How are Miami Hurricanes looking for 2017? An overview of who’s returning

Ahmmon Richards, the top freshman pass-catcher in the country, will be a bigger part of the Hurricanes' offense in 2017. (AP)

Ahmmon Richards, the top freshman pass-catcher in the country, will be a bigger part of the Hurricanes’ offense in 2017. (AP)

[UM knows it ‘didn’t get it done’ in 2016]

[Richt on Kaaya: ‘Torn’ on NFL decision]

[Kaaya: ‘I’ve got soul-searching to do]

[Njoku declares for NFL draft]

[Hurricanes win Russell Athletic Bowl | Live blog | Photos]

Let’s leave Brad Kaaya aside for a moment and talk about what we know:

The Hurricanes’ front seven could be flat-out dominant in 2017.

Miami has an excellent a receiver-running back-tight end trio.

There will be room for young players and incoming true freshmen to shine.

The 9-4 Hurricanes of 2016 will return a lot on defense — and should have enough on offense, regardless of Kaaya’s decision — to be one of the best teams in the ACC. They’ll clearly have enough confidence, after playing some high-quality ball to end the year.

“As good as we want to be,” freshman linebacker Shaq Quarterman said, when asked how good Miami could be next year. “As great as we want to be.”

We’ll break down individual units in the coming weeks, but let’s set the table first. Here’s an overview of how the Hurricanes are set up going forward:

Defense

UM isn't sure if Courtel Jenkins (left) will be back -- he may transfer -- but standout freshman Joe Jackson returns. (Getty Images)

UM isn’t sure if Courtel Jenkins (left) will be back — he may transfer — but standout freshman Joe Jackson returns. (Getty Images)

Miami’s strength in 2017 will be defense, which (as of Dec. 30, with a few more bowl games to play) ranked eighth nationally in defensive yards per play, 12th in opponent yards per pass attempt, and 17th in yards per carry allowed. UM allowed the 13th-fewest points.

ESPN analyst Greg McElroy praised the unit heavily, saying it was a major reason why he feels the Hurricanes could be a top-10 team next year.

While that designation sounds premature, this was by far the best Miami defense since 2011, when it was top-20 in numerous categories, including No. 1 in tackles for loss (UM was No. 7 on Friday).

Up front, Miami will have preseason All-ACC candidates in 6-foot-6 ends Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson (combined: 12.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for losses) and athletic tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh. All the key backups have eligibility remaining, though tackle Courtel Jenkins (who played the best game of his UM career in the bowl) has explored transferring. Miami brings in ESPN’s No.3-rated defensive end, D.J. Johnson, and immensely talented Lake Worth High product Jonathan Garvin.

“Next year, it’s going to be trouble,” Quarterman said of the defensive line.

With another year of experience, Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud should constitute one of the best linebacker units in the country. They combined for 182 tackles, 21 tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks, along with 14 quarterback hurries and five pass break-ups. They made mistakes, but grading on a 101 level, they earned straight-As.

“The standard is something that’s been set,” Quarterman said. “If we don’t meet the standard, then why did we come here? I talk to Jon Beason often, I talk to D.J. [Williams]. They have faith in us. They see that we’re building something here.”

The secondary will be a major area of focus in the coming months. Standout cornerback Corn Elder departs along with productive veterans Jamal Carter, Rayshawn Jenkins and Adrian Colbert. They’ll miss Elder’s lockdown coverage and athletic pass break-ups, and Carter and Jenkins should be commended for their improvement in tackling (they combined for 161, and cut down on the misses drastically). During his brief time at UM, Colbert made an impact — just ask West Virginia and Notre Dame.

Versatile sophomore Jaquan Johnson and incoming recruits Trajan Bandy and Amari Carter give Jamal Carter hope for the future.

“I’m just happy I could be a part of this team. To be coached by this coaching staff was a blessing for me,” he said. “It was due for us to be great, to go out and dominate. It’s going to [carry] over to next season. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get a national championship next year.”

Offense

Outgoing tight end David Njoku believes Chris Herndon (above) could be just as special as he was. (Getty Images)

Outgoing tight end David Njoku believes Chris Herndon (above) could be just as special as he was. (Getty Images)

The chances of that, or an ACC title, in 2017 increase if Miami’s all-time leading passer returns. Kaaya, when protected and playing his best, could slice and dice defenses with pinpoint throws to all areas of the field. If he leaves, Miami fans should gear up for one heck of a quarterback battle.

“I think regardless of if I’m here or not next season, I think this team is headed to greatness,” Kaaya said. “I think there’s a lot of good things going on, and a lot of progress has been made. So I think this team will be good regardless of what happens over the next few days.”

Next fall, three redshirted backups – junior Malik Rosier, sophomore Evan Shirreffs and freshman Jack Allison – could be vying for the main job with two true freshmen, N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon.

Though Miami loses 1,542 yards and 17 touchdowns with the departure of tight end David Njoku and receiver Stacy Coley, freshman All-American receiver Ahmmon Richards and tight end Chris Herndon should acclimate to leading roles.

“He’s a freak athlete, just like myself,” Njoku said of Herndon (6-4, 253). “Probably even better.”

Miami also gets running back Mark Walton (1,357 total yards, 15 touchdowns) back for his junior year. Walton should be one of the ACC’s top backs.

The questions for Miami’s offense, aside from the quarterback: The offensive line and secondary receiving options, along with the unproven depth behind Walton. At receiver, Braxton Berrios, Lawrence Cager (coming off a torn ACL), Dayall Harris and Dionte Mullins will be looking for more targets. The offensive line needs an infusion of talent in recruiting and a large dose of health. Travis Homer will see increased time in the backfield, after shining on special teams as a true freshman.

The QB situation aside, Berrios is a believer entering his senior year.

“We won four, we lost four, and at that point in time everybody started looking at each other. Instead of laying down and packing it up for next season, we ended it with five wins,” he said. “There’s still room for improvement, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

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