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2021 State of the U Season Predictions, part 1

Football season is back, and so are we. Here’s how your SOTU crew sees this season going, part 1.

Welcome back to football season, everyone!

Your 2021 Miami Hurricanes are days away from opening the season Here’s the first part of our discussion, with the second part coming tomorrow.

Question 1. Year 3 is usually “Make or Break” for a coach. How will Manny Diaz fare in this integral season for his tenure here at Miami?

Cam Underwood: I know that Manny Diaz is doing everything that he needs to do to push this team to a big season. He fired his friend from the DC job to take that role back himself. He helped his other friend find a job as a DC to bring in an upgrade at DB coach. He demoted another coach to an off-field recruiting role and promoted a coach from that same recruiting role to on-field coach. None of those moves were small; they all matter A LOT. That really feels like the year that Miami takes a step forward, and I think Manny is ready to lead the team there.

Marsh Thomas: With the amount of talent that coach Diaz has returning this season, plus a great coaching staff to support, there’s no reason Miami doesn’t win 10 games in 2021. The roster, favorable schedule, all the pieces are there for the Canes to reach double digit wins.

Justin Dottavio: 10 win regular season. This is the year to do it. Anything short of 10 wins in the regular season with this weak schedule will leave me disappointed.

Craig T. Smith: Part of me wants to say 9-3, with Pitt being that pivotal game aside from UNC and Bama, but I think Miami finds a way to get it done in a truly scrappy game, finish 10-2, and earn a New Year’s Six bowl game. Another step in the right direction.

Jake Marcus: With Diaz back to calling defensive plays - which is huge - he is in a good spot to make the ever-important year three leap. Culturally, the U has been headed in the right and Manny must continue to implement those ideals. In doing so, he also needs to play the best players on the roster rather than seniority or popularity. Starting second-year wide receiver, Keyshawn Smith, over Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins is a start (as well as Jalen Rivers at right guard), but if more veterans begin to struggle he must be willing to give young stars the opportunities (see James Williams and Leonard Taylor).

Carl Bleich: Manny Diaz has completely instilled his culture and has “his guys” at every key position on the field and on the coaching staff. The logical next step is 10+ wins. Anything less than that will leave a lot of people unhappy.

Candis McLean: The bar has to be at 10 wins for this to be a successful season. At this point, Manny has cultivated his culture, has the reins of the defense, and Miami also has the quarterback and skill players. The continuity within the team and coaching staff also raises the expectations. Anything less than 10 wins will be a letdown.

John Michaels: Make it to the ACC Championship game. The excuses for coming up short for that game must end this year. Manny has built the depth chart back to a Miami-like level and has the QB to run the show. He’s done a great job evaluating the weaknesses each offseason, now it’s time to win September through January.

Question 2. QB D’Eriq King is one of the 4-5 best QBs in CFB. What do you expect from him this season?

Underwood: I expect the kind of greatness that we’re used to seeing from King. He’s on the short list for literally every award possible for his position, and he’s motivated to come back and win big this season. He’s more comfortable in year 2 with OC Rhett Lashlee. He’s got weapons all around him. And, he has all the talent in the world himself. I’m expecting BIG things from #1 this season.

Thomas: I expect Miami to throw the ball a lot more in 2021, and I think King is going to take advantage of that play-calling. If he can stay healthy all year, Miami will have a top-5 quarterback in college football.

Dottavio: Improved accuracy, deep passing, and less of a need to scramble.

Smith: I think Miami’s receivers will help King out much more this year. From everything we’ve seen in camp (and that’s always to be taken with a grain of salt), Miami’s pass catchers (including Will Mallory) should be as good as there’s been in awhile. Harley is seasoned, Rambo will be a force, and Smith and Mallory will be as good as advertised. I even think King does enough to warrant an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club in December, but gets left out.

Marcus: After an impressive recovery from his ACL injury, King has become the face of college football due to his proactiveness this offseason in the NIL movement. However, King will need to put it altogether on the field. Often the biggest challenge in returning from a significant lower leg injury is the mental side and being confident in the pocket when linemen are falling close to your legs all game. King will be thrown right into the fire against a big and fast Alabama front-seven, but if King can stay accurate and poised in his reads throughout the season, I expect big numbers to come out of Rhett Lashlee’s uptempo spread offense.

Bleich: I expect D’Eriq King things. We all know what those are at this point on the field. But where King will “earn his money” this year is with his leadership. This is a highly talented team with a lot of returning starters and high expectations. Teams like that need a leader and King is that leader.

McLean: From Diaz to Lashlee, the term that keeps coming up with King is “command”. He knows the scheme, he’s comfortable in it, and it’s geared towards unleashing all of the skills he has in his toolbox. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll drop from that top QB in the NCAA conversation when the season ends. He’s easily one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch already.

