2014 will be the first time in the Al Golden era that the Hurricanes start the season with out the specter of NCAA Sanctions. Clearly the absence of its' dark shadow has paid immediate dividends in recruiting. But could it help contribute to success on the field as well? The coaching staff under Al Golden has never appeared to lack confidence, even when things aren't going well. But the decision of Golden and Offensive Coordinator James Coley to name true freshman Brad Kaaya the starting QB, emanates in self assurance.
Will it pay off?
All the confidence in the world, and a successful season from Kaaya, will not mean a thing if the defense does not improve. UM will have to do better than 2013 when this highly scrutinized unit surrendered 27 ppg and over 426 yards a contest.
The good news is, they finally have some of the pieces to make it happen. We'll get to that shortly.
First, let's take a closer look at the 'Canes position by position.
QB - It's Brad Kaaya's show now. The true freshman from West Hills, CA exudes confidence, and his calm demeanor suggests he won't be rattled by the spotlight. More importantly however, he has the arm strength, pocket presence, and intelligence to get the job done. Early bumps are expected (circa Ken Dorsey 2000 first half Vs Washington) but Al Golden made it clear his guy was when he stated,
"He’s not a freshman quarterback. He’s the University of Miami quarterback."
However, should Kaaya struggle mightily, senior transfer Jake Heaps has shown enough in fall camp to step in. It will also be interesting to see what happens when senior Ryan Williams returns as well. Williams was the favorite to win the job before tearing his ACL in the spring. Early prognostications have him healthy enough to return as soon as late September.
The overall thought here though is that for this move to succeed both short and long term, and barring injury, Kaaya will need to remain under center for the duration of the season.
"This is the main concern for me. You can't have a short leash on him. You can't pull him at the first sign of trouble. You can't automatically sit him when Ryan Williams returns from his ACL injury.
For this to work, to make it worth burning Kaaya's redshirt on the first snap of the first game, you have to play him the full season. Good or bad. Thick and thin. Success and struggle. He has to be the guy." - Cam Underwood, SOTU
Whether or not things turn out that way, remains to be seen.
RB - Duke Johnson is the man, and if he can avoid injury, should be one of the best RBs in the country. His 40 time hovered around the 4.4 range this off season, and he is up to 212 pounds. Duke also has the best stiff arm in the country, bar none.
Behind the very talented and tenacious Johnson are a trio of backs with a variety of styles, starting with freshman Joe Yearby. Yearby is a 190 pound slasher, with good patience and surprising strength for a back his size. Some have compared him to Johnson at this stage of his career. He is that good. Yearby has only a slight edge for the #2 spot on the depth chart ahead of sophomore Gus Edwards, who at 235 pounds has very nice feet. Edwards has reportedly worked very hard this fall on lowering his pad level. If he figures it all out, he is a beast of a back that can help close out games late. Last but not least, you have 218 pound sophomore Walter Tucker. Tucker projects more as a FB, but has the speed and hands to play tailback as well if needed. It will be interesting to see how well he does as a lead blocker in two back sets.
6'2 240 pound Ronald Regula is a relative unknown commodity who also could see action at FB and H Back.
Overall this is a unit that should be very prolific. If Duke can avoid the injury bug and Miami has a big season, he could/should also garner heavy Heisman consideration.
WR - It all starts with sophomore Stacy Coley. Last season, to no one's surprise, the freshman All-American was a big play threat waiting to happen every time he touched the ball. At 6'1 he has good size, and his hands got better each time out last year, but where he really excels is running after the catch. This spring/fall the precision with which he ran routes also appeared to be sharper. The sky is the limit as far as Coley is concerned. Look for him to rival Johnson as the team's best overall player this season.
Coley is one one of many weapons at receiver for UM. Senior Phillip Dorsett turned some heads when he reportedly ran a 4.18 40 this off season. That is world class, Olympic level stuff. He has had some issues holding on to the ball in the past, but the mere threat of that kind of speed can take the top off of any defense and must be accounted for. Junior Herb Waters leads the way at the slot. Waters is also a burner, and runs well after the catch though not as explosively as Coley. Overall he is very reliable. Rashawn Scott is banged up with a shoulder injury, but he was in the midst of an excellent camp, before getting hurt. He should be back in a few weeks. In the meantime his loss can be accounted for with the presence of shifty true freshman Braxton Berrios. Berrios is more of a slot player than a true option on the outside, but he turned plenty of heads this camp as well. James Coley on Berrios,
"He's really been a strong point for this offense, especially on 3rd down. He's come through with some big plays.
Rounding out the top group of wide outs is Malcolm Lewis, who finally looks to be 100% after dislocating his ankle two years ago. Lewis is a lot like Berrios in size and speed, and also had an excellent camp. He was also the best WR for UM in their spring game. When a guy this good is mentioned this late in the position profile, you know the unit is deep.
