Miami Hurricanes football: The 10 most intriguing spring storylines

 

Everyone wants to know if N’Kosi Perry has what it takes to be Miami’s quarterback, or if Malik Rosier will hold onto the starting job. (Miami Herald)

[Diaz: Gerald Willis ‘gets it’]
[Scouting reports on Miami’s EE freshmen]

Whether they’re a fresh-faced newcomer or established Hurricanes upperclassman, Jaquan Johnson has no problem sticking his nose in their business. Just ask Shaq Quarterman, by now a well-known name.

“I tell him, ‘You were a freshman All-American. That’s enough for you, huh. That’s all you want,’” Johnson said in a mocking tone, referring to the linebacker’s breakout 2016 season.

Johnson, a safety, has been eagerly awaiting this spring. He has been a contributor since the day he stepped on campus from Miami-Killian High in January 2015. He played on special teams early, earned a starting spot as a junior, and now, as a senior, he is ready to be the tone-setter for UM’s defense.

His play backs up his aspirations. Johnson (four interceptions, team-high 96 tackles) earned national recognition last year as one of 15 semifinalists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, and was a major reason UM led the nation in takeaways (30).

He prods defensive tackle Gerald Willis — “You going to be able to go hard every snap? You tired?” he asks — and relishes weight-room battles with fellow rising senior defensive backs Sheldrick Redwine and Michael Jackson. He gets after linebackers Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud.

“I want them to challenge me as well,” Johnson said. “Those guys respond like, ‘You don’t even understand.’ They’re trying to reestablish themselves. They tell me, ‘I don’t have a name.’ I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, you big time. You big time, huh?’ They like to bark back at me. They’re responding.”

New players on campus, familiar faces in new roles — here are 10 storylines to watch beginning Tuesday, when the Hurricanes open spring drills in Coral Gables:

1. Will Malik Rosier keep his spot? 

What do football teams value most? Stability at quarterback. In most cases, redshirt senior who won 10 games and took his team to the Orange Bowl would be celebrated as a sure thing, one of the top players in his conference.

It speaks to both Malik Rosier’s apparent limitations and N’Kosi Perry’s apparent potential that we’re here, writing about how intriguing that battle should be for Miami’s starting job.

In his first year as a starter, Rosier set a program record for total touchdowns (32) but struggled with his accuracy. His 44.9 completion percentage in UM’s final three games, all losses, are why many are eager to see what Perry, a redshirt freshman with scrambling ability and a strong arm, can do. Same goes for fellow redshirt freshman Cade Weldon and early enrollee Jarren Williams.

Mark Richt has said the job is Rosier’s, but he’ll have to prove himself all over again. Will Perry (or someone else) make it clear they’re a better choice?

2. Is the defensive line still a strength?

It was some kind of offseason for what was, last year, Miami’s best position group.

The Hurricanes led the nation in sacks per game and were fourth in tackles for loss, but lost six scholarship defensive linemen. That includes three starters: End Chad Thomas, who graduated, and tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, who turned pro a year early. Additionally, freshman end DJ Johnson, a former four-star recruit, transferred to Oregon and two valuable reserves (tackle Anthony Moten and end Trent Harris) graduated. Oh, and Craig Kuligowski – widely considered the nation’s best D-line coach – bolted for Alabama.

That leaves a host of questions. Can Willis, who sat out 2017 for what UM called personal reasons, stay healthy and productive in his final season? How is redshirt senior end Demetrius Jackson coming along after November knee surgery? What about Scott Patchan, seemingly forever dogged by knee injuries?

How rapidly can promising sophomore end Jonathan Garvin – whom fellow end Joe Jackson calls “a freak of nature” – and 6-5, 300-pound tackle Jon Ford develop ? Can Joe Jackson, productive in his first two seasons with lots of talent around him, handle a heavier load? How capable is junior Pat Bethel? What about 6-6 early enrollee Greg Rousseau?

Will UM leave the spring waiting for summer additions (four-star recruit Nesta Silvera, three-star Jordan Miller and graduate transfer Tito Odenigbo, all tackles) or feel OK with the group it has? Is the end position deep enough? Spring will bring some of the answers.

3. What effect will Jess Simpson have?

Kuligowski’s replacement is a former Atlanta Falcons defensive assistant who spent more than two decades as a successful Georgia high school coach. He takes over a  Joe Jackson, arguably his brightest talent, seems encouraged.

“It’s been good,” Jackson said.  “He has a lot of good insight. He’s very talkative, but he knows his stuff, knows what he’s doing. We’re just keeping an open mind, trying to take in whatever he has to offer. … That’s how it is. A coach could be there one minute, gone the next. All I have to do is just adjust and take in whatever he has to offer. He’s going to make me better whether I like it or not.”

That has, so far, included “techniques about coming off the ball, having the right hand placement, and how efficient we have to be when you’re trying to get off the block and read the pass key or the run key,” Jackson said.

“What he emphasizes, we’re going to execute. The scheme is already set and we already know the plays.”

4. Can Lorenzo Lingard establish himself early?

He’s the highest-rated Miami recruit since Seantrel Henderson in 2010, according to Rivals’ rankings, and the most heralded running back since Duke Johnson in 2012. Lingard, a slashing runner, has the type of gamebreaking speed the Canes need in the post-Mark Walton era.

