Year three of the Manny Diaz era is about to get under way with the Miami—and the ultimate challenge awaits the Hurricanes, who take on college football’s Goliath this weekend in Atlanta; the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
Historically year three is make-or-break for new head coaches, as their fingerprints are officially on the program—most having two full recruiting classes by this point, while wrapping up whatever class there predecessor had coming in and putting together pieces for what will be year four.
The program’s culture is either getting better or worse by this point, while upperclassmen are either becoming who they were supposed to be, or aren’t buying into what the new guy is selling and they check out.
Diaz’s first two seasons at “The U” have been a mixed bag on the field—a 14-10 run, with no real signature victory—outside a 52-10 pasting on a putrid Florida State program that went 3-6 during last year’s COVID-hijacked season.
However, there have been some signature losses—most-notably a disastrous loss to lowly Florida International in November 2019, where the Canes ended the year with a three-game losing stream, falling to Duke and getting shut out by Louisiana Tech in a no-name bowl.
Miami got out to an 8-1 start in 2020, by way of a few late rallies and comebacks—the one loss coming at Clemson, where the juggernaut Tigers took down the Hurricanes in an understandable men-versus-the-boys fashion.
What didn’t make sense; Miami’s home finale no-show against North Carolina, with an ACC Coastal Division title on the line. COVID ravaged the Canes’ coaching staff the week-of, and players were said to have been off-kilter as a result of the chaos—but neither forgives a 62-24 pasting, where North Carolina rang up UM for 778 total yards—554 on the ground, by way of two purpose-driven running backs.
To Diaz’s credit, both nationally embarrassing moments sparked much-needed change—which soon followed.
LEARNING ON THE JOB; MAKING MOVES
The anemic offense in 2019 resulted in the firing of offensive coordinator Dan Enos—while a sub-par defensive outing last fall saw defensive coordinator Blake Baker pushed out the door, as well.
Rhett Lashlee too the offensive reigns in Coral Gables last season and the impact was immediate—also sparked by a Transfer Portal game-changer when former Houston quarterback D’Eriq King chose Miami as his final collegiate stop.
In order to shore up the defense, Diaz decided to don the comfortable defensive coordinator cap again—a job he held at UM for three seasons under former head coach Mark Richt, as well as calling the shots at Texas, Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State in years passed.
Diaz made a few other off-season moves, since a close bowl loss to Oklahoma State last December—an outcome that came after King tore his ACL in the first half, and quarterback N’Kosi Perry was unable to bring it home, despite a valiant effort. (Perry has since transferred to nearby Florida Atlantic.)
A few other coaching changes took place—namely the addition of Travaris Robinson taking over defensive backs, with former coach Mike Rumph moved into a recruiting department role—while former recruiting staffer Demarcus Van Dyke stepped in to coach cornerbacks.
Todd Stroud was also moved into an advisory role, paving the way for Jess Simpson to return as defensive line coach—having spent the past two season in the same role for the Atlanta Falcons.
All coaches have had an immediate impact—in their position, as well as on the recruiting trail—but it’s all theory and one big dress rehearsal until the Hurricanes take the field at 3:30pm ET on Saturday afternoon.
‘THE U’ VS. BAMA—FIRST MEETING SINCE ’92 SUGAR
The Crimson Tide roll in on a 14-game win streak—last losing a rivalry game at Auburn in November 2019. Prior to that, a close call at home, where eventual national champion LSU got the better of Nick Saban, which doesn’t happen often in this current era of college football.
Over the past six seasons, Alabama is a combined 79-6 with three national titles, while Miami has gone 48-27—with three different head coaches, and one lone bowl win, over that same span.
The Crimson Tide was decimated in spring’s NFL Draft—losing quarterback Mac Jones, go-to receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith—as well as lockdown corner Patrick Surtain II, running back Najee Harris, long snapper Thomas Fletcher, offensive linemen Deonte Brown and Landon Dickerson, and defensive MVP of last year’s national championship game, lineman Christian Barmore.
All that to say, Alabama’s last five recruiting classes were ranked #1 (2021), #2 (2020), #1 (2019), #5 (2018) and #1 (2017)—the definition of reloading, not rebuilding. The Tide will plug-and-play some brand new talent this year, but there’s no denying the program-best 10 players who were drafted in spring will leave a short-term hole.
Season opening match-ups like this, in a sport where there is no preseason—is the biggest reason Miami at least has a chance of pulling off an upset this weekend, despite being a 19.5-point underdog. Not to mention the fact that this is the most sound the Hurricanes have looked across the board in years.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is a 5-Star talent and will undoubtedly be the next great gunslinger coming out of that football factory in Tuscaloosa, but there’s no fast-tracking experience and Young will be making his first start against the Diaz coached Hurricanes’ defense this weekend.
Conversely, King rolls in a 24-year old sixth-year senior with 32 starts and 9,570 passing yards under his belt.
CANES’ BEEFING UP ON BOTH SIDES; BIG IMPROVEMENT
The second-year Miami quarterback will also do it with the most-experienced offensive line the Hurricanes have boasted in years—the nation’s most-seasoned, with 190 combined starts between the five. UM returns it’s top eight offensive lineman from last year, as well as UNLV transfer Justice Oluwaseun.