TE - Clive Walford has steadily improved each and every year in Coral Gables. The Senior from Belle Glade has been arguable the most underutilized weapon in Miami's arsenal the past few seasons.
Sophomore Standish Dobard could be one of the most improved players on the team. With Beau Sandland leaving the program, he will be counted on as both a receiving threat and a blocker.
True freshman Chris Herndon and 6'7 sophomore Jake O'Donnell could also see snaps. But in essence this position will be manned almost primarily by Walford and Dobard.
OL - Junior LT Ereck Flowers is a potential future first round draft pick in the NFL. He has been quietly and consistently spectacular from the day he stepped on campus. Jon Feliciano will likely line up next to him at guard, and although his technique can sometimes use a touch of refinement, he is a mauler in run blocking and does a great job out in space. Senior C Shane McDermott played most of last season with a balky foot and still earned 3rd team All-ACC honors.
Those three form the foundation of a very omnipotent front. But the final two spots project to be shared by a group of very talented, but green players.
RS So. Danny Isidora looks to have locked up the RG spot. Before sustaining injury least season, he was primed to contribute in a big way.
The RT spot remains a battle between true frosh KC McDermott, a 5 star prospect, fellow frosh Trevor Darling who has had a nice fall camp, and Sophomore Taylor Gadbois, who has also had his moments this fall. Look for the extremely talented McDermott to take the reigns at some point this season, and play beyond his years.
Sunny Odogwu is another option at the T spot down the line. The 6'8 324 pound RS FR. is raw but massive.
Hunter Wells and Alex Gall are versatile reserves who could also see time.
Overall the 'Canes have one of the better O lines in the ACC. Individually Flowers could be the best lineman in the conference by season's end.
Offensive Summary: The offense as a whole will hum no matter who plays QB. Johnson, Coley, and Flowers are superstars at this level. If the QB play is better than expected, this offense could/should be unstoppable.
The defense however is not such a certainty.
DL - This is a unit that could sway the 2014 season from a monumental success to the all too familiar disappointment that recent seasons have produced.
Miami HAS to get better up front.
Senior DE Anthony Chickillo is having arguably his best camp. He is being pushed/joined by Ufomba Kamalu, a player who showed flashes of nice play last season. In the 'Canes multiple front defense, the other DE/OLB Spots will be shared by a trio of very talented players in Tyriq McCord, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and freshman Chad Thomas. Mark D'Onofrio has never had this kind of talent before at one position. It will be fun to see what how PT is divided and what combinations of the three he uses. All were heavily recruited, and McCord has already shown the ability to be a force at this level (the first 7 games last year before injury, particularly Vs UF). Thomas could end up being the best of the bunch when all is said and done. He is not your ordinary freshman, and Golden has taken notice,
"Over 260 now and didn't lose any of his twitch. He's a competitor and a leader."
Another freshman who has shown pass rushing skills, Trent Harris, will also get some snaps at OLB/DE.
At DT things aren't quite as promising. Senior Olsen Pierre is solid if not spectacular. JUCO transfer Calvin Heurtelou is a lot of the same, although his upside could be higher. Miami was hoping that another JUCO player, Michael Wyche, would be the answer. But while his talent is evident, his conditioning is not yet where it needs to be. Returning players like Corey King and Jelani Hamilton will also get looks.
But if there is any obvious Achilles heel on this team, it remains interior defensive line. With play makers nearly everywhere else on the field, this is the spot opponents will look to expose most often. How well these guys hold up could dictate how successful of a season UM has.
LB - If he can get any kind of protection from the aforementioned DTs, Denzel Perryman could run wild and have a monstrous senior campaign. Everyone knows how good this guy already is.
Highly touted junior Raphael Kirby looks to have finally matched the mental aspect of the game with is physical talent, and is slotted to start at one OLB spot. On the other side, Jermaine Grace is undersized at 210 pounds, but has proven to be a spark all camp. More than likely though experienced and steady senior Thurston Armbrister will start opposite Kirby.
However, this is where things get real sticky for this unit. Depth came to the forefront when two players were tossed off the team (I refuse to mention their names) for a horrendous criminal act. This left the 'Canes with freshmen Darrion Owens and Juwon Young as two of their top reserves. They also moved FB Tucker back to ILB part time.
Outside of DT play, LB depth (even more so than starting a true freshman at QB) is the single greatest concern for the upcoming season.
Miami absolutely HAS to stay healthy at LB.
DBs Contrary to the LB spot where there is a dearth of warm bodies, the defensive backfield is an embarrassment of riches.
UM has 5 very capable CBs in 3rd team ALL-ACC performer Tracy Howard, solid senior Ladarius Gunter, reliable Antonio Crawford, and two potential break out players in sophomores Corn Elder and Artie Burns.
Howard and Burns have the highest upsides in the group, and Elder is a spectacular athlete, but Crawford's name came up most often this fall when plays were made by this group.
What's craziest is that as much potential as the corners show, the safety spot could be even better.
