I can’t even begin to explain the lunacy of that. What type message is that sending out to the team? That “Hey, we can do jack shit in practice and still start? Awesome”. I’ll put a talented freshman out there who knows half the playbook over a senior who doesn’t care.
Miami landed Charleston Rambo from Oklahoma because Lincoln Riley was playing WR’s who better suited his offense over the older guy in Rambo. Before people freak out, Rambo is a fantastic WR, it had more so do with Rattler gelling with his younger guys better and favoring them. Regardless, Oklahoma was playing younger WR’s over older guys who are ACTUALLY good WR’s. Meanwhile we are scared to play our younger talented guys over older guys who aren’t even good. Make it make sense!
I’ve already heard great reviews about Keyshawn Smith in practice, and I’ve seen glimpses of his ability on the field. Let’s get the 6’2 210 pound Michael Redding, who is built like DK Metcalf, on the field. There is a plethora of other young WR’s on roster who are capable as well. Time to move forward with this. We don’t recruit these types of guys to sit on their hands on the bench for 2-3 years to wait their turn behind players who they are better than. In my opinion, I would like to see a starting 3 of Rambo, Harley, and one of Smith/Redding.
I’ll make this one quick. It wasn’t good last year. I’m not talking about Punter Lou Hedley or Groza Award Winning Kicker Jose Borregales. I’m talking about the return units.
Miami was 60th in kick return, and 121st in punt return in the country last season. Unacceptable at The U, a school with a long and storied history of incredible returnmen. Mark Pope was returning kicks and punts up until about mid-season, which even Ray Charles could see he should have never been doing. I was lobbying for Jaylan Knighton to be back there before the season started. Finally, after about 6 games, they put Knighton back there. Now granted, I’m not even a coach or at practice and I knew he should’ve been back there since day 1. Why didn’t the staff? Well maybe you can figure out that answer. How old is Jaylan? Exactly. I don’t have to be at practice to realize who the perfect specimen is to return kicks on this team, I’ve seen Knighton’s film. You can’t ask for much more than a fast, shifty, physical player type player with no fear to be back there returning kickoffs. Yet, they took multiple games to finally replace Pope with Knighton.
Also, l do not want to see special teams coverage full of walk-ons or bottom-of-the-roster players. Let’s please start taking that unit seriously again and put starters and rotation players there. And before you jump in the comments, I know that players like Deejay Dallas and Travis Homer have been on return and coverage units in the past. I know that. That’s great. We need MORE OF THAT is my point. Special teams — the return and coverage units — are a huge part of the game and should be treated as such. As for punt return, I’ll keep it simple. Here’s 5 names: Keyshawn Smith, Avantae Williams, Tyrique Stevenson, Brashard Smith, Malik Curtis. Figure it out with one of those 5 and thank me later.
All in all, let’s cut the cute stuff and start doing what is best for the team. Manny is a players coach and before all he wants to keep all his guys happy. While that’s all peaches and cream the main concern should be winning. I don’t care if we have a 21 year old senior at Quarterback, if there is an 18 year old freshman who is better than him and gives the team a better chance to win, you start the 18 year old (BTW, this is just an example, D’Eriq King’s job is safe). Let’s get some legit competition going, not “we are going to say it’s a competition but really we are just going to play the older guy” shtick. I think all Miami fans have caught onto that by now.
Every coach ‘wants’ to have veteran players who are leaders and great players at the same time, and if Miami has those type of guys on the team (Mike Harley has grown into one) that is fantastic. But if they are just “older more experienced” guys, who really aren't leaders or producing, don’t force the issue simply because they are veterans. Get some of these talented freshman/sophomores running time with the first team in practices. We are in a new age of college football where playing freshman and younger players is not all that uncommon. Kids are more physically developed. It is up to the coaching staff to get them ready to play.
Great teams/coaches make sacrifices for the betterment of the team. Nick Saban pulled his veteran starter Jalen Hurts at QB in a national championship game in favor of a true freshman (Tua Tagovailoa), and they ended up winning the national title that night on the strength of Tagovailoa’s incredible performance in the 2nd half and overtime. If Saban can make that leap in the National Championship game, LITERALLY the highest stakes game in the sport, why can’t Manny Diaz, especially since Miami hasn’t played a game of that kind of Championship consequence in 2 decades?
I don’t want to completely put this all on Manny. The focus on seniority over ability was a problem before he became head coach. That being said, Diaz can fix it if he wants to. You are doing the younger/more talented player a disservice if they are not getting a fair shake, and truthfully, Manny is doing HIMSELF a disservice as well.
Manny has shown he is willing to make tough choices with his coaching staff and has made some great hires in place of the guys he let go for the better of the program, but will he essentially do the same with his roster?