Miami ended last year with the NFL-bound Walton hurt, and Travis Homer (1,185 yards from scrimmage, nine touchdowns) and DeeJay Dallas as their 1 and 2. Lingard will wear No. 1, but can he fill that role as a true freshman, or will he come along more slowly? (We also want to know if he has a touchdown celebration as cool as Homer’s.) Redshirt freshman Robert Burns and redshirt senior Trayone Gray need to show they belong, especially with four-star Camron Davis (and fullback Realus George) arriving this summer.

5. What will the offensive line look like? 

The Hurricanes return three starters: right tackle Tyree St. Louis and center Tyler Gauthier, both seniors-to-be, and right guard Navaughn Donaldson, last year an ESPN freshman All-American. It’s conceivable all three could be playing different positions in 2018.

Miami needs a left tackle and left guard after the graduation of Kc McDermott and Trevor Darling. St. Louis and redshirt freshman Kai-Leon Herbert could vie for the McDermott’s spot. Sophomore Corey Gaynor seems poised to play either center or left guard, with Gauthier taking the other place. If Donaldson doesn’t move to tackle, he could be an excellent right guard. The right tackle job, if St. Louis is moved, could be filled by a little-used veteran (redshirt junior George Brown Jr.) or a new face (perhaps early enrollee freshman Delone Scaife). Will these players leave room for graduate transfer Venzell Boulware (Tennessee) when he arrives post-spring?

Miami’s run game and pass protection has been inconsistent for several years. UM has recruited well in the last two seasons. Are those players ready to make an impact? Are UM’s upperclassmen more capable than they’ve previously shown?

6. Is either returning tight end starter-caliber? 

Miami is excited about four-star signees Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory. Coaches see them as a Chris Herndon-David Njoku combo: Jordan as a fleet-footed H-back and Mallory busting the seam from the slot.

Reinforcements are coming. But not until the summer.

This spring, junior Michael Irvin II and sophomore Brian Polendey must prove they’re worthy of playing time before that high-profile pair arrives. Irvin, the son of the Hall of Fame wide receiver, has soft hands but has been suspended for off-the-field issues. Polendey, a sophomore who saw brief action last season, needed to gain strength before seeing more.

7. Who earns targets this spring? 

Whomever emerges as the QB1 will have a lot of options at receiver, even without Ahmmon Richards for the time being.

The Canes have big-bodied veterans in Dayall Harris, Lawrence Cager and Darrell Langham. They have smaller, speeder sophomore standouts Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley. They have early enrollee freshmen with length in Brian Hightower and Daquris Wiggins. Don’t forget about 6-foot-6 Evidence Njoku, who should be ready for the spotlight after last year’s redshirt season.

With Richards targeting a summer return from knee surgery and freshmen Mark Pope — an elite talent — and Marquez Ezzard joining the fray, those currently on campus will try to show they deserve front-line roles.

“Last year the coaches didn’t always know who to trust,” Rosier said. “The group as a whole, the experience level is going up. There are a lot of guys with 12, 13 games of experience.”

8. How good are the second-unit linebackers? 

UM lost two depth pieces this offseason when would-be senior Darrion Owens transferred to Houston and promising, but oft-injured Jamie Gordnier stepped away from the game. That could mean more opportunity for sophomore De’Andre Wilder — a candidate to win the backup job behind McCloud at strong-side linebacker — and redshirt freshman Waynmon Steed (he has “opened eyes,” according to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, in his year on the sidelines), as well as sophomore Bradley Jennings. Will they prove more capable than seniors Charles Perry and Mike Smith? Four-star Patrick Joyner will add depth when he enrolls this summer.

Another wrinkle: UM’s new 10th assistant, Jonathan Patke, assumes a greater on-field and recruiting role. He will coach outside linebackers.

9. How will the secondary battles shake out?

Johnson, the safety, is still smarting over the way last year ended.

“We came out booming and we let the last three go,” he said. “The entire defense has a chip on our shoulder. Those last three games we lost, that was our fault.”

He has the right attitude. He and Redwine, his longtime pal from Killian High and the Richmond Heights area of Miami, could be one of the ACC’s better safety duos. Jackson, after a breakout season, looks like one of the starting corners. Malek Young’s career-ending neck injury and Dee Delaney’s graduation could open the door for Jhavonte Dean, Trajan Bandy or a talented newcomer to put his stamp on a spot (Gilbert Frierson and DJ Ivey enrolled early; Al Blades Jr. arrives this summer). Safeties Amari Carter and Derrick Smith, both sophomores, saw playing time as last year rolled on. The competition for backup jobs should be heated between them, freshman Gurvan Hall, and juniors-to-be Robert Knowles and Romeo Finley.

10. What can we learn about Miami’s special teams?

All-ACC kicker Michael Badgley graduated, and UM won’t have one on scholarship until Texas three-star Bubba Baxa enrolls post-spring. Punter Zach Feagles, who struggled as a freshman, must improve. The Hurricanes are also looking for a punt returner after Braxton Berrios’ graduation.