With inexperience at quarterback for the first time in three years and playmakers Stacy Coley and David Njoku moving on, could there be a better time for Miami to upgrade its wide receiver unit?
The Hurricanes added All-American recruits Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley and long-limbed target Evidence Njoku on signing day. Lawrence Cager returns from a knee injury. Braxton Berrios has a senior’s mindset. Dionte Mullins could become a contributor. Dynamic signee DeeJay Dallas will start out as a receiver.
Oh, and Ahmmon Richards should be bigger and stronger coming off his freshman All-American year.
If Miami struggles to throw, it likely won’t be from lack of receiving options.
Position coach Ron Dugans drew plenty of signing-day praise from his colleagues. “Cleaned up,” safeties coach Ephraim Banda said. “Did a hell of a job, and is only going to make everyone better.”
A few moments with Dugans, who assessed his group on signing day:
* Thomas, a four-star recruit rated No. 8 among receivers and 55th overall by ESPN, was “a big-time get for us,” said Dugans, who began recruiting him last summer. That’s long before Thomas made a splash with his MVP performance in the Under Armour All-American Game last month. “A lot of people don’t know that,” Dugans said.
“He can run. He’s electrifying. He’s really good with the ball in his hands. Makes a lot of plays. Contested catches. Can play some special teeams for us. Return some punts and kicks. He’s a special athlete.”
Dugans compared Thomas to Devin Hester, Phillip Dorsett and his former Florida State teammate Peter Warrick, who shined in Mark Richt‘s offense. Dugans said he has no worries about Thomas’ academics, an issue that hampered his recruitment (and was even mentioned by ESPNU’s broadcast team during Thomas’ televised commitment ceremony).
Like Thomas (5-10, 170), Harley (5-10, 160) is a speedy threat who can “flush the field” from the inside or outside lanes. Dugans compared Harley, from Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas, to Santana Moss and praised him for his fearlessness going across the middle.
“Tremendous kid that loves to work. Kid can run. He can outrun people,” Dugans said. “Good ball skills. Really good route-runner. He’s a competitor. I don’t care what size he is. He competes. That’s what you love about Mike Harley.”
Njoku, listed at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds, is a receiver — though tight ends coach Todd Hartley said he would love to work with him — and projects as a big-bodied outside threat.
” I think he’s a better route runner than his brother was at the time. I just feel he’s a better receiver prospect right now,” Dugans said, when asked if Njoku would switch to tight end like his brother, David. “I was pretty impressed with the way he’s able to bend, run routes. That’s a skillset that he has that his brother didn’t have, being able to get in and out of breaks. He has such a long wingspan.
“He’s not a kid I want to get to 230. Maybe a 215, 220 kid. He’ll put some weight on.”
Hartley’s assessment of the younger Njoku:
“He’s definitely got David’s length. He may be taller than David, which David won’t agree. He is a specimen, just like David is. Will he grow to have David’s stature? I don’t know. He’s going to be a really good football player, no matter where he’s at. Whether he’s in coach Dugans’ room or my room, he’s going to be a great asset. If he gets big enough to play for me, great. If he stays in coach Dugans’ room, he’ll make a lot of plays there.”
As for Dallas (5-10, 190), who may wind up at cornerback, several coaches praised his knack for scoring touchdowns and his potential to become a leader. That’s a quality Miami is in need of (considering Brad Kaaya‘s departure, to name one example).
“It’s not just leadership at the quarterback position,” Dugans said. “I want guys at receiver to lead, too. I love his work ethic, his habits. He’s trying to learn the system so he can get a chance to be on the field and not have to think while he’s on the field. Just go out and play.
“He does the things you want a receiver to do after he catches the ball,” Dugans said. “He gets yards after the catch. He makes people miss. He scores touchdowns.”
Several more seasoned receivers hope for breakout years around Richards. Miami could have used 6-5, 210-pound Cager last year, and though his ACL tear happened before camp, UM coaches won’t rush him.
“One thing coach Richt said is I’m not trying to win the spring,” Dugans said. “He may do some drill work in spring ball. I’m not sure. He’s been progressing pretty good. I don’t know his limit with spring ball. Just to see him walk by, it’s like, ‘Wow’ You hope he can play [laughs]. I’m excited about him.
Before his injury, Dugans said, “Cager had gotten really good. He had gotten better from spring ball to offseason. There were some things the kid did where you said that’s what I want to see. The kid works his tail off.”
UM will begin spring practice after it returns from spring break (which runs from March 11-19).
Berrios, who was a “heck of a punt returner” in the words of special teams coach Hartley, was an afterthought in the offense (12 catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns). Dugans explained that by noting that Njoku and Coley played in the slot at times, with Richards playing outside. “It’s tough to get the ball in his hands when you got a guy that left early [Njoku] and a with first-, second-round talent [Coley],” Dugans said. “I was excited for him in the bowl game.”
Dugans on Mullins (5-10, 190), who played sparingly last year and recorded zero catches:
“The kid hadn’t played football in two years” because of academic issues in high school,” he said. “We knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get him on the field. We wanted him on the field. I saw him with his shirt off the other day and I said, ‘Oh, wow. Hope he’s not getting too big.’
“Now you want to see him go through the offseason mat drills he hasn’t gone through. He’s still learning how to be a pro. Got to keep teaching him that. Teaching him the ‘how to play the next play’ mentality. He’s coming along the way I thought he would.”
On Dayall Harris, who didn’t make an impact (nine catches, 90 yards) after transferring from junior college:
“He’s doing the same thing. At one point in time, he was up and down. When he caught on — ‘I’ve got to stay focused. I can’t get complacent.’ At one point in time, that happened. He learned from that. He’s built on to what he’s done. Bowl practices, he’s had some unbelievable practices. He’s done a good job.”
Overall, Dugans said he felt “a lot better than last year,” when he recruited a host of wideouts down the stretch (Georgia’s Javon Wims, Florida’s Freddie Swain, South Carolina’s Randrecous Davis) and saw three-star commit Latrell Williams flip to Tennessee the night before signing day.
“We got faster” this time around, Dugans said. “How much faster, I don’t know. At one time, we had some guys that are possession guys. Now we’ve got some guys that can really take the top off it.”