Sophomore Jamal Carter is a thumper who has good range to boot. He is definitely a name to watch. But like his name sake Antonio at CB, converted RB Dallas Crawford has made the most waves at his position this fall. Al Golden and teammates alike absolutely beam when asked about the Jr. safety.
"He’s one of the best football players I’ve ever been around, Dallas is a football player — that’s what he is — he can play any spot." - Anthony Chickillo on Dallas Crawford.
Deon Bush was a freshman All-American two years ago, and with injuries behind him will look to regain that form this season. Miami lost Rayshawn Jenkins to a back injury, but two true freshman in Marcus Gayot and Kiy Hester also could contribute immediately.
Defensive Summary: All in all, this is the best back 4 Miami has had in a long, long time. It could all be for not, if the front 7 and particularly the front 4 can not stop the run and harass the QB with some sort of consistency.
Special Teams - Matt Goudis has a nice season last year as the PK, knocking down all of his PATs and 13/17 FG attempts. If Miami is involved in more close games, his skills could be put to the test more often.
Pat O'Donnell's shoes might be impossible to fill at punter, but either Ricky Carroll or Florida transfer Justin Vogel will give it their best. Vogel appears to have the bigger leg and likely gets the edge.
Coley and/or Johnson are both proven and dangerous return men. But in the interest of saving both for offense, look for the responsibility to be shared with any combination of Elder, Burns, Berrios, Yearby, and Dorsett.
ST Summary:The 'Canes have no shortage of team speed and there should be no reason they do not have one of the better return games and better overall ST units in the ACC.
The Schedule: On a 1-10 on the challenging scale, this season looks like a solid 7. Labor day is going to be nuts at Papa John's. A prime time OOC road contest in Lincoln should be fun as well. Cincy at home 10/11 will also not be easy. And a four game stretch with home games against defending National Champion FSU and UNC sandwiched by road contests with Va Tech and Virginia will be no cake walk to say the least.
9/1: @ Louisville (Mon.)
9/6: Florida A&M
9/13: Arkansas State
9/20: @ Nebraska
10/4: @ Georgia Tech
10/23: @ Virginia Tech (Thu.)
11/1: North Carolina
11/15: Florida State
11/22: @ Virginia
Schedule Summary: If the Hurricanes reach 9 or 10 wins this year, they will have absolutely earned it. They will likely be light underdogs to Louisville and Nebraska, and a heavy one Vs FSU. They must win at least 2/3 Vs VT,GT. and UNC to win the Coastal.
Team Summary: Will Miami finally win the Coastal Division and make the ACCCG? The talent is there. Even with a new starter at QB, the offense is loaded. The D some huge concerns (DT, LB depth), but in a few key spots it is substantially better (OLB/DE hybrids, DB). Even with an a schedule that is exceedingly challenging, any team that features Coley, Johnson, Perryman, Flowers, and a trio of top end pass rushers, should win its division at minimum. Expectations in Coral Gables are never going to subside. It is time for this team to live up to them, especially with the demons of the NCAA behind them.
Jerry Steinberg: 11-2, including a bowl win. The D must stay healthy to improve and sustain. I believe in Kaaya, but most of all Coley and Johnson are the best players on the field most Saturdays.
John Pickens: 10-2. Miami will win the Coastal Division and face FSU for a second time in the ACC Championship Game. The defense shows improvement, especially in the secondary/pass defense. Stacy Coley and Duke Johnson have breakout seasons. Brad Kaaya shows that he is the long term answer at QB that Miami fans have been waiting for.
Scott Salomon: Brad Kaaya and Duke Johnson lead Miami to a 10-win season and a berth in the ACC Championship Game. Stacey Coley tops the 1,000 yard mark receiving and scores touchdowns on punt returns, kickoff returns, receiving and rushing. Miami finally breaks through and defeats FSU at home.
Mike Grunewald: 7 - 5 Losses to the usual suspects: Louisville, Nebraska, GT (can't keep beating the same team every year.. what, would it be 6 years in a row?), VT, FSU.
Ricky Paolillo: 9-3 + ACCCG.
Josh Maser: 9-3, lose to FSU in conference title game. Defense shows significant improvement. Kaaya will have his freshman struggles at times but end up having a solid first season, leaving no doubt he will be the starter going into 2015.
Charlie Strauzer: 10 wins, losses to VT and Nebraska, beat FSU at home and lose to them in the ACCCG rematch. Golden is praised for getting the FSU monkey off his shoulder.
Larry "The Amigo" Milian: 10-3. Too many tough road games. Hate that Thursday night in Blacksburg. Not thrilled with Louisville on Monday either. We beat FSU in November but lose to them in the ACC Championship.
Michael Seay: 8-4, Can pick up a win playing @UL/@Neb or @VT but are still a year away from realisticly beating FSU. And until they prove otherwise I will pencil them in for a head scratching loss against an ACC Coastal team(GT/Duke/orUNC).