One of the most obvious deficiencies in recent years has been Miami’s offensive line.
In 2019, they allowed 51 sacks (3rd most nationally) had 140 QB pressures allowed (2nd worst in NCAA), and had a struggling run block that averaged 118.1 yards per game (120th out of 130 teams). They also allowed 4.25 sacks per game (127th out of 130 teams).
In 2020, there were improvements but they still allowed allowed 30 sacks in their 11 games played, or 2.73 sacks per game (T-98th out of 124 teams). As for Tackles for Loss Allowed in 2020, Miami allowed 7.91 TFL per game. The 87 TFLs, which resulted in 310 lost yards ranked 117th out of 124 teams.
A significant reason as to why this unit has had its struggles is because players with limited experience were being thrown into the fire. In particular, in 2019, Zion Nelson started all 13 games at left tackle as a true freshman, Jakai Clark got 12 starts at right guard, also a true freshman, and Redshirt freshman, John Campbell Jr., started twice and played in 11 games. Last year, Redshirt Sophomores, Ousman Traore and Cleveland Reed, Jr. saw ample time in the rotation, despite barely playing the prior year.
In order to address the woes, Miami landed a big offseason target in 2020 commit, Jalen Rivers. And while it’s not ideal to throw a ton of youth right into the fire, as evident by the recent issues, Rivers appears more than ready to handle the assignment and has been eager to play since stepping foot on campus.
“It’s good to see that they give young guys opportunities,” Rivers said regarding his choice to sign with Miami.
Even though he was slowly assimilated into the program his freshman year as far as valuable playing time, he did all the right things to make a smooth transition to the college level. And, despite playing mostly low leverage roles his true freshman season, Rivers appears ready to make the leap and be a serious contributor as a potential starter for the Canes in 2021 - which is deemed the most experienced offensive line in the country according to college football expert, Phil Steele.
Rivers’ Recruiting Ride
Rivers hails from Orange Park (Fla.) Oakleaf High School, near Jacksonville. And if the high school sounds familiar to Canes’ fans, there is good reason why. Oakleaf has produced three Under Armour All-Americans who all enrolled at the U. Those three players are Shaquille Quarterman, DE Chantz Williams (Sophomore), and Rivers.
Although there were many suitors, Miami consistently had the inside track on landing Rivers, who was the 50th overall ranked 2020 recruit according to ESPN300 and 128th ranked recruit according to 247Sports Composite.
Despite not committing until June 2019, Rivers remained interested in the U despite turnover at Miami’s Offensive Line Coach in back-to-back seasons when Stacy Searels and Butch Barry had to be replaced in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Rivers spoke highly of both Searels and Barry, but has enjoyed working with current Offensive Line Coach, Garin Justice.
In 2018, it appeared the main competition with Miami in the Rivers’ sweepstakes were the in-state rivals Florida State and Florida. However, as February 2019 rolled around, Rivers and Chantz announced identical top fives - Georgia, Florida, Alabama, FSU, and Miami. Thereafter, on June 9, 2019, Rivers committed to Miami. He then enrolled early and roomed with his high school teammate, Chantz.
High School Career and Skillset
Rivers’ prowess on the Offensive Line was evident throughout his career at Oakleaf where he was featured at left tackle. And while the men in the trenches generally aren’t flaunted in the box scores, Rivers paved the way for current Virginia Tech RB, Keshawn King, who rushed for nearly 2,017 rushing yards and 31 TDs in his senior season.
With a prototypical NFL frame around 6’5”, 325lbs, Rivers moves quickly and with power as he is able to manhandle defensive lines and maintain position on passing plays. He can also smoothly drive his way into the second level of the defense with conviction during run options. To that point, he definitely excels at clearing lanes in the rushing game. Utilizing his 84.5-inch wingspan as is depicted in the below video, he shows immense promise at the point of attack and he can seal the crease to the inside or outside to open things up for the backfield.
He also shows a strong propensity to continue his blocks downfield and looks to pick up assignments until the play is finished - a promising habit and attitude, especially for offensive lineman. Even though his height makes it clear he could project as an Offensive Tackle, the coaching staff has indicated he has the versatility to operate at any Guard position as well, where he projects for 2021.
