After being hired by his alma mater nine months ago, Mark Richt will finally come out of the famous smoke at Hard Rock Stadium and coach his first game for the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday. His first opponent as the Hurricanes' head coach will be the Florida A&M Rattlers from the FCS ranks.
Miami had a number of ups and downs during the 2015 season. After a 58-0 loss at home to Clemson, the Hurricanes decided to fire then-head coach Al Golden. Interim head coach Larry Scott then coached the Hurricanes to a 4-2 record (8-4 overall), which included a 20-14 Sun Bowl loss to Washington State.
In his first season as head coach, Alex Wood had a rough season at Florida A&M and the Rattlers finished with a 1-10 record. Quarterback Kenneth Coleman returns after he threw for 607 yards and three touchdowns in seven games in 2015.
This will be the 11th time the Hurricanes and the Rattlers have met on the gridiron. Miami leads the series 9-1.
Florida A&M at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN3
Three Things to Watch
1. Brad Kaaya
Many experts have Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation entering the season. An excellent showing against an inferior opponent in Florida A&M could become a momentum booster considering Kaaya is learning a new offense.
In 12 games, Kaaya threw for 3,238 yards and 16 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Despite playing an FCS opponent, Kaaya said he and his teammates prepared a lot for Florida A&M.
“We’re prepping pretty hard for them,” Kaaya said. “You know this is Coach Richt’s first game at Miami, so our preparation is just like any other game. We are treating them as if we’re playing the best team on our schedule, that’s every plan and we respect all our opponents and that’s how we take it every single week.”
On deep passes last season, Kaaya completed more than 41 percent of his passes. In Richt’s offense, Kaaya should have a lot of opportunities to throw deep passes down the field, provided the offensive line keeps his pocket clean.
Look for Kaaya to use Florida A&M as an opportunity to execute more of the Hurricanes' offense. He will also use the game against the Rattlers as a chance to gain chemistry with more of his receivers.
2. Hurricanes Linebackers
Under former Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, the team’s linebackers were often out of position. With a new 4-3 defense under now-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and a number of new starters, the Hurricanes will look to return their defense to its glory seasons when the team was contending for national championships.
After Miami dismissed Al-Quadin Muhammad and Jermaine Grace after violating NCAA rules, the Hurricanes are down to just three starters that played in the team’s postseason bowl game last season.
The linebacker corps in Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, is inexperienced as all three are freshmen. Richt said that despite their classification, he doesn’t feel like his linebackers are freshmen.
“The big thing is just the fact they they’ve been here for a long time,” Richt said. “They’ve been here since January. They went through spring football. They’ve been through three installations of the same defense, and they’ve heard it as often as anybody else who has been in this program, because it’s new to everybody. In a lot of ways, they’re not freshmen to us.”
3. Miami’s receivers
Miami will have only eight healthy receivers on scholarship this fall. Sophomore Lawrence Cager, who the team was expecting to have a breakthrough season, tore his ACL and will miss the entire 2016 season.
Stacy Coley is the Hurricanes' leader among returning receivers as he caught 47 passes for 689 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. He is currently the only receiver on the roster that is a proven playmaker down the field.
Braxton Berrios and Malcolm Lewis are two other receivers the Hurricanes hope can make plays in their offense this fall. Berrios finished with 33 catches for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2015. Lewis recorded 45 receptions for 439 yards and two touchdowns last season.
The question isn’t if Miami will defeat Florida A&M, it is by how much. This is a typical first week of the season tune-up game for their upcoming schedule.
Look for the Hurricanes to get off to a great start against a Rattlers defense that allowed an average of 33.5 points and 469 yards per game. Miami’s starters will likely play very little in the second half as this game will likely be out of hand.
Prediction: Miami 58, Florida A&M 6
— 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.