After a disappointing 7-5 season, it’s crazy to say that things are looking better than ever for the Miami Hurricanes football program. The hiring of head coach Mario Cristobal has elevated this program to another level without even playing a single game. Cristobal has brought in two high-quality coordinators and dominant position coaches in the two months that he has been in charge at Miami. With the new regime in charge of the Hurricanes, what can we expect to be different?
With one of the top returning quarterbacks in Tyler Van Dyke, Miami’s title window is as open as it’s ever been at this point in time. For the Canes to be able to accomplish that, a few things are going to need to be straightened out.
Miami’s Long Lost Strength: The Trenches
Games are won in the trenches. Talent at skill positions can win a team some games, but it won’t win anything meaningful if their trenches are weak. For years, the offensive line has been Miami’s Achilles heel. In what some would call a match made in Heaven, it just so happens that Cristobal’s area of expertise is the offensive line.
From 2018-2021 at Oregon, Cristobal and offensive line coach, Alex Mirabal, brought in ten four-star or better linemen. He also produced three NFL Draft picks, including the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Penei Sewell.
For reference, from 2011-2021, Miami brought in just 11 four-star or better linemen. Additionally, the Canes haven’t had a lineman drafted since the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Luckily, Cristobal gets it done at the line of scrimmage and will get Miami back on the right track.
Oregon’s 3 OL coaches: Cristobal, GA Cody Woodiel and guards/centers coach Alex Mirabal (he’s the one clapping to start the drill). pic.twitter.com/yJEtVjLVki— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) March 7, 2018
How bad have Miami’s OL issues been?
To put how bad Miami’s offensive line issues have been into perspective, from 2017 to 2021, Miami’s quarterbacks were sacked at least 27 times per season, including a whopping 51 times in 2019. The inferior offensive line issues stem further than just pass protection, as the Canes haven’t finished as a top 50 rushing offense since 2014, including finishes outside the top 90 in 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2021.
During the 2021 season, Miami’s rushing offense finished as No. 111 out of 130. Additionally, its 3.3 yards per carry was 110th in the nation. In its losses to Alabama, Michigan State and Florida State, the team rushed for 60.6 yards per game. You can’t beat great teams when you struggle to run the ball. Now, I’m not saying Miami should become a run-first team, but they need to have the capability of doing so, especially with a gunslinger like Van Dyke under center.
For example, we can take a look at Alabama’s matchup with Cincinatti in the 2021 College Football Playoff. Despite having the Heisman Trophy winner and best quarterback in the nation in Bryce Young, the Tide and their offensive staff deterred away from the passing game due to Cincy’s strong pass defense. As a result, the Tide rushed for 301 yards and Young threw for a season-low 181 yards en route to a 27-6 victory.
Where does capability to run the ball start at? The trenches. Even as a Head Coach, Cristobal will coach and push his linemen like he is their position coach. It helps that Cristobal is a known developer and recruiter of offensive lineman.
Developing Offensive Linemen: Past, Present, and Future
Since 2013, recruiting, developing, and shipping off linemen to the NFL has been a forte of Cristobal’s. While at Alabama from 2013-2016, Cristobal developed multiple draft picks and NFL starters in Ryan Kelly, Cam Robinson and Bradley Bozeman. As mentioned before, Cristobal produced multiple draft picks in his time at Oregon.
Offensive line coach Alex Mirabal is known as one of the best in the business at what he does. In his stop at Oregon, Mirabal coached and developed Penei Sewell, Shane Lemieux and Jake Hanson, all of which were drafted. A Miami native, Mirabal returns home to elevate the Canes to national dominance at the line of scrimmage.
Going forward, Cristobal and Mirabal’s development of some current and future Canes is very interesting to me. Zion Nelson is the most intriguing of the current players and Anez Cooper has the most potential of the future.
Going into the 2021 season, Nelson was being projected as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft in some mock drafts, going as early as No. 5 by ESPN’s Todd McShay. After a lackluster season, the 6’5, 316 pound tackle held off entering his name into the 2022 NFL Draft, returning to Miami to play his senior season. Seen as a project pick, Nelson has the potential to elevate his game under Cristobal and Mirabal. The two coaches can get the most out of him, erasing the “inconsistent, project” connotation that sticks to Nelson’s name. Under two offensive line gurus, look for Nelson to make improvements and solidify himself as a top tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Welcome Back, Zion Nelson! pic.twitter.com/el9gWapUUS— GO ‘CANES! (@83_87_89_91_01) January 11, 2022
As for Cooper, can he be the next Nelson? Possibly, as Cooper has an NFL frame before he has even stepped foot on Greentree. The underrated, 6’6, 352 pound tackle was ranked as the No. 1167 best player in the country, and 111th best tackle in the nation. His frame combined with his ability to pull is something that the country should fear. Under the guidance of Cristobal and Mirabal and the program set by Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Aaron Feld, Cooper will be the next big thing at Miami, and possibly the NFL.
Omggggg got lighter now I move faster weight room pic.twitter.com/yx0JJbXte5— Anez Cooper (@MOSTHATED_ANC) October 9, 2021
Fixing the Issues: Cristobal’s Elite Staff
Cristobal’s point of emphasis has been on the staff that he’s brought in. Each addition to the coaching staff shows one thing; Miami is going to dominate the line of scrimmage and run the ball when needed. The combination of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, running backs coach Kevin Smith and offensive line coach Alex Mirabal is going to bring Miami’s offensive game to another level. All things considered, Miami won seven games last year despite having a bottom 20 rushing offense. Imagine what will happen when defenses are forced to respect the run game. If defenses have to come up to defend the run game, Van Dyke and co. will have an easy time beating the defense over the top.
Cristobal has made such a large impact in just two months, bringing in two coveted offensive linemen and elite coordinators. Going forward, Miami will be bringing in and developing top talent in the trenches, resulting in potential success for the program. The better the trenches, the better the skill position players will perform. With Cristobal in charge, the offensive line is guaranteed to be a newfound strength for the Canes.