Good look at Jalen Rivers and Corey Gaynor here.— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) August 20, 2020
( Miami Athletics) pic.twitter.com/3dmk0VLDhq
In high school, Rivers landed a spot in the coveted Under Armour All-American Game. Even more, Rivers impressed many with his perfect score of 5.0 on the Tracking Football Player Athletic Index. Tracking Football is an evaluative tool utilized by various college football recruiting staffs, which measures a players’ overall athleticism. The Index’s database is currently nearing 100,000 participants, and some of the former Canes’ players to score a perfect 5.0 include Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, and Greg Olsen.
As for football drills, Rivers completed the short shuttle in 5.09, the 40-yard dash in 5.67, and registered a 21-inch vertical jump at the Orlando Opening Regional. In addition, Rivers shined in the shot put competition in high school, where he won the 2019 Class 4A FHSAA state championship after heaving the shot put 54’4”.
His work ethic and aspirations to grow as a player has certainly not gone unnoticed, even last year despite getting limited quality playing time as a true freshman:
“He is continuing to progress,” Justice said. “He is a very conscientious guy. He tries to do everything right, which being such a perfectionist it can sometimes hinder his growth, but he’s also the same type of guy that if you coach it he’s going to do everything in his ability to make sure he does it exactly the way you’re coaching it. He’s going to be a really, really good football player here and we’re excited about his future.”
Expectations for 2021
When Rivers initially joined the U, there were three other players joining the roster - freshmen Chris Washington, Issiah Walker Jr., and graduate transfer Jarrid Williams. For better or worse, none of the true freshman were thrown into the fire last year like their predecessors - but the time should now be right for Rivers.
Last offseason, Rivers was utilized at both tackle positions, as well as left guard, as he possesses the athleticism, imposing size, and versatility to be a plus for the spread offense at any position. However, he should most fit on the interior this season.
To that end, Williams and Nelson are expected to occupy the tackle positions. As a result, Rivers has been operating with the first unit ahead of more seasoned third year offensive lineman, Jakai Clark. Clark has started over 20 games in his career - a byproduct of being immersed into the rotation early in his tenure - but he has been nursing a reported shoulder injury this offseason. Rivers has been seizing the opportunity by displaying his prototypical size and natural athleticism that will be key week one traits against a powerful Alabama front seven.
Assuming Nelson is ready for the season, the configuration from left to right for opening day should be Zion Nelson-Jalen Rivers-Corey Gaynor-Navaughn Donaldson-Jarrid Williams. If not, DJ Scaife would move in to whichever tackle position Williams doesn’t occupy.
Other notes from today's portion of practice open to the media:— Khobi Price (@khobi_price) August 17, 2021
-- Jarrid Williams and DJ. Scaife switched tackle positions with the presumed first-team offense today, so the O-Line went: Williams, Jalen Rivers, Corey Gaynor, Navaughn Donaldson, Scaife.
Down the road, Rivers has the skill set to be deployed at Tackle. Regardless, Coach Justice likes the idea of Rivers as a ‘thumper’-type lineman, as he’s previously called him.
“Rivers is young and up-and-coming and might have more talent than all of [the offensive linemen on the roster]…He came in as a tackle and just looking at him and his skill set, he is probably more of a guard with what he can do,” Justice said. “He is naturally long and physical. Besides those physical attributes, he is a guy that is such a coach pleaser—if you coach it, he is going to do his best to do it. He is always going to have a good attitude and works hard at everything he does. He is such a high character kid that guys like that get better every single day. He missed that spring last year and now he is starting to make those strides. Jalen is a guy that will play a lot of ball for us this fall.”
Jalen Rivers tells us he’s down to 325, 326 pounds. Looks in great shape.— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) August 18, 2021
Another nice benefit to easing Rivers in last year is that he was able fine tune his frame as he is trying to cut his weight down, while still adding muscle - he was able to drop 15 pounds since enrolling last January.
In order to eradicate the issues as a whole, improvements on the Offensive Line are needed. With Rivers leading the charge as the youngest cog on the front trench, Miami should be in a good position to make those strides in 2021 and beyond.