Thursday, August 14, 2014

2014 season preview: Miami Hurricanes


9/1: @ Louisville (Mon.)
9/6: Florida A&M
9/13: Arkansas State
9/20: @ Nebraska
9/27: Duke
10/4: @ Georgia Tech
10/11: Cincinnati
10/18: BYE
10/23: @ Virginia Tech (Thu.)
11/1: North Carolina
11/8: BYE
11/15: Florida State
11/22: @ Virginia
11/29: Pittsburgh

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest

2013 results:

Florida Atlantic: W, 34-6
Florida: W, 21-16
Savannah State: W, 77-7
South Florida: W, 49-21
Georgia Tech: W, 45-30
North Carolina: W, 27-23
Wake Forest: W, 24-21
Florida State: L, 41-14
Virginia Tech: L, 42-24
Duke: L, 48-30
Virginia: W, 45-26
Pittsburgh: W, 41-31
Louisville: L, 36-9 (RA Bowl)

Record: 9-4 (5-3); 3rd, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Jake Heaps (5Sr.)
RB: Duke Johnson (Jr.)
WR: Phillip Dorsett (Sr.)
WR: Stacy Coley (So.)
WR: Malcolm Lewis (rSo.)
TE: Standish Dobard (So.)
LT: Ereck Flowers (Jr.)
LG: Jon Feliciano (5Sr.)
C: Shane McDermott (5Sr.)
RG: Danny Isidora (rSo.)
RT: Trevor Darling (Fr.)

DE: Anthony Chickillo (Sr.)
DT: Olsen Pierre (Sr.)
DT: Calvin Heurtelou (Jr.)
DE: Trent Harris (Fr.)
OLB: Thurston Armbrister (Sr.)
MLB: Denzel Perryman (Sr.)
OLB: Raphael Kirby (Jr.)
CB: Tracy Howard (Jr.)
CB: Ladarius Gunter (Sr.)
S: Deon Bush (Jr.)
S: Dallas Crawford (rJr.)

K: Matt Goudis (Jr.)
P: Justin Vogel (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Al Golden, 4th season

Media prediction: 1st, Coastal


2013 1st team: LB Denzel Perryman, P Pat O'Donnell
2013 2nd team: RB Duke Johnson, WR Allen Hurns, OG Brandon Linder
2013 3rd team: QB Stephen Morris
2013 HM: OT Seantrel Henderson, OG Jon Feliciano, CB Tracy Howard, S Deon Bush, PR Stacy Coley
2014 preseason: RB Duke Johnson, LB Denzel Perryman

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Al Golden is in his fourth year as coach of the Hurricanes, and it could be a big one.  Golden had them bowl-eligible in each of his first three years, although they chose to self-ban during the first two, following the Nevin Shapiro mess (which seems to have fizzled pretty spectacularly.)  Golden has improved the Canes from 6 to 7 to 9 wins, all in the regular season as they also fizzled pretty spectacularly in last year's bowl game.  This looks like an important year for Golden - if he can continue the upward trajectory (which doesn't have to necessarily mean beating nine wins) then considering Miami a rejuvenated force - albeit not quite the unstoppable powerhouse of the past - in the Coastal Conference would be unavoidable.

-- Offense

Quite a bit here is reasonably well-settled, and the Canes bring some exciting talent to the table.  RB Duke Johnson piled up 920 yards in just eight games last year, which is even more impressive than it sounds because if he'd been allowed to run wild in certain of those games (Savannah State, for example) he'd have made it easy.  Johnson looks easily like the top running back in the league; he's fast (though not an all-out home run hitter) and very hard to bring down, running powerfully with a low center of gravity.  Johnson is likely to get workhorse-level carries this year, if healthy, and should blow past the 1,000-yard mark with no trouble.

Miami also looks to be in good shape at receiver.  Phillip Dorsett had an excellent 2012 season as a sophomore, but was slowed by nagging injuries last year and slipped to just 13 catches, 45 fewer than the previous season.  But he also averaged almost 21 yards a reception.  The real excitement, though, surrounds Stacy Coley, an explosive player who made his mark returning punts last year and ran for a 73-yard touchdown, too.  The story of the electric return man who couldn't translate his skills to pass-catching is a familiar one, but Coley has a strong freshman season of 33 catches and 591 yards to build on, and looks to be on his way.  Depth is a little light in the receiving corps, but reserve Herb Waters returns (28 catches, 406 yards in 2013) and Miami also thinks redshirt sophomore Malcolm Lewis is ready for prime time.

The thing everyone's focusing on, though, is the question of who'll throw to them.  Miami was ready to hand the ball to senior Ryan Williams, who'd been patiently waiting his turn and playing respectably well in limited chances, but Williams tore his ACL.  Then, backup Kevin Olsen got suspended for the opener, reportedly for a failed drug test.  Olsen appears to have lost his chance for this season, and Miami has turned the competition over to senior journeyman Jake Heaps (who has played in the past for BYU and Kansas) and true freshman Brad Kaaya.  Kaaya has been earning rave reviews in camp for his poise and presence, but it's sometimes tempered with "for a freshman" and noted that Heaps is still ahead in this regard.  Neither has been with the Canes more than a few weeks, though, and the competition is still way up in the air.

