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Has Miami’s Run Defense Improved Since the UNC Game? The First Three 2021 Games Will Be A Good Litmus Test

The State of the U’s Run Defense Should Be Tested In the First Three Weeks In Out-of-Conference Play Against Alabama, Appalachian State, and Michigan State

Al Diaz, AP, USA Today

Based on one game in particular during the 2020 season, Miami’s run defense became a huge point of focus this offseason. And that was the final game of the regular season where the U allowed 554 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on 55 rushing attempts (10.1 yards per carry) against UNC in a 62-26 loss. To be fair, the Tar Heels featured a running tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who ended up being the third and fifth running backs selected in April’s NFL Draft and the Canes’ matchup was the last time the duo had to impress evaluators as they sat out their bowl game. Regardless, the effort was abysmal.

Miami seemingly rebounded in the final game of the season versus Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl as the Canes held the Cowboys to 113 yards rushing on 43 rushing attempts (2.6 yards per carry). But the UNC game is tough to forget and Miami certainly has the October 16, 2021 contest circled as a revenge game. Before that, however, the state of the U’s run defense will be tested the first three weeks of the season in out-of-conference play against Alabama, Appalachian State, and Michigan State.

As of now, it is unclear where the Canes’ run defense/linebacking corps stands, so, luckily, the first few games will have no bearing on their ACC slate. They have added coach Ishmael Aristide as Outside LB coach, who was effective at Texas A&M but may need some time acclimating to the unit.

Week 1: Alabama and RB Brian Robinson Jr.

Despite losing Najee Harris and most of its offensive line, Alabama does not just rebuild, but reloads across its an entire offense. To that end, Bama returns fifth year running back, Brian Robinson Jr. Despite being backup, Robinson has mustered together 187 carries for 924 yards and 11 TDs cumulatively over the past two seasons - good for almost 5 yards a carry. Robinson also shows capabilities out of the backfield as he has tallied 17 receptions for 150 yards over that time.

As is common across Bama’s roster, the Tide features a number of four-star and five-star athletes for depth in Sophomore, Trey Sanders (no. 6 recruit overall in 2019), Sophomore, Jase McClellan (no. 47 recruit overall in 2020, and Roydell Williams (no. 77 recruit overall in 2020) - (Junior, Keilan Robinson (no. 244 recruit overall in 2019), entered the Transfer Portal on Tuesday). Alabama also has arguably the best left tackle in the nation in Evan Neal and includes Emil Ekiyor, JC Latham, Tommy Brockermeyer, and James Brockermeyer.

Week 2: Appalachian State and RB Camerun Peoples

The Mountaineers’ running back put the “run” in Camerun as Peoples put on a display for the people in the Myrtle Beach Bowl against North Texas. He broke the FBS Bowl rushing record with 317 yards in their 56-28 win, as he also tacked on five rushing TDs - an insane stat line of 22 rushes, averaging 14.4 yards per carry. The Canes need to figure out a way to keep Peoples in check who is likely tasting a continued breakout in 2021.

On the bright side, Appalachian State will rely on Duke transfer, Chase Brice, whose last memory against Miami was when Brice was held to just 94 yards passing in a 48-0 Miami win.

Week 3: Michigan State and RB-by-Committee

The Spartans have been in a transformational phase since head coach, Mark Dantonio, departed in 2019. Namely Michigan State has been active in the transfer portal in adding Temple graduate transfer quarterback, Anthony Russo, running backs Harold Joiner (Auburn) and Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest), as well as a number of quality pieces across the defense.

The Spartans offensive line contingent notably is extremely experienced as they feature seven juniors, four seniors, and two graduate-level players. Similar to Miami’s offensive line, MSU hopes to thrive based on experience.

As for the ball-carriers, Joiner (no. 152nd overall recruit in 2018) had success as a power back in 2019 with 12 carries for 222 all-purpose yards, including a 78-yard reception. Walker III (three-star recruit in 2019) has been immensely productive for the Demon Deacons as he strung together 217 carries for 1158 yards and 17 TDs (5.3 yards per carry) cumulatively over the past two seasons. Connor Heyward (no. 718 overall recruit in 2017) brother of NFL defensive tackle, Cameron, has also been a productive presence for the Spartans - specifically in 2018 where he had 118 carries for 529 yards and was a Paul Hornung Award finalist, given to the nation’s most versatile player. Next, Elijah Collins (no. 740 overall recruit in 2018), will look to emulate his breakthrough 2019 season where he had 988 rushing yards on 222 rushing attempts (76.0 yards per game), after he said his bout with COVID had a deep effect on his 2020 campaign. Lastly, Brandon Wright (no. 827 overall recruit in 2019) has yet to do much in East Lansing, but aims to impress as a power back with his 6-2, 240lb frame.

Many Canes’ fans are trying remove the bad taste left in their mouth from the humiliating UNC performance. It should be noted that Miami also struggled against Clemson and Virginia’s rushing attack in 2020 where they allowed 258 (5.9 yards a carry) and 185 yards (5.3 yards a carry), respectively.

Miami should have the opportunity to get a litmus test in their first three games against different style quality rushing attacks. Importantly, the first three-game barometer of Miami’s run defense will have no impact on their ACC results. Nonetheless, if Miami is not able to eradicate that portion of the defense by the time they get to in-conference play, then the Canes could be in trouble.