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2021 State of the U Season Predictions: part 2

Time to look at the defense, and how we expect they’ll perform in the 2021 football season

Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Happy Wednesday, Canes fam. We’re back with the second part of our season preview roundtable. What’s that? Missed the first part? Click the link below and get caught up:

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s keep the conversation going, shall we?

Question 7. Which defensive position is the strongest for Miami in 2021?

Cam Underwood: Safety. Bubba Bolden is among the best players at this position in the Country, and Gurvan Hall, James Williams, and Kam Kinchens all add blue-chip pedigree to the position. Avantae Williams is back after his legal issues, but will miss at least the first half of the season. Still, his elite talent cannot be discounted. Add in Al Blades Jr, who is taking snaps at Safety so far this year and many (myself included) always thought this was a better fit for him than Cornerback, and you have yet another blue-chip prospect working in with this group. Those 5 (6 if you count Blades Jr.) at the top of the Safety room and additional depth as it exists on the roster (even with Brian Balom ruled out for the year with an injury) make this the strongest position on the Defense in 2021.

Marsh Thomas: I know some people will be surprised at this answer, but I’m going to say cornerback. You have Te’cory Couch back, who is one of the best players on the entire defense. DJ Ivey is back, Al Blades Jr., and then throw in Tyrique Stevenson, that’s a pretty solid four players at corner. Then you add in Travaris Robinson as the new defensive backs coach, he’s going to be the real difference maker in our CB’s being consistent and improving throughout 2021.

Justin Dottavio: Defensive tackle and striker.

Craig T. Smith: I’ll say safety. Bubba Bolden has a legitimate chance to earn All-American honors this year. In the event of an injury, Avantae Williams, Kamren Kinchens, and James Williams all give Miami the ability to insert a player that won’t miss a beat as far as coverage skills and play-making ability. Incredibly deep and talented group.

Jake Marcus: Defensive Tackle. At ACC Media Day, D’Eriq King said Jared Harrison-Hunte was one of three players that have impressed this offseason (along with WRs he works closely with in Xavier Restrepo and Keyshawn Smith) and he’ll be co-starting with Nesta Jade Silvera. Also, have you seen Jordan Miller lately?! Under the infamous David Feeley Strength and Conditioning Program that recently saw the momentous development of 18th 2021 overall pick, Jaelan Phillips, Miller broke Miami’s power clean record at 355-lbs. Jess Simpson also recently said Jon Ford has “turned heads, playing some of the best football of his life.” Oh and they also got the 4th overall 2021 recruit in the nation according to 247Sports in Leonard Taylor.

Carl Bleich: Striker. The most underrated competition in fall camp was probably Amari Carter against Gilbert Frierson at this position. Both seem well-suited to play this position in 2021 and Miami has a strong future here as well if Chase Smith doesn’t move to linebacker.

Candis McLean: Safety is really our strongest position on defense right now in terms of dependability, depth, and talent. Bubba Bolden, James Williams, Gurvan Hall, Kamren Kinchens, and a reinstated Avantae Williams are a great mix of coverage ability, instinct, and range.

Question 8. Which defensive position is the weakest/most concerning for Miami in 2021?

Underwood: Linebacker. This is the position that has struggled the most over recent years (ever since the departure of Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney), so that’s the position that’s in focus for me this year. Miami has routinely NOT leveraged the strength at this position — speed over physicality — but maybe, hopefully, that will change in 2021.

Thomas: I think the linebackers as a whole. I’m very excited to see what Keontra Smith does, and how Corey Flagg looks in his second season, but you’re going to see a lot of up-and-down play early on in the year. You’re going to see growing pains. By the end of the season I think LB play will be solid, but starting out, it’s definitely the biggest concern on defense.

Dottavio: Inside linebacker. Diaz/Patke have to prove they can recruit, develop and deploy inside linebackers in this defense.

Smith: Linebacker. This group was a mess at times last year, so I’m in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode about Corey Flagg, Jr. and Keontra Smith helping to turn that around - although I like the upside of both.

Marcus: Linebacker. We’ve heard good things outta camp but unless and until they avenge the horrible tackling display - or lack thereof - from the 62-26 UNC shellacking, this unit will be under scrutiny. They will certainly have their work cut out for them in the Alabama opener which is obviously filled with uber athletic four- and five-star talents across the offensive formation.

Bleich: Linebacker is the obvious answer here. The linebacker play certainly can’t get any worse than what we saw at the end of 2020 but it must get significantly better for Miami to have a defense that plays at the level Manny Diaz wants it to. Keontra Smith and Corey Flagg have to lead this group with their play on the field.

