Sights are set somewhat higher, year four of the Al Golden era. The NCAA investigation is in the rearview and the roster, while not fully reloaded, is in as good of shape as it’s been for the better part of a decade.
The talent is returning. Some spots are packed with talent while others have some holes or inexperience—regardless, the new culture has enough legs to settle in and show what it’s made of this season.
The schedule has some challenges, but is manageable. Miami gets some of it’s tougher ACC challenges at home in Florida State in North Carolina, but has to survive Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road. Out of conference, a trip to Nebraska looms, while Florida A&M, Arkansas State and Cincinnati all head to Sun Life Stadium.
A true freshman at quarterback is the biggest story of the off-season, though two reshuffled lines and instability at linebacker are equally as important to the Hurricanes’ success.
Miami opens the season Labor Day Monday at Louisville. Night game. Sold out stadium. Conference supremacy immediately challenged. The Cardinals whooped up on the offense-less Hurricanes in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, though these are two somewhat revamped squads that will face off nine months later.
LOTS OF SURROUNDING TALENT FOR THE TRUE FRESHMAN QB
Brad Kaaya is under center for Miami, replacing an inconsistent Stephen Morris, who didn’t necessarily hurt or help the Hurricanes in last December’s loss. Miami was also without all-everything running back Duke Johnson, as well as a bevy of talented receivers hurt or on the mend, including Phillip Dorsett, Herb Waters, Rashawn Scott and Malcolm Lewis.
Two wideouts—Stacy Coley and Allen Hurns—combined for five receptions and 56 yards in the loss, while Miami got nothing going on the ground with Gus Edwards and Dallas Crawford.
Injuries aside, morale bottomed-out for the Hurricanes by the time bowl season rolled around.
Miami earned its biggest “win” of the season late last October when the NCAA finally wrapped its investigation and the Hurricanes learned the fate. No more bowl bans, a handful of scholarships reductions and the dark cloud of the NCAA’s meddling and worst-case-scenario predictions finally gone.
Miami was en route to 7-0 at the time and from there, stumbled to the finish—2-4 down the stretch, including frustrating regular season losses to Virginia Tech and Duke, knocking the Hurricanes out of the hunt for an Coastal Division title and ACC title game berth.
Johnson’s broken ankle at Florida State was season-changing, putting more pressure on an inconsistent quarterback and maligned defense.
Miami folded—especially against Louisville, where the defense hung tough early, but the offense only managed 14 first downs, 174 total yards and was 0-of-11 on third down conversions.
Meanwhile, 305-native and almost-Cane, Teddy Bridgewater carved up Miami for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
WINDS OF CHANGE BLOWING THROUGH LOUISVILLE PROGRAM
Gone is Bridgewater, as well as Cardinals coach Charlie Strong. Even clutch wide receiver DeVante Parker, who torched the Hurricanes for nine receptions, 142 yards and a score, is sidelined with an injury for the next few months.
Offensive guru and former Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino is back at the helm, but the reentry has been anything but smooth as reports roll out about the head coach already brawling with his highly-paid defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham.
That’s not to say Petrino and Louisville won’t be harmonious in their reconciliation—but game one with Miami looming, some talent departed / sidelined and the Hurricanes looking to take a step forward—the early-season match-up somewhat favors the visitors.
Outside of the step forward Miami is hoping for at quarterback, the return of Johnson at running back couldn’t be bigger. Leaner, meaner and ready for an explosive junior campaign, No. 8 will again be the heart and soul of the Hurricanes’ offense.
Johnson will also have some help this year. Where Crawford stepped in as a gritty number two last season, the drop-off in talent was enormous. Edwards wasn’t ready to play his part and Miami’s run game ultimate tanked.
DUKE IS BACK, WITH SOME NEW PLAYMAKERS IN TOW
Entering 2014, Johnson is healthy, Edwards is a year older and wiser and the Hurricanes also welcome newbie Joe Yearby into the fold—an explosive true freshman with speed, moves and the ability to make Miami’s ground attack two-dimensional.
Off-season reports have made it clear that coaches are focusing more on throwing to running backs and finding different ways to get the ball to playmakers—something that Jedd Fisch did with the Hurricanes offense between 2010 and 2012, but first-year offensive coordinator James Coley shied away from last fall.
Miami lost Hurns to graduation, but welcomes back a healthy, speedy Dorsett, as well as Coley, Waters and Scott—who is currently banged up, but expected back soon.
True freshman Braxton Berrios is also a speedster-type that could be used in the slot and on slants, which the Hurricanes haven’t possessed in years, while Trayone Gray is another first-year player that is expected to have an impact based on sheer athleticism.
At tight end, it’s senior Clive Walford and sophomore Standish Dobard who will carry the weight and will certainly get the their looks.