Michaels: Have an even better year than in 2020. King was phenomenal last year with all the distractions around with Covid and everything else. This will be the 1st time he’s had the same OC for two years in a row so he should thrive. Having WRs who can actually catch the ball should help raise his completion percentage close to 68% and maybe get him invited to the Heisman ceremony.

Question 3. Which offensive position is the strongest for Miami in 2021?

Underwood: The easy answer here is running back. Miami has a collection of backs that rivals any team in America.

But I’m not going with the easy answer. I’m going with Quarterback. First off, we have D’Eriq King and the opposition doesn’t. He’s a singular talent and his presence on the roster and in the QB room elevates both. And, when you add in blue chip talents like Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia, the QB situation is only bolstered further. So yeah, that’s my answer.

Thomas: Definitely running back. Cam’ron Harris, Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton, the last two now in their second season with more experience, Miami has an opportunity to run the ball very effectively. I don’t think we’ll see a 1,000 yard rusher, but I expect all three guys to have solid season.

Dottavio: Running Back. To have experience, talent, and multiple types of backs is a great problem to have. Reminds me of the ‘99 room.

Smith: Running backs. I dare another team to put forth three running backs as versatile and talented as Miami boasts in Cam’ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton, and Don Chaney, Jr. That said, don’t sleep on the wide receivers this year. 8 and 6 have gotten bumped down the depth charts, so it could be that Miami’s other talents - and there is plenty of young talent in this group - is good enough to surprise this year.

Marcus: Running Backs. Cam’ron Harris is listed as RB1 and should be drafted or a priority free agent in 2022 due to his versatility out of the backfield. Second year freshmen, Jaylan Knighton and Donald Chaney Jr. add another dimension as gifted young backs and true freshman, Thad Franklin, could be slowly assimilated into the rotation in a power back role. The offensive line is the most experienced in the country according to Phil Steele, so if they can operate effectively and healthily as a unit, they are also a darkhorse strong group to monitor.

Bleich: Quarterback. Is this too obvious of an answer? Miami has a top five signal caller in the country in King and two more-than-suitable backups with freshman eligibility in Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia. The goal should be for at least one of them to redshirt before they battle it for the 2022 starting job. This is the best Miami’s quarterback room has been in many years.

McLean: The strongest position to me always boils down to a scenario where a starter can miss time and the team is still able to run their scheme and play almost seamlessly. For the 2021 Miami Hurricanes, that position has to be running back. The Canes have Harris, Knighton, Chaney, and so many others that can not only slot in and play, but excel when called upon.

Michaels: Wide Receiver ….adding Charleston Rambo shook up the depth at this position. When Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins, who were starters a year ago, are now down on the depth chart, Miami has upgraded that position significantly. The Canes look like the old Canes with a great combination of size and speed, and in this offense the group should thrive.

Question 4. Which offensive position is the weakest/most concerning for Miami in 2021?

Underwood: While I need to see more positive play from the receivers, to me, this is still Offensive Line. This is a position that has held Miami back from improving the W/L record in many seasons, and maybe I’m still shook from that, but when I think of groups that need to show and prove me something this year, Offensive Line tops the list.

Thomas: I think you have to go with wide receiver. Mike Harley is going to solid and productive just like he was in 2020, but is Charleston Rambo going to be able to be the difference maker like he was in 2019 at Oklahoma? Is he going to be consistent catching the football? I’m very high on Keyshawn Smith, but how long is it going to take him to make plays at a consistent level? That’s my biggest thing with the receivers, is how consistent are they going to be? That’ll be the difference with this offense in reaching a new level.

Dottavio: Wide Receiver. There’s so much to prove in this group. I think they CAN be great, but there are young guys who need to show it and veterans who must step up.

Smith: Depth behind Mallory at tight end. The Canes had two very good ones last year, which gave them the luxury of getting creative out of two tight end sets in the passing game. I don’t think they’re ready to do that quite yet with Elijah Arroyo.

Marcus: Wide Receiver. That being said, I am cautiously optimistic this could end up being the strongest cohort on the offensive side of the ball. Namely, the two-deep of Smith, Charleston Rambo, Mike Harley, Michael Redding III, Dee Wiggins, and Xavier Restrepo exhibit the speed/size potential to breakthrough and benefit under Lashlee’s uptempo spread offense. That is, quick slants and fades could open up the intermediate-to-deep game as King runs the hurry-up scheme. The elephant in the room, dropped passes, has not been proven to be eradicated yet. And until that is done, there is concern here.

Bleich: Tight end. Will Mallory has played in 19 games in three seasons as a Hurricane and missed spring practice with an injury. If Mallory stays healthy this season, this position group is of no concern to me. If Mallory gets dinged or misses games this season, then Miami might have an issue. Elijah Arroyo seems ready to fill in behind him but missed time in the spring with an injury. Dominic Mammarelli is already injured, Larry Hodges has been more down than up in his Hurricane career, and Kahlil Brantley has only been on campus since this summer.