Navaughan Donaldson returns, sitting out most of last year working his way back into playing shape after an ACL injury in 2019—while center Corey Gaynor rolls in with 25 starts under his belt. Zion Nelson and Jakai Clark are the young guns in their third season, each with 21 starts—while DJ Scaife has 31 starts and all compete with Houston transfer and seventh-year senior Jarrid Williams for playing time.
On the ground, it will be a tough-running, three-headed monster for the Canes—with Cam Harris returning for one final go-around, while freshmen Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton are back for their thunder and lighting attack.
Receivers were notorious for some key drops last fall—Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope the biggest culprits—but with more depth in 2021, there are more options to take their reps.
Saturday’s depth chart shows one familiar face—Mike Harley, said to have reinvented himself this off-season—but Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo is starting ahead of Wiggins, with Keyshawn Smith the third starter. Michael Redding III and Xavier Restrepo also cracked the two-deep, but Pope is nowhere to be found.
Tight end Will Mallory replaces the departed Brevin Jordan—which many see as an upgrade, with Mallory more of the prototypical tight end, to Jordan’s tweener size and style.
Defensively the Hurricanes also look sound—Bubba Bolden running it back one more time at safety and the de facto leader on that side of the ball. Miami also welcomes former Georgia corner Tyrique Stevenson back home—the former Southridge product wanting out on Athens and back in on what Diaz and the Canes are cooking. Stevenson will also handle punt return duties on Saturday.
DJ Ivey and Te’Cory Couch were named started, with Stevenson backing both—while Gurvan Hall holds down the safety spot aside Bolden.
Amari Carter returns as striker, Corey Flagg Jr. at middle linebacker and the aggressive Keontra Smith rounds out the middle of the defense at weak side—while former linebacker Zach McCloud has been moved to defensive end, where he and Jahfari Harvey will bookend a combination of Jonathan Ford, Nesta Jade Silvera and Jared Harrison-Hunte at tackle.
Brother of Jose, Andy Borregales takes over kicking duties, while Lou Hedley and his big leg are back at punter—with Harley and Restrepo will return kicks.
A STEP CLOSER TO BACK, OR ANOTHER FALSE START
While that depth chart breakdown was a bit egregious, it was done with reason—rattling off some of the names, depth, experience and additions to the roster—it feels like Miami is slowing undergoing a metamorphosis into contender again.
Lots of work remains; recruiting getting stronger—more 5-Star kids like Leonard Taylor and James Williams grabbing that Canes hat when time to commit—as well as cherry-picking the portal for one-year guys who can come in as difference-makers.
Culture has been a problem at Miami on an off for years—dating back to the Larry Coker declining years and the end of the Randy Shannon era—guys not buying in and upperclassmen having a negative impact on each new crop of kids, setting a bad precedent and kicking off a toxic cycle that wasn’t getting fixed.
Al Golden was a wrong-fit guy from day one, but the Richt era took some of that leftover talent and began shaping it into something special. The Canes took a step forward in 2017, but it really was a house of cards as the lack of stability and quality at quarterback was a massive problem.
Historically, Miami has always been as good as its quarterback—dominate throughout the 80’s and early 90’s with a slew of big names, four national titles and two Heisman winners—but as the position dropped off, so did the wins and competitiveness.
King’s bonus year by way of COVID; it might be the lucky break the Hurricanes have been searching for—an experienced leader and winner with one more chance to be around this program and to shine a light where there had once been darkness. It also allows the future—Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia—to sit behind and learned from a seasoned vet and total pro in King.
Miami literally has a quarterback who is older than second-year San Diego Chargers’ second-year starter Justin Herbert—and those four years at Houston, the well-thought out decision to transfer, his mother’s cancer diagnosis and loss of his father Eric King, in early 2020—how can everyone on this team not look up to and learn from the Hurricanes’ godsend quarterback.
Prior to King’s arrival, it was a two-man battle between Perry and Jarren Williams, whose since transferred to South Florida—the lack of competition leaving both Richt and Diaz in a lesser-of-two-evils situation; Perry unable to unseat Malik Rosier in 2017 and 2018, while Willams got a leg up in 2019—but played musical quarterback chairs with Perry throughout the year.
The Diaz Era kicked off with quarterback uncertainty, as Williams got his first start against Florida in the 2019 season opener—beating out both Perry, and Ohio State transfer / Instagram influencer Tate Martell, whose since taken his talents back home to UNLV.
BIG TIME STATEMENT GAME FALLS FLAT IN 2019
The Gators rolled in hot off a 10-3 season in year one under Dan Mullen, crushing No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl—while the Canes saw a coaching change on the heels of a 7-6 run that had Richt calling it a career; Miami dropping five of their final seven games, as well as a season-opener where the eight-ranked Canes took a healthy beating from No. 25 LSU.
No. 8 Florida was a 10-point favorite over Miami—the spread a show of respect to the long-running in-state rivalry—but most predicted the Gators to roll the Canes in Diaz’s first game.
