Having a new sheriff in town with Mark Richt might be the key ingredient to getting Miami back to a perennial power. Richt comes into a great quarterback situation with star quarterback Brad Kaaya returning, but will that be enough to knock off the ACC’s best - Clemson and Florida State - for a conference title?
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Previewing Miami’s Offense
If the Hurricanes can find a way to protect Brad Kaaya, this has the makings of a highly productive attack. Kaaya returns for his junior year after finishing in the top three in the ACC in yards per game, fewest interceptions, yards per attempt and passer rating. There’s a new, offensively gifted head coach, Mark Richt, who is excited to call plays for the first time since he surrendered those duties at Georgia in 2007. There’s a stable of running backs — 1,000-yard rusher Joe Yearby may not even start, since sophomore Mark Walton came on strong in the offseason and bruiser Gus Edwards is healthy after a season-ending foot injury. There’s a group of wide receivers that includes Stacy Coley (47 catches for 689 yards and four touchdowns), who opted to forgo an NFL career to return to school, and a three-headed monster at tight end that includes rising star David Njoku (6'4", 244).
What Miami does not have, however, is a reliable offensive line. The Hurricanes struggled to run block last year (112th in yards per carry) and allowed sacks galore in spring scrimmages. It remains to be seen whether that’s a sign of a recalibrated, reenergized Miami defense or an impending season-long headache for Richt — and aches and pains all over for Kaaya.
Previewing Miami’s Defense
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Looking for an overhaul, Richt brought on Manny Diaz, formerly of Mississippi State (and most notably before that, Texas). Gone are the 3-4, read-and-react principles of Al Golden and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. Diaz, a Miami native and son of the city’s former mayor, wants his charges to be as aggressive and relentless as the 4-3 defenses he grew up watching in the Orange Bowl.
The Hurricanes have a few players who wouldn’t look out of place on those national championship teams — though not nearly enough of them. Start with ends Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad, both juniors who have high-round NFL Draft potential. Tackles Gerald Willis, Courtel Jenkins and Kendrick Norton will be nice pieces for former Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who has produced four first-rounders since 2009.
It gets a little worrisome from there. While senior linebacker Jermaine Grace is a lightning-fast rover who led UM in tackles (79, six for a loss), that unit is depending on sophomore Darrion Owens to return from a major knee injury and talented freshmen Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud to be ready for action.
The secondary has a trio of capable safeties in seniors Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins and sophomore Jaquan Johnson, but the cornerback unit has one tested player in senior Corn Elder. Diaz’ blitz-happy front seven should improve Miami’s tackles for a loss (96th) and sack (64th) rankings, but leaks on the back end could be troublesome all year.
Previewing Miami’s Specialists
Elder was Miami’s top weapon last season, averaging 13.8 yards per punt and 33.8 yards per kick return. He scored punt and kick return touchdowns — the latter the controversial eight-lateral, 91-yard score at Duke — and had two more TDs called back because of penalties. But his duties at corner may cause the team to look elsewhere. Placekicker Michael Badgley, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, made 25-of-30 field goals and hit from 57 yards. Punter Justin Vogel was steady and had a long of 73.
A gust of fresh air blew into Coral Gables with the arrival of Richt, a 1982 UM graduate and former backup to Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. After a successful three decades as an assistant at Florida State and coach at Georgia, the 56-year-old Richt came home. You can bet after five mediocre years under Golden, he was well received. He takes over a program that has talent but ultimately not enough depth to unseat Florida State and Clemson atop the ACC.