The other main competition in camp is on the right side of the line.  The left and middle are well entrenched.  Ereck Flowers nailed down the left tackle job last season, and Jon Feliciano earned some all-ACC votes for his play at left guard; both return, as does longtime center starter Shane Mitchell.  The right side is less settled.  Danny Isidora is seen as the heir apparent at left guard, and the Canes have high hopes for him, while Alex Gall is considered versatile enough to play both guard and center and could make Isidora look over his shoulder a bit.  Right tackle is the big question spot.  Trevor Gadbois, a huge player at 6'8", 316, is the experienced contender (relatively) but he's in danger of being supplanted by a true freshman, perhaps Trevor Darling or the high-profile, heavily-offered KC McDermott.  Even with Darling sitting on top of the first fall depth chart offered up by the Canes, a lot of Canes fans think it's only a matter of time before McDermott plays his way into the job.

As with always, it's all about the quarterbacking.  Miami has some weapons in Johnson and Coley that they'll happily put up against anyone in the conference, and an experienced line for the most part.  They're not going to maximize their potential if they let the QB competition drag on, though.  If Heaps or Kaaya can separate from the other, Miami will be in great shape.  If not, they'll still be decent, but like a V6 engine running on four cylinders.

-- Defense

The defense was what held Miami back last year and prevented them from pulling out a berth in the ACCCG, and the same challenge remains.  Depth up front was a concern in 2013 and nothing's changed for 2014.  There are a couple building blocks here; end Anthony Chickillo and tackle Olsen Pierre are solid if unspectacular players.  Chickillo is the top playmaker on the front line, but he's not a holy terror.  Miami also likes to use Tyriq McCord at end in passing situations, and he led the team in sacks last year with four but did little else.  The Canes brought in juco transfer Calvin Heurtelou to shore up the defensive tackle position, and he looks like the front-runner to start next to Pierre, with Ufomba Kamalu likely to see his role increase and be the third in the rotation.  Behind those three, though, there's frightfully little experience.  Miami will probably also lean on some freshmen, particularly at DE; early enrollee Trent Harris is listed as the starter in front of McCord for now, and Chad Thomas comes in as a five-star recruit and the #2 high school DE in the country.

The defense will be led by Denzel Perryman from the middle linebacker slot.  Perryman can play outside or in, and moves back to the middle this year following the graduation of Jimmy Gaines and a season in which Perryman led the Canes in tackles with 108.  Part-time starter Thurston Armbrister also returns to man one outside slot; the other is being turned over to Raphael Kirby, who's been primarily a special-teamer before now.  Perryman is a great starting point, but the depth and experience drops off a cliff after him and Armbrister.  The second string is made up of freshmen, special-teamers, and walk-ons; of the options coming after the three starters, undersized walk-on Nantambu-Akil Fentress is the most experienced and accomplished, having made nine tackles last year.

Miami's depth in the defensive backfield took a big hit with the announcement that starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins would miss the season with an undisclosed injury.  This'll be another position where the Canes are awfully thin on experience after the starters.  Deon Bush started three games last year and was productive as the third safety, and the Canes have moved Dallas Crawford from running back to fill Jenkins's spot.  It's less dire than it sounds - Crawford is a natural safety who was moved to tailback for depth reasons, and now goes back to a position he's more comfortable with (despite the fact that he had some success on offense.)  Still, Crawford is likely to be rusty.  With so little behind these two - again, special-teamers, scout-teamers, and freshmen - one of the more experienced backup corners like Antonio Crawford might move over to bring some depth.

Last year, it was safety that looked to be in decent shape while cornerback was scary - this year, it's the opposite, as Tracy Howard forced his way into the lineup and produced four interceptions while Ladarius Gunter fought off competition to cement his starting role.  Gunter intercepted three passes and broke up nine more.  There should be some decent playable depth here, too, as Artie Burns and the aforementioned Crawford each picked off a pass while playing as reserves.

Still, overall this defense is still a rebuilding project, as Golden largely tore it down for its own good (he dismissed a few high-profile but misbehaving players from the unit) in his first year and has been remaking it since.  The defense did a poor job against the run and was only marginally better against the pass, and when Miami lost they lost big.  They certainly can't afford any more injuries, because there are huge drop-offs from the already somewhat marginal starting unit.

-- Special teams

Kicker Matt Goudis was reliable last year from short range but shaky once he got past 40 yards.  There's a competition on for the punting job, in which Justin Vogel looks to have the upper hand, but nobody is going to replace Pat O'Donnell's incredible 47.1 yard average.

-- Outlook

Of 13 ACC team previews last year, the Miami one was probably the most spot-on; the cliff notes is that they ought to improve on seven wins and go bowling, but not contend strongly for the Coastal championship because defense.  Lo and behold, it came to pass precisely as such.  The Canes started out strongly but crashed out of the race with three consecutive 40-point clunkers allowed by the defense, one of which made the notoriously inaccurate Logan Thomas look like Peyton Manning in a tank.

Well, for 2014, nothing has changed.  The offense has a few chinks showing but is more or less well-equipped to handle the season, especially if the quarterback thing shakes out.  The test for Golden is going to be this defense.  It's got some pieces in the right places, but is one of the woefully thinnest units in the league, and lacks playmakers (except, perhaps, at cornerback and middle linebacker.  And even then, Perryman is more of a right-place-right-time player than a stat-sheet lighter-upper.)  Everyone in the whole Coastal is loaded with flaws, so I won't say Miami can't come out on top.  It's there for the taking.  But for Golden to take the next step with this program, and keep their momentum trending positively, he's got to pull off some surprises on defense or else head back to the RA Bowl.

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