McLean: It’s linebacker here. We aren’t returning a ton of in-game experience and we don’t know how Amari Carter will translate to striker. It’s the uncertainty that makes this the weakest unit. And it’s the understanding that the group can be the reason we may lose games this year.

Question 9. Who is your breakout player on defense in 2020 and why?

Underwood: Jared Harrison-Hunte. He’s had a couple years to grow and develop and transition full-time to football after starring on the hardwood in high school. But he was hand picked by Jess Simpson as a recruit for this moment: to step into a starring role and make a name for himself at the top of the DT rotation for Miami. And I think that happens this season.

Thomas: Jahfari Harvey at defensive end. He has the athletic ability that we’ve seen great Miami DE’s possess, the speed and size. Plus, I’m just so confident in the coaching of Jess Simpson on the defensive line, I think we’ll see Harvey emerge as a rising star.

Dottavio: Jahfari Harvey. He has the talent, the position coach, and the scheme to put up huge numbers.

Smith: Jahfari Harvey. I think he has the highest ceiling among the defensive ends, and Jess Simpson always seems to have a star end that he’s coaching up, so I’d say he’s the most likely to be the next impactful end.

Marcus: I may be slightly premature on this one but I’m expecting Chantz Williams to burst through sooner or later. His athletic and rangy traits resemble players who have recently gone through Miami en route to the NFL. If Chantz gets a chance for more than a rotational role, the second-year guy appears ready to prove he is a serious player.

Bleich: Jared Harrison-Hunte. The redshirt freshman defensive tackle will benefit greatly from new defensive line coach Jess Simpson’s coaching and likely will not draw double teams because of Nesta Silvera.

McLean: Miami has had multiple years with an 8+ sack guy. Jahfari Harvey will be the next one to do it. The scheme gears towards pass-rushers and he has the talent to excel in it.

Question 10. Kickers are people too. How do you feel about the Canes’ kicking situation?

Underwood: I feel great. Louis Hedley is the odds on favorite to win the Ray Guy award as the Nation’s best punter after being a runner-up last year. And the Borregales kicking dynasty continues with freshman Andy taking over for last year’s Groza Award winner, his older brother Jose. What’s not to love?

Thomas: Although he’s a freshman, I think Andy Borregales is going to pick up right where his brother, Jose, left off in 2020. I’m not concerned, at all.

Dottavio: Regarding placekicking and punting not as strongly as in ‘20. Regarding returns and coverage just as crappy as always until Patke proves otherwise.

Smith: Couldn’t be less worried about the kicking situation. Although Andy Borregales is a freshman, he’s shown in high school and the offseason that he has a very consistent leg, and we know just how fantastic Lou Hedley is. Plug and forget.

Marcus: Best in the nation. Lou Hedley has been a leader in the third phase of the game since he was an internet sensation on his signing day from Australia. Hedley has stuck to his word of playing three years and has the potential to earn the Ray Guy Award on his way to getting drafted in 2022. Keeping the placekicking in the Borregales’ bloodline is re-assuring as he adapts as a true freshman.

Bleich: Andres Borregales will be reliable—but I hope fans are not expecting him to be kicking at the level his brother Jose was right away. The difference between a senior and freshman kicker is usually pretty significant. After being a finalist last year, Lou Hedley has his eyes on the Ray Guy Award this season and there’s no reason he can’t get it.

McLean: As long as he doesn't think about the shadow of his brother, Andres Borregales will be fine. And Lou Hedley, our tatted swag king, will claim the Ray Guy Award this season.

Question 11. Other than D’Eriq King (I mean, c’mon), Who is the player Miami can least afford to lose?

Underwood: Zion Nelson. Miami has precious few actual tackles in the OL room, and Nelson is the biggest, and best, of the bunch. Losing him would be, as the French say, terrible.

Thomas: Zion Nelson at left tackle. Miami has been waiting for this type of LT for years now, and finally we have a top-caliber talent at one of the most important positions on the football field. He goes down, then our entire offense will suffer.

Dottavio: Corey Gaynor is a big one because apparently he’s the best center and he’s not that good so the 2nd string must be way worse.

Smith: Zion Nelson or Will Mallory. We know how...let’s say sub-optimal it is to be shifting around offensive lineman to account for injuries, not to mention Nelson is the best lineman on the team who’s protecting King’s blind side. The depth/experience/ability behind Mallory is very slim.

