After spending 15 seasons at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt has returned to be the head coach at Miami, his alma mater. With spring practice set to begin on March 15, the hope is that Richt will not only lead the Hurricanes to the top of the ACC, but also bring the program back to national prominence.
Miami went 8-5 last season, including a loss to Washington State in the Sun Bowl. Believe or not, the Hurricanes haven’t had a double-digit win season since going 11-2 in 2003.
Before Miami can become championship contenders once again, the team will need to address a few holes during spring practice. One area the Hurricanes will not have to worry about is quarterback.
Brad Kaaya returns for his third season as the starter. Last season, Kaaya threw for 3,238 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
While having a familiar face at quarterback will help the Hurricanes, the team will need to address the offensive line tasked with protecting Kaaya. The defense also will have to get acclimated to new coordinator Manny Diaz's 4-3 scheme.
5 Storylines to Watch During Miami’s Spring Practice
1. How will Kaaya perform in Richt's new offense?
Kaaya was very successful in offensive coordinator James Foley’s system. Under Richt's pro-style system, Kaaya could put up his best numbers yet.
While at Georgia, Richt liked to get the ball deep down the field to his receivers. That would then get defenses on their heels and that's when he would turn to his ground game to wear down the opposition.
Wide receivers Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters are gone, but the Miami passing game has a talented group led by big-play threat Stacy Coley. Malcolm Lewis, Braxton Berrios and Lawrence Cager also return, in addition to junior college transfer Dayall Harris and incoming freshman Sam Bruce.
2. Hurricanes’ deep backfield
Miami will return an excellent stable of running backs, which all should get a number of carries in 2016. Joseph Yearby led the team in rushing in 2015 with 1,002 yards and six touchdowns.
Mark Walton also saw a lot of action last season as a true freshman, rushing for 450 yards and nine touchdowns. Walton also caught 22 balls for 293 yards and a score.
Miami also will have Gus Edwards back after he suffered a foot injury in a scrimmage last August. Prior to his injury, Miami coaches believed Edwards was poised for a tremendous season, so expect him to be a part of the Hurricanes’ offense too.
3. The offensive line has to improve right?
The good thing for the Hurricanes is nine out of the 10 offensive linemen that saw playing time in 2015 return. The bad news is this unit wasn’t very good last season.
Miami was tied for 34th in the nation in sacks allowed last season and the Hurricanes allowed the eighth-most tackles for a loss with 57. They weren't much better in run blocking either, as they ranked 112th in yards per carry (3.68).
New offensive line coach Stacy Searels will be the man responsible for improving the Hurricanes’ offensive line. Searels was most recently at Virginia Tech, whose offense averaged 385.2 yards per game last season.
4. Miami's defensive line
It has been a long time since Miami had a dominant defensive line. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski hope to change that and help the Hurricanes improve their rushing defense.
Miami finished last season 70th in the nation in sacks with 26 in 13 games. The Hurricanes also finished 105th in tackles for a loss.
Miami has talented pieces in Chad Thomas (former 5-star recruit) Kendrick Norton (4-star), Gerald Willis (5-star) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (4star), so it will be up to Kuligowski and Diaz to get the most out of all of them.
5. Inexperienced defensive backs
The Hurricanes will need to replace four players from their secondary, each of whom received a substantial amount of playing time last season. Cornerback Artie Burns declared early for the NFL Draft while Tracy Howard, Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford all exhausted their eligibility. So Miami will need several players to emerge as playmakers, and the sooner the better.
Cornerback Corn Elder, who has experience, will be counted on to lead the secondary. Elder started seven games last season and he recorded 41 tackles, two interceptions and was fifth in the ACC in passes defended with 12.
Pre-Spring Miami Outlook in the ACC
Miami can contend in the ACC Coastal Division in 2016, but not without shoring up a few key areas first. Defending division champion North Carolina has to replace its starting quarterback, Virginia Tech is breaking in a new head coach and quarterback, and Pittsburgh will have to replace its biggest playmaker in Tyler Boyd, so the opportunity for the Hurricanes to finally play in the ACC Championship Game is there.
If the Hurricanes can learn their new playbook quickly, fans should see improvement relatively quickly. It will take time for the Hurricanes to unseat Clemson and/or Florida State as top dog in the ACC, but with Mark Richt back at his alma mater, the program certainly appears to be in better hands than it was under former head coach Al Golden.
— 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.