McLean: I’m going tight end here mostly because of the unknowns and injury history of Mallory. Arroyo is young and talented but until we see it on an NCAA field, it’s all promise and potential.

Michaels: Offensive Line….hear me out. The talent is upgraded, but show me the money against great defensive fronts. I love that Miami finally has upperclassmen on the line, and also has size, but until they get a consistent push against good defenses and protect D’Eriq King I’ll take a wait and see approach.

Question 5. Who is your breakout player on offense in 2021 and why?

Underwood: Gonna quote myself from this same piece last year real quick:

Freshman WR Keyshawn Smith. I think he’s the biggest steal in last year’s recruiting class and he has the talent and temperament to make an impact immediately this year. He’s gonna take someone’s snaps at WR and I’m ready for it.

Yeah. That.

Thomas: I’m going with Will Mallory here. I know that some will say he’s already established himself, but really it’s been a touchdown here and a touchdown there throughout his first three seasons at Miami. Mallory, in my opinion, has first round potential, and if Rhett Lashlee uses him right and gives him 6-10 receptions per game, he’ll be the best tight end in the ACC, if not the whole country.

Dottavio: Jalen Rivers. Nothing beats great guard play in a zone-based scheme.

Smith: Will Mallory. He’s much faster than I thought he’d be, so he can be that difference down the middle like Brevin Jordan was. He has a chance to be the difference maker on the offense this year.

Marcus: Mike Harley. Is it fair to say the most productive pass-catcher from a year ago could be the breakout player? Last year, Harley had a breakout 10 reception, 170 yard game against Virginia and didn’t look back for the rest of the season. However, his production in the preceding five games to open the season was relatively underwhelming. This year, I anticipate Harley will remain a steady presence throughout the season and I project he could rack up north of 80+ catches and 1,000+ yards (57/799 in 11 games last season) on his way to a mid-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Harley should also be a steady presence as the starting punter returner, which will boost his draft stock.

Bleich: Keyshawn Smith. Miami was sorely lacking a wide receiver that could consistently take the top off of defenses. Smith’s speed will make him a weapon that King will use in the deep passing game that Miami struggled with in 2020.

McLean: Even though I touched on his injury history, I’m going to go Mallory here. With all the weapons on the outside and with a dominant running game, there will be plenty of one-on-one opportunities for him over the middle. Plus, Miami is TEU. We always have a tight end in the playmaker conversation.

Michaels: Don Chaney Jr. …while Cam’ron Harris will be the starter, Chaney is the best all around back on the team. Look for Chaney to take over the starting job at some point and be a red zone TD machine. I could easily see 800 plus yards and 10 TDs for the talented sophomore.

Question 6. Who is your offensive newcomer of the year and why?

Underwood: Can I cheat and say Keyshawn Smith again? No? Fine. Guard Jalen Rivers. He’s a massive lineman at 6’5” 330ish, and he looks like he’s poised to unlock his blue chip potential, and not a moment too soon for the Miami offense. Gimme the big guy.

Thomas: Jalen Rivers at guard. All offseason, we’ve heard that he’s one of the most athletic offensive lineman on Miami’s roster, and given his size as well, he can be the difference maker on the OL that the Hurricanes haven’t had at guard in several years.

Dottavio: Elijah Arroyo. Mallory is always out at least one game and Lashlee likes two TE sets. The young fella is going to score 3-4 TD’s in a ‘back up’ role.

Smith: I’ll say Charleston Rambo. He’s a proven quantity, as we saw in 2019. He knows the speed of the college game and will be ready to contribute in a big way from the start of the season. King’s arm will also make him look good, and vice versa.

Marcus: Charleston Rambo. I suppose the proper way to do this exercise is to pick a true freshman, but the Oklahoma transfer will indubitably spread the field with his contested catch-ability and impressive radius. Rambo had a down year last year, but had 43 receptions for 743 yards in 2019. If he repeats that, the Canes could feature one of the most dynamic wideout duos in college football.

Bleich: I think Charleston Rambo is the obvious answer here. If the spring game was any indication, Miami wants to get Rambo the ball in space and let him run. The Oklahoma transfer should have plenty of opportunities to shine in 2021.

McLean: Rambo has to be the guy right? At a position with a lot of promise but still tons of question marks, Rambo brings experience and playmaking ability. Plus, with a QB like King, he has a seasoned guy who can get him the ball in stride. I expect him to cause some nightmares this season.

Michaels: Charleston Rambo has to become the true number 1 for the Canes. He was always a take the top off the defense type of receiver at OU but was hurt with consistency. In Rhett Lashlee’s offense there will be plenty of chances to hit some big plays. If he lives up to expectations this offense can easily be a 40ppg unit.

And that brings us to the end of the first part of our SOTU 2021 season roundtable. Which contributor do you most align your thoughts with? Who is WAY off base?

Talk it up, Canes fam. We’re back with part 2 of our roundtable tomorrow afternoon.

Go Canes