When Mark Richt accepted the head coaching job at the University of Miami last December, many experts said he can have the Hurricanes competing for an ACC championship as early as 2016. While Clemson and Florida State are the heavy favorites in the conference, Miami has an excellent chance to represent the ACC Coastal in Charlotte on Dec. 3.
One of the biggest reasons there’s so much optimism in Coral Gables these days is because of the number of starters that return from last season’s eight-win team. Nine starters on offense are returning in 2016, including all five offensive linemen from a year ago.
That along with these five other reasons are why the Hurricanes can win the ACC Coastal in 2016.
1. Brad Kaaya is back and healthy
Despite throwing for 3,238 yards, 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions, 2015 was a rough year for the Hurricanes’ signal-caller. The junior suffered a concussion in the 58-0 loss to Clemson, which was on the same weekend the head coach who recruited him to Miami (Al Golden) was fired. Once Kaaya returned to the field, it took him a few games to return to his previous form.
Now with Richt taking over play-calling duties this season, expect Kaaya to have the best season of his career, provided he remains healthy.
When he was the head coach at Georgia, Richt loved to run a lot of play action to open up deep ball opportunities and that fits Kaaya’s skill set very well. Now that Miami is finally running a scheme that puts Kaaya in the best position to win, the Hurricanes’ offense could be one of the best in the ACC, Florida State and Clemson included.
2. Hurricanes have a number of offensive playmakers
Besides Kaaya, Miami has a lot of other talented players that could shine in 2016. One of them is running back Gus Edwards. After missing the entire 2015 season because of a foot injury, Edwards was the talk of the Hurricanes’ spring game last month.
The junior from Staten Island, N.Y., rushed for 57 yards and a touchdown in the annual spring game as the most impressive running back in the scrimmage.
Also returning in the Hurricanes’ backfield is 1,000-yard rusher Joseph Yearby.
Miami will need talented wide receivers Stacey Coley, Braxton Berrios and Lawrence Cager to improve their play, but the potential is there.
3. The improving offensive line
To say Miami’s offensive line has been terrible the past couple of seasons would be an understatement. The horrendous play of the line played a role in Kaaya’s concussion against Clemson. While the offensive line appeared to have made some strides in the spring, that unit still has a lot of room for improvement.
One thing that was encouraging from watching spring practices was the team’s blitz recognition and reaction. Miami was often confused when defenses decided to blitz last season.
4. Defense should improve under Diaz
When Golden and former defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio ran their 3-4 defense during their regime, the team wanted to be bigger and stronger than the opposition’s offensive line. Under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, team speed is more of a priority than size.
During the spring, players such as Gerald Willis and Shaquille Quarterman appeared to be much lighter and faster when pursuing ball carriers.
It’s no secret that the Hurricanes’ defense was among one of the worst in college football in the Golden era. With Diaz now running the defense, there’s nowhere to go but up.
5. The schedule is favorable
Miami will play its first two games (Florida A&M, FAU) at home before going on the road to Appalachian State on Sept. 17. In ACC play, the Hurricanes will not play Clemson this season, but they will face NC State in cross-division play on Nov. 19.
What helps Miami is both Florida State and North Carolina come to SunLife Stadium. Even if the Hurricanes were to lose to the Seminoles, a win over the Tar Heels, which have question marks of their own to address, could determine the winner of the ACC Coastal Division.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.