CORAL GABLES — It has been a unique season on many fronts for Miami.
There was the battle with Hurricane Irma, which forced UM to cancel one game (sorry, Arkansas State), reschedule two more and take a 21-day break between games. We have seen a new faces emerge in year two of Mark Richt’s tenure. The Hurricanes ended their seven-year drought against Florida State, leaving them in position to battle for the ACC championship.
It’s mid-October and the Hurricanes have played five games, while many other teams have played seven. Let’s consider this the halfway point and hand out grades:
Malik Rosier has given Miami’s offense a new dimension — he can run a bit — that Brad Kaaya couldn’t. He needs to improve his accuracy (59.1 completion percentage) but his misses haven’t led to disaster (three interceptions). His slow starts in games are a slight concern. But when Rosier is locked in, he’s outstanding — witness the game-winning drives against Florida State (twice) and Georgia Tech. He was money.
Mark Walton was Miami’s best all-around player before his season-ending injury, and finishes with 428 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Travis Homer has filled in admirably, picking up 377 yards and four touchdowns on 45 carries (he is 10th nationally in yards per carry, 8.38). The main worry is depth; neither Trayone Gray, receiver-turned-tailback DeeJay Dallas, freshman Robert Burns nor walk-on Crispian Atkins has shown they can contribute.
This would be a Grade-A unit if Ahmmon Richards (hamstring) was healthy. Hard to argue with what Braxton Berrios has done in his absence (326 yards, five touchdowns on 24 grabs). He’s not a big target, but is reliable and highly productive in the slot picking up yards after the catch. UM hopes to get their No. 1 target back for the second half. Newfound hero Darrell Langham has come on strong, giving Miami a physical weapon on the perimeter. Dionte Mullins, Mike Harley and Jeff Thomas have shown flashes of their high-level talent. Dayall Harris and Lawrence Cager have yet to make an impact.
Chris Herndon has had a quietly productive start, ranking second on the team in catches (18, for 175 yards and a touchdown). He helped UM march the field in a screen-heavy winning drive against Georgia Tech. Michael Irvin II has seen regular action as an H-back/blocking type. He’s still getting his feet wet.
Still too much inconsistency here. UM’s backs had little room against the better defenses Miami has faced (Florida State and Duke). Rosier’s mobility masks some of the protection issues, but that and the run game struggles leave one wondering how UM will hold up against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame next month. Starting right guard Navaughn Donaldson’s sprained ankle is a concern. Unproven backups Corey Gaynor and Hayden Mahoney are vying for that spot. Senior left tackle Kc McDermott and two juniors, center Tyler Gauthier and right guard Tyree St. Louis, have been Miami’s most solid linemen.
As advertised. Miami ranks third nationally in tackles for loss per game (8.6) and fifth in sacks per game (3.4), making life difficult for every offensive line they’ve faced. UM rotates between eight and 10 defensive linemen per game and makes a living in the backfield. Nine different linemen have recorded a tackle for loss, led by senior end Chad Thomas (6.0). NFL-caliber talent abounds. A few busts against the run, but little to complain about. This unit wins games.
Worthy of the preseason hype. Shaq Quarterman picked up where he left off, Zach McCloud has improved, and Michael Pinckney has made his share of plays while dealing with various injuries. Charles Perry and Mike Smith seemed to grow up a little during the Georgia Tech game; they are capable backups. Darrion Owens is not his pre-injury self, but is smart enough to be effective. De’Andre Wilder and Bradley Jennings are getting valuable special-teams work.
Replacing four seniors who are now in the NFL is not an easy task. Safety Jaquan Johnson and cornerback Malek Young have been mostly steady, but there’s not enough consistency in this group. Cornerbacks Michael Jackson and Dee Delaney and safety Sheldrick Redwine will make plays, but get beat at times. Delaney started slow and seemed to be picking it up before his knee injury against FSU. Redwine has been on the shelf since that game, too. His backup, Robert Knowles, has struggled. Freshmen Trajan Bandy, Amari Carter and Derrick Smith have big potential, but are rounding out their games. Junior college transfer Jhavonte Dean is trying to crack the lineup.
Michael Badgley, one of the heroes of the Georgia Tech win, has made 9-of-10 field goals. Freshman punter Zach Feagles has a big leg, but has shanked a few. Berrios has been one of the best punt returners in the country two years running (sixth nationally this year, with 17.14 yards per return). UM hasn’t allowed a punt return of longer than 20 yards, but given up four kickoff returns of 30-plus.
A few odd decisions, but a lot to like. Mark Richt’s play-calling has helped Miami remain unbeaten; look to last week’s win against Georgia Tech for an example of how to beat a team that can’t defend a screen pass. He’s still trying out different personnel in different spots (Darrell Langham might be a better guy for end-zone fades than Mike Harley) but most of his calls put Miami in a position to succeed. His development of Rosier is a major positive. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, especially after halftime, has hit most of the right notes. It’s no accident the Hurricanes are 20th in points allowed (18.6).
Miami (5-0, 3-0 ACC) is unbeaten and ranked No. 8, and could be 3-2 and out of the top 25 with a few bounces. Richt recognizes that. “We’re not a dominant football team,” he said. “We’re a very, very solid football team that’s fighting like mad just to win the close battles, is where we are right now. A lot of positive things are happening through the adversity that we’ve been able to overcome to this point.” For that, they get credit, but they must grow more if they are to shine on the bigger stages.
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