Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Miami Hurricanes have yet to win a conference championship, let alone the ACC Coastal Division. Last season, Virginia Tech claimed the Coastal, the Hokies’ sixth division title since they also joined the conference in 2004.
The famous moniker is “defense wins championships” and the Hurricanes have a chance to have one of the best defenses in the ACC in 2017. Seven starters return from a unit that finished fifth in the conference and 20th in the FBS in total defense last season.
Miami has plenty of experience returning in its front seven, including senior Chad Thomas and sophomore Joe Jackson, a pair of defensive ends who combined for 22.5 tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks in 2016. Miami The secondary is replacing all four starters, but having an experienced line and linebackers should take pressure off of the defensive backfield.
2. Mark Walton
Not many people outside of the South Florida area know much about Walton, the Hurricanes’ top running, but that is likely to change this season. The junior is the second-leading returning rusher after gaining 1,117 yards on the ground in 2016. He also scored 15 total touchdowns (fifth in the ACC) and added 27 catches for 240 yards last season.
With an inexperienced quarterback, Walton will likely shoulder the load offensively. Depending on how well the Hurricanes perform this season, Walton could be a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
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3. Offensive line should improve
Miami allowed 25 sacks in 13 games last season. That averages out 1.92 per game, but the more telling stat is that the Hurricanes gave up 18 of those 25 sacks during a four-game losing streak which ended any hopes of winning the ACC Coastal Division.
The flip side of that is that the line only gave up seven sacks in the team’s nine wins. LSU transfer George Brown Jr. and freshman Navaughn Donaldson add depth to an offensive line group that returns four starters. The combination of experience and added depth should result in better run blocking and pass protection this fall.
4. Miami’s sophomore contributors
Last season, Miami had six freshmen that were key contributors to its 9-4 campaign. Those six players are back and should be even better as sophomores.
Wide receiver Ahmmon Richards earned Freshman All-American honors from ESPN, Pro Football Focus and 247Sports after leading all freshmen with 934 receiving yards (on 49 catches) last season. In addition, the linebacker trio of Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud played well in their first season and should be even better with a year under their belt in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s system.
Miami had a tough four stretch of games in the middle of the 2016 when the Hurricanes played Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in a row. The Hurricanes lost all four games, only of them of by more than a touchdown, resulting in their only losses of the season. This fall, the schedule doesn’t appear to be near as challenging.
While the Hurricanes will have to travel to Tallahassee to play Florida State on Sept. 16, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame both come to Hard Rock Stadium in early November. The Hurricanes will be making the trip to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina this season, but the Tar Heels are replacing a bunch of key players, including quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.