One of my favorite times of year is when the Phil Steele college football guide comes out. That’s one of those red-letter days in the offseason that I get geeked about. It’s one step closer to the season being here. And I’m a big stat dork, so the finite statistical breakdowns interest me.
So, naturally, I picked up my copy from the bookstore this month and started flipping through it. I was curious to see where he had Miami’s positional groups ranked for 2021. He had quarterbacks at #4 nationally. Fair, although a case could be made for higher given just how talented Miami’s two backup QBs are. He had the Canes receiving group at #7. I mean, I like Charleston Rambo, but that’s a little high for this group. Oh well, glad to see there’s some respect there.
So, naturally, I’m thinking boy, let’s see how Miami’s uber-talented backfield is ranked. I almost snort soda out of my nose when seeing it: #29 Miami Hurricanes. Behind the backfields of Fresno State, Wyoming, and San Diego State, and one spot ahead of UT-San Antonio. 20 spots back of upcoming Sun Belt foe Appalachian State.
Phil swung and missed on this ranking, because Miami is stocked with talent in the backfield this fall - again.
Looking back at 2020
The stats don’t show this Miami ground game did much last year, and - in my humble opinion - the lion’s share of that blame lies with the inconsistent and often ineffective push from Miami’s offensive line. Miami totaled 1788 rushing yards on the season at a game average of 162.5 - good for a tie with Auburn for 67th in the country.
Individually, Miami’s backfield broke down as follows:
D’Eriq King: 130 att, 538 yards (4.1) 4 TD
Cam Harris: 126/643 (5.1)/10; 18 rec, 131 yards, 1 TD
Don Chaney Jr.: 63/322 (4.7)/3; 11/143/0
Jaylan Knighton: 52/209 (4.0)/1; 11/135/1
Robert Burns: 16/63 (3.9)/0; 2/26/0
So, for bare statistics, Miami was mediocre in the ground game. But they had stretches where the stats don’t speak for how bad the rushing attack was. They had four games where they averaged less than 3 yards per carry for the game, including three at home. At one point, Cam Harris’s touches disappeared in favor of the freshmen, but earned his way back to getting the most work of the backs towards the end of the year.
Overall the run game was often ugly, but did just enough when it was needed, with some serious playmaking ability sprinkled in (and some D’Eriq King). Harris’ touchdown run against Duke. And the prior one against Louisville. And yeah, Knighton’s track run against the Cardinals. And Chaney, Jr. stomping mudholes in Virginia defenders late in the game with the Canes needing a player to step up.
There were big expectations coming into the season, but it was also a weird year with COVID-19 and limited participation/no camps, so it was a major challenge for everyone, and especially for the freshman. It will be very interesting to see what they can do with a full offseason to prepare (although Chaney is out until Alabama).
What’s even more interesting is that Rhett Lashlee has indicated that he wants to get away from a committee approach and settle on a lead back. Thus, let’s look at the candidates.
The old reliable - Cam Harris
If I’m going to gamble on someone to end up with the most work.....well, I might as well dance with the one I brought, and for me that’s Harris. I’ve tooted Harris’ horn as the one I would bank on for volume this upcoming season, although I think the jury is out on whether he will cede more scores to Chaney Jr. this season. It will be interesting to see who gets the short yardage/goal line work this year. However, if we follow history - and the fact that Harris has looked STRONG in offseason workouts this year - I would bank on Harris again leading this backfield in overall production.
The all-around player - Don Chaney
Chaney showed last year that he could handle featured back work, proving he could run between and outside the tackles with power and quickness. What really stuck out to me is how he can finish a game, along with his willingness to take on contact and go through defenders. That Virginia game from last year was a showcase for Chaney. Even though he only carried 10 times for 43 yards, he pounded on a tiring Virginia defense for tough yards in an ugly, physical contest. Sadly, the 10 carries was a season high for the freshman. Way short on touches last year, in my opinion, as he has all the makings of being a true, workhorse feature back and should have gotten more of a chance to shine.
The question is: will he be ready to come September following a shoulder surgery this spring? Manny Diaz indicated last month that it’s looking promising for Chaney to be ready to suit up for Alabama, so that’s something.
The X-factor - Jaylan Knighton
If there’s a player that I would bank on to make the biggest rise next year, it would be Knighton. He simply has too much God-given talent to stay on the pine. He earned a start against Duke, but left after suffering a shoulder injury on the game’s second play, which also sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Before that, it was relatively tough sledding for the freshman. His most active game, like Chaney, came against the Cavaliers, where he logged 12 carries for 37 yards. His struggles coincided with that of the offensive line in run blocking in the middle portion of the schedule against Pitt, Clemson, and Virginia.
But we know what he can do with the ball in his hands. He’s far and away the most explosive back on this roster, so it’ll be up to Lashlee to scheme ways to get him the ball and more involved in this offense. Get him in motion, move him to the slot, find ways to get him in a mismatch situation. And we saw in the spring game what he can do with the ball in his hands, as he tore off a 27-yard TD in the game. Because his upside is so high, he’s a legit dark horse to win the job.
The rest - There is plenty of young incoming talent at the position, which is headlined by Chaminade-Madonna star Thaddius Franklin, Jr. Franklin is a beast at 6’0, 225 pounds, and while he doesn’t boast top-end speed, that didn’t stop him from putting up video game numbers in high school, where he set a then-record in the state championship game with 47 carries for 333 yards and 5 TDs. I’d say Franklin will get his shot in camp to see if he can provide some additional juice to the competition. Miami also has Cody Brown, who was signed after Tennessee released him from his national letter of intent. It sounds like Brown was brought in for depth after Robert Burns transferred, so his involvement early in the rotation is unlikely. The only other back listed on the Miami roster is Isaiah Cashwell, who has served only as a practice squad member.
So who do you all see as leading this very talented running back group this fall? Will it be the veteran Harris, or will Chaney continue to build off of his promising freshman year? Or will Knighton’s explosive ability win out? Let’s hear it.