Instead, Miami took a 13-7 lead into the locker room, fell behind 17-13 in the third quarter, jumped back out to a 20-17 lead and eventually fell 24-20—in a game where fragile kicker Bubba Baxa missed a chip-shot 27-yard field goal that would’ve pushed the lead to six with 9:48 remaining, not long after the erratic Jeff Thomas muffed a late third quarter punt, setting Florida up on the Miami 11-yard line, where the Gators punched it in three plays later.
Had Baxa hit the earlier kick, the Canes would’ve been in position for a makable game-winner in the final moments—but needed seven and were stifled, in a game the offensive line looked more like a turnstile—surrendering seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
Both teams played a sloppy game, but Florida survived and parlayed the outing into a successful 11-2 season—falling only to No. 5 LSU and No. 8 Georgia—but winning the Orange Bowl to close out year two under Mullen.
Conversely, Miami carried their hangover to Chapel Hill—in a quick hole, scrapping back, taking a lead, only to give up a 4th-and-17 to the Tar Heels and a late touchdown in a heartbreaking loss.
The Canes rolled Bethune-Cookman, struggled against Central Michigan, found themselves down 28-0 in an eventual loss to Virginia Tech, beat Virginia, lost in overtime to a 1-5 Georgia Tech squad, only to get big-headed after wins over Pittsburgh, Florida State and Louisville—setting up mortifying losses to FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech.
Diaz started the spring with a WWE-style throw-down at UM’s practice facility—players beating on dummies with “7-6” taped on to them—only to go 6-7 on the year, with arguably the program’s most-embarrassing loss on his resume.
Another rant about where things stood two seasons ago, but with purpose.
Miami and Florida both had their share of early-season jitters and the Canes almost parlayed it into the upset. Had these two teams met later in the year, a safe bet UF would’ve prevailed in stronger fashion—but for that one evening in late August 2019, a UM team that all but gave the game away, went toe-to-toe against an SEC power and was one play away from what would’ve been a season-defining win.
CANES’ EXPERIENCE VERSUS BAMA’S REBUILD
Florida 2019 is no Alabama 2021—but Miami 2021 is also no Canes of 2019—and with King under center, a winning attitude pumping within the program, an offensive line that is night and day from the first group Diaz fielded years back, a safe bet Miami will show up Saturday afternoon in Atlanta.
The pressure is squarely on Saban and Alabama to hit the ground running, as there is a bevy of inexperience across the board—albeit talented, and part of a methodical, dominating program built to to win, while rarely losing.
Can Miami take early advantage of Bama’s learn-on-the-fly ways in the first half? Does Lashlee’s Auburn experience against Saban have any impact (the Tide going 3-1 against the Tigers during the span)?
What about Alabama bringing in Bill O’Brien at offensive coordinator, on the heels of Steve Sarkisian taking the Texas head coaching job? The Tide also introduce Doug Marrone as their new offensive line coach—Kyle Flood heading to Austin with Sark—while plugging in handful of new players there, as well?
All these Crimson Tide intangibles, coupled with the Hurricanes strengths—is it enough to be a tipping point Saturday afternoon? Time will tell, but a safe bet that if Miami is going to pull off a game like this—it’s here and now, before the national champion has time to gel and gets title contender-ready as fall rolls on.
Saban is arguably the best to ever do it—many rebuilds in his career and his teams always ready to go week one, despite the coaching or player personnel that takes place every off-season. The closest a team has come to taking Bama out in a recent opener; Florida State four years ago—in Atlanta, as well.
SELF-IMPLOSION BIGGEST HURDLE TO CLEAR
The Tide were the top dogs and the third-ranked Noles rolled in for what looked like a solid match-up on paper—Florida State a seven-point dog—and for a while, it was a game—until a disastrous seven-play sequence derailed everything for the Seminoles late in the third quarter.
Alabama took a 10-7 halftime lead—catching a break on a missed pass interference call, which would’ve put Florida State up by four. Instead, the Noles settled for a field goal attempt which was blocked. An uneventful third quarter played out, until the final minutes—when a blocked punt set up the Tide at the FSU six-yard line. The Noles clamped down, forcing a field goal and staying within striking distance at 13-7.
Florida State fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Alabama taking over at the 11-yard line, punching it in on the next play and taking a 21-7 lead after a successful two-point conversion.
Injury to insult in this case, when quarterback Deondre Francis—who coughed up two second half interceptions—was sacked from behind and tore his ACL in the process; derailing his and Florida State’s season as the Noles finished 7-6.
For three quarters, the Noles gave the Crimson Tide all it could handle—but gave it away by way of a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, a fumble recovery on a kickoff return, two second half interceptions, as as a football gods first half screw job that took seven points off the board.
Can Miami pull off the unthinkable? Maybe. Maybe not, but there’s zero chance with any type of Florida State implosion, circa 2017—or even the sloppy play in the almost takedown of Florida two years ago.
It’s going to take the Canes’ absolute best, the Tide’s second-best and a level of purpose, passion, belief and execution Miami hasn’t shown since the 41-8 beating laid on Notre Dame four years ago—the Canes as confident as they’ve looked this decade for that one magical night in 2017.
Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.