Mark Richt’s first season at the University of Miami went probably better than most expected. The Hurricanes finished the season 9-4 and there’s a lot of optimism coming into spring practice, which begins on March 21.
Although there will not be a spring game for fans to observe how much the team has improved, they’re still some questions Hurricanes fans have. As Miami will look to win their first ACC Coastal Division title, here are a few storylines to watch this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Miami’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
Now that three-year starter Brad Kaaya is off to the NFL Draft, the Hurricanes will need to find a new starter at quarterback. Kaaya set a ton of records at Miami including passing yards and completions, so finding his predecessor won’t be easy.
Redshirt junior Malik Rosier is the quarterback with the most experience, but he has one start in his career as most of his snaps have been in mop-up duty. Jack Allison, a four-start recruit from the 2016 recruiting class, redshirted last year and is expected to be the player with the best chance to unseat Rosier as the favorite for the starting job. In his senior season in high school, Allison threw 11 touchdowns and completed 62.1 percent of his passes.
Freshman Cade Weldon enrolled in the spring, so he is expected to figure into to competition this spring. With no spring game don’t expect Richt to announce his decision at least until freshman N’Kosi Perry arrives in the fall.
2. With Stacy Coley and David Njoku gone, who will step up as pass catchers?
Coley and Njoku will both be selected in April’s NFL Draft, which will leave the Hurricanes with some questions at wide receiver and tight end. Sophomore Ahmmon Richards returns after recording 49 receptions for 934 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, but the depth chart behind him is a mystery.
Braxton Berrios is the returner with the most catches – 12 for 178 yards and two scores. Miami hopes Dionte Mullins and DeeJay Dallas will continue their development and emerge as realistic options during the spring.
Chris Herndon, who will likely be the starting tight end, saw a lot of action a season ago as he caught 28 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Both Michael Irvin and Jovani Haskins were suspended for the Canes’ Russell Athletic Bowl victory over West Virginia, so it remains to be seen where either fits into the picture at this point.
3. Can Miami’s offensive line improve?
The Hurricanes struggled to protect the quarterback throughout last season, giving up 25 sacks. Nearly all of those (20) came in the first eight games, so the offensive line did show some improvement at the end of the campaign.
The good news is that several key members return, which means Miami will be able to build on some momentum and enjoy some continuity headed into the fall. Guard/tackle KC McDermott, center Nick Linder and guard/tackle Trevor Darling are all back with LSU transfer George Brown Jr. considered the favorite to wind up at left tackle.
4. Is Miami’s defensive line their strength of the team?
The one unit that resembled the old Hurricane teams from the past was the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski oversaw a unit that spent plenty of time in opponents’ backfield last season. With several key linemen returning, the expectation is for more of the same this fall.
Kendrick Norton and Chad Thomas are back and coming off of campaigns in which each recorded more than 10 tackles for a loss. End Joe Jackson had 10.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and led the team with 7.5 sacks.
Not only do the Hurricanes appear to have NFL-caliber talent up front, they also have depth with Jon Ford set to enroll this summer. It’s possible Miami could field the best defensive line in the country, which is saying something with defending national champion Clemson and Florida State residing in the same division.
5. Youth in secondary
Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins, Adrian Colbert and Jamal Carter are all gone, meaning the Hurricanes’ secondary will undergo a major makeover. There is not a lot of game experience returning, so this figures to be one of Diaz’ points of emphasis this spring.
Jaquan Johnson is the veteran of the returners after recording 38 tackles, an interception and 1.5 sacks last season.
Malek Young figures to be one of the favorites to start at corner. As a freshman, Young had 22 tackles and a pick. Miami will add more names to the mix this summer when transfers Dee Delaney and Jhavonte Dean, as well as freshman Trajan Bandy are expected to enroll.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Miami in the ACC
Many didn’t have high expectations for Mark Richt in his return to his alma mater. But all of that changed after the Hurricanes went 9-4 last season. Now, many are full expecting Miami to not only contend in, but win the ACC Coastal Division.
Whoever winds up at quarterback, he will have a productive running game led by Mark Walton to rely on. The offensive line also should be better, especially compared to how it performed through the first eight games of last season.
Miami has non-conference games against Bethune-Cookman (home) and Arkansas State (away) before its ACC opener at Florida State, the likely preseason favorite in the conference. If the Hurricanes were to somehow win that game in Tallahassee, the rest of their schedule is favorable with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame coming to Hard Rock Stadium. Even if Miami loses to the Seminoles, a rematch in the ACC Championship Game in December is entirely possible.
— 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.