Bowl week, even before the Miami Hurricanes took the field for the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl, started off as a celebration.
An embarrassing, 36-point loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the regular-season finale was a distant memory by Christmas weekend. The day after Christmas, D'Eriq King announced he was coming back to Coral Gables for one more year, taking advantage of the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Run it back" became a rallying cry for Miami — the Hurricanes bring back all but two starters in 2021 — but the Canes need King to be healthy to improve on a breakthrough 2020.
Previewing Miami's Offense for 2021
Manny Diaz tried to overhaul Miami's offense in 2019, his first season as Miami head coach, plucking Dan Enos from Alabama to be his first offensive coordinator. It didn't work. The Hurricanes finished 2019 ranked 90th in the nation in scoring offense, 98th in yards per game and 80th in yards per play, so Diaz fired Enos and tried again. Last year, he found a gem.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee ditched Miami's long-standing commitment to pro-style systems in favor of a spread, up-tempo attack. The Hurricanes jumped to 26th in scoring, 32nd in yards per game and 39th in yards per play, and King was his perfect conduit.
In his first shortened season at Miami, King completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 2,686 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions, to go along with 538 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. It was the sort of stat line never posted before by a Hurricane, playing in an offense unlike any other ever run at Miami.
King's recovery from a torn ACL is the story of the offseason. If he can come back fully healthy, he will be a serious Heisman contender. If he can't, Miami's offensive outlook becomes much more complicated.
With King sidelined, freshmen Tyler Van Dyke, Peyton Matocha and Jake Garcia all spent spring practices competing to be his backup. If one of them is pressed into duty, the offensive foundation is still much better than the one King first encountered when he transferred to the Hurricanes from the Houston Cougars. Running backs Cam'Ron Harris, Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton all ran for at least 4.0 yards per carry last season, and wide receiver Mike Harley is within striking distance of Miami's all-time records for receptions and receiving yards. Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo provides another big-play weapon for King on the outside.
Most importantly, the offensive line took a massive leap forward last year, led by tackle Zion Nelson, who jumped from turnstile as a freshman in 2019 to rising star in 2020. After allowing the fourth-most sacks in the nation in 2019, Miami allowed 1.5 fewer per game last season to climb closer to the middle of the pack.
Previewing Miami's Defense for 2021
Diaz will try to work his same quick-fix, coaching-change magic on defense. In his first two years as head coach, his old unit progressively got worse, culminating with the 62 points Miami surrendered to North Carolina in the last game of the 2020 regular season.
It led Diaz, once again, to make changes. He moved former defensive line coach Todd Stroud and former cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph into off-the-field roles. He effectively demoted Blake Baker, prompting the former defensive coordinator to leave and become the LSU Tigers' linebackers coach. Diaz reinserted himself as the play-caller on defense — his staff doesn't technically have a defensive coordinator anymore — and made a splashy hire to bring in defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson.
With three new defensive position coaches and a new defensive play-caller, expectations are high in South Florida, even if the defense is littered with serious question marks.
Miami is trying to replace three NFL-bound defensive ends with one transfer and a slew of underclassmen with two total games of starting experience. The Hurricanes need to figure out the plan at linebacker after they gave up a program-record 554 rushing yards in their blowout loss to the Tar Heels. They'll need more than ever from their secondary, which is suddenly the strength of the defense, led by star safety Bubba Bolden and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, who transferred to Miami from Georgia in January.
The Hurricanes' defense can still be great. It'll just have to look a lot different than a year ago.
Previewing Miami's Specialists for 2021
Nowhere has Diaz's penchant for quick fixes been more obvious than on special teams. In 2018, Miami had the worst punting game in the Atlantic Coast Conference, so the Hurricanes landed Lou Hedley from a junior college, and he became one of the best punters in the nation. In 2019, Miami lost multiple games because of placekicking, so the Hurricanes landed Jose Borregales as a transfer from FIU, and he became an All-America kicker.
Hedley is still in the fold and should contend for the Ray Guy Award, but Borregales is off to the NFL. Miami isn't going far to try to replace him, though: Freshman kicker Andres Borregales, the specialist's younger brother, is the frontrunner to be his successor.
Whether Diaz is the king of quick fixes will determine the success of this defense. The success of this team, however, most likely hinges on the right knee of King.
National Ranking: 14
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(D'Eriq King photo courtesy of Miami Athletics)