Marcus: Zion Nelson or Bubba Bolden. For Nelson, he has had some absences in camp and the offensive line is finally somewhat deep/experienced. However, if the athletic man protecting King’s blindside is knocked out for a prolonged period of time, the domino effect of switching the formation could have severe adverse effects. It’s a similar situation with Bolden, who is aiming to maintain an early round draft grade as he works on consistency and tackling. Should Bolden go down, I trust a safety grouping involving Avantae Williams (when he is back), James Williams, Al Blades Jr. (who is getting some reps there), Kamren Kinchens, and Gurvan Hall. But, that group is very young and needs an experienced leader monitoring the last line of defense in centerfield.

Bleich: Will Mallory. Miami has too many issues behind Mallory on the depth chart to afford him not being able to play.

McLean: Zion Nelson can’t be lost. Poor offensive line play can destroy your offense and we all know that blindside protection is key. In a world where he does get hurt, we’ll have to chip or add help to that side, which would completely shift what we do in the field.

Question 12. Which game(s) are you most looking forward to?

Underwood: Florida State, because that’s always a game I look forward to, and I can’t wait to WHOOP THEIR ASSES again. Carolina, because we have to climb that mountain and win that game. And Alabama. Because they’re Alabama. And the ACC Championship game. Cuz we’ll be there in December.

Thomas: UNC. The top two teams in the coastal division, this is Manny’s third time going against Mack Brown. It’s time for Miami to take control of the Coastal.

Dottavio: ACC Championship Game.

Smith: UNC. I mean, I’ll be there, so I can’t imagine a more exciting game for me than that (not to mention the importance in the Coastal).

Marcus: “We’re onto Alabama.” Regardless of the score outcome, Miami’s attitude against the defending national champions and preseason number one will be telling. They need to keep it respectable as they gear up for the regular season slate. A blowout simply cannot happen (although most think it will). After Saturday, obviously UNC is the game that has been circled since 62-26.

Bleich: North Carolina and Florida State. Sam Howell vs. D’Eriq King in mid-October will be an incredible game. I also cannot wait for Miami’s third straight victory in Tallahassee.

McLean: I’m a “one week season” kind of person. So right now, the game I’m looking forward to the most is Alabama. The next week it will be Appalachian State.

Question 13. What would a successful season for Miami look like in your mind?

Underwood: 10+ regular season wins AND the ACC Coastal Division Championship. AND a bowl win, regardless of bowl. Nothing short of this is a success, to me.

Thomas: A successful season would be 10 wins. Given the roster talent, the great coaching staff, favorable schedule, it’s set up for the Canes to reach double digit wins. There are literally no excuses. If Miami goes 9-3 in the regular season, but win their bowl game, I’ll be happy. But anything less than that, and we got problems.

Dottavio: The ‘Canes have to be in the ACC Championship Game or this is a bust.

Smith: 10 wins, plus a victory in a lesser bowl OR at least an appearance in a New Years Six bowl game. That has to happen this year. There’s too much talent not to win 10 games this year, one way or another. 10-2, miss ACCCG, make a NY6 bowl, I’d take it. 9-3, followed by a win a lesser, I’d also reluctantly accept it. Barely.

Marcus: 10 wins and a Bowl victory (haven’t won one since 2016). Anything short of this would be unacceptable.

Bleich: 10 wins is a success. Miami has too much talent to fall short of that number this season.

McLean: In a perfect world, Miami wins 10 games, remains major injury free, and have to punch their ticket to the ACC title game.

Question 14. What would a bad season for Miami look like in your mind?

Underwood: 3+ regular season losses. Not winning the ACC Coastal Division. Losing yet-another bowl game. Taking a clear step back as a program. Any or all of the above.

Thomas: Read my answer above.

Dottavio: Bad is losing to someone in the Coastal other than UNC.

Smith: Anything less than said goals in Question 13. 9-3 with a bowl loss, or worse. 10 wins has to be the floor this season. Just has to be.

Marcus: Three losses would not be ideal. Four losses and we’re wading into dangerous territory with recruits and the future of the Canes’ personnel.

Bleich: If Miami finishes the regular season at 8-4 or worse, I think it is fair to start asking some questions about the future of the coaching staff and administration. This team has way too much talent to be that mediocre.

McLean: We finish the season with 8 straight ACC games. Coming out of that stretch with 2 or more losses would be unacceptable.

Whew. That brings us to the end of the 2nd part of our season prediction roundtable. LOTS of great conversation here. Hop in the comments and share your thoughts and keep the conversation going.

Go Canes