Defensively, Miami still has some holes, but must find a way to improve based addition-by-subtraction.
NO EXCUSES: DEFENSE MUST TAKE GIANT LEAP FORWARD
Golden’s timetable to rebuild sped up this past offseason when backing long-time coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who is yet to field a respectable unit three years on the job.
Talent and depth were certainly lacking the past few seasons, but entering year four of the Golden regime, there is enough of both for the Hurricanes to show improvement, despite not being fully loaded.
Seniority and experience were relied upon heavily the past few years due to the lack of overall talent, but that is no longer the case. This season some big-name recruits from the past few years will be expected to shine—safety Jamal Carter, cornerback Artie Burns and linebacker Jermaine Grace, to name a few.
Miami caught a break when middle linebacker Denzel Perryman and defensive end Anthony Chickillo bucked the leaving-early trend and returned for their senior seasons. Both will be relied upon heavily—especially in regards to bringing younger guys along.
That said, the front seven remains a work in progress. The Hurricanes are still lacking a next-level defensive line, again relying on transfers like Calvin Heurtelou and Michael Wyche, as well as true freshmen Chad Thomas, Trent Harris and Demetrius Jackson.
Under optimum circumstances, first year players would be brought along slowly, with some even earning redshirts. Based on Miami’s current situation, a baptism by fire and many will be expected to make plays Monday night at Louisville.
Linebacker took a hit when Alex Figueroa and JaWand Blue were dismissed from the program and while Raphael Kirby and Thurston Armbrister will line up alongside Perryman, depth falls off from there, with sophomore Grace and true freshman Darrion Owens expected to grow up quickly.
Such is the case for Miami this year—an overall expectation that it’s time to start getting it done under Golden and crew, regardless of some circumstances which haven’t fully been worked out.
With the NCAA’s dark cloud lifted just under a year ago and another solid recruiting class on board, there’s a true sense that this is Golden’s team and that it’s time to produce.
RUN FOR COASTAL DIVISION CROWN STARTS MONDAY NIGHT
The media has picked the Hurricanes to win the Coastal Division—something Miami hasn’t accomplished in ten previous tries. There have also been articles touting Johnson’s impact on the program, going as far as saying the junior speedster could be the key to “The U” being “back”.
For Miami, that journey must begin Monday night at Louisville as a loss would be a huge blow to start the season—casting doubt early on, killing momentum with a freshman quarterback and starting the Hurricanes’ journey to a Coastal Division title in a one-loss hole.
Defensive improvement and success—not just stability—at quarterback, are key.
Any chatter about Kaaya simply being a game manager—it’s not enough. Miami needs some bonafide leadership this season; a trailblazer to rally behind. Something to shake up what’s felt like the bare minimum or a program close, but not quite there for way too long.
The true freshman doesn’t need to carry the team week in and week out, but must put his fingerprints all over the offense, proving wise beyond his years.
Defensively, the return of Perryman and Chickillo also must also have an impact leadership-wise if that side of the ball is going to take a necessary step forward. Both players could’ve been on NFL rosters this fall, but are instead back in Coral Gables. Their return needs to pay dividends both on the field and in the locker room.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON LABOR DAY MONDAY
A prime time road showdown against a formidable foe isn’t the easiest way to kick off a season, but so it goes. For Miami, the exposure was too good to pass up—ESPN nationally televised night game and the only show in town Labor Day night.
Survive the Cardinals and the Hurricanes get back-to-back breathers with Florida A&M (9/6) and Arkansas State (9/13) heading south—two gimmies before a road trip to Nebraska (9/20).
Miami will go as Johnson goes. The all-everything running back missed the final five games of 2013 but still ran for 920 yards and six touchdowns—27 yards and four scores shy of his freshman campaign, where he was heavily relied upon all 12 games.
Of course a big key to Johnson’s success is Kaaya keeping the chains moving, avoiding third-and-long situations and opening up the passing game. The Cardinals will key in on No 8 early so the true freshman quarterback will have to shake off the jitters, forcing Louisville to respect all facets of Miami’s offense.
Defensively, it’s all about getting to Bridgewater’s replacement, sophomore Will Gardener. Without Parker as his go-to, it leaves Miami native Eli Rogers and Gerald Christian as his most obvious targets—quality players, but not in Parker’s league.
Louisville’s off-seasons losses, coupled with Miami’s gains put “The U” in position to make a statement Monday night—one way or another. The Canes will either prove up to the task, or show that they’re still a work in progress. There’s no in-between.
On paper, the Johnson effect, healthy receiver and a good enough game from Kaaya should push Miami over the top, while the talent upgrade on defense should make a big difference against a Louisville team missing it’s two best players from last year’s showdown.