First-year coach Manny Diaz has done his best to bring a spark to The U in his first offseason. Will it last into the fall?
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Up, down, down. Up, down, down, down. Up, down, down. Miami’s recent trajectory has been like an old Nintendo cheat code.
You know the story pretty well by now. Miami, a smallish private school that in the late-1970s and early 1980s lurched from weighing whether to drop football to becoming an unstoppable football powerhouse, has been on a pretty constant search for an old spark.
The Canes finished in the AP top three eight times in 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s, crumbled briefly under the weight of NCAA sanctions, then went on another run of four straight years in the top five at the start of this century. They won five national titles and came up just short of another four or five.
From the moment things began falling apart under Larry Coker, however, the flailing began. Former Miami linebacker Randy Shannon took over in 2007 but managed just one ranked finish in four years. That was one more than successor Al Golden managed in five. The NCAA was endlessly sniffing around, and the number of Miami greats on the sidelines at games was far greater than the number on the field.
With its more immediate history and a base of former players nearby who act like fans, mentors, boosters, and everything in between, the University of Miami is a FAMILY, in all caps and italicized.
This can be both a blessing and a curse. It can mean your heroes are guiding you from just a few feet away. It can also mean that you are constantly getting measured by the standard of the greats who came before you.
History isn’t in the past at The University of Miami. It’s right there on the sidelines.
Even worse than the constantly mediocre records (Miami has won between six and eight games for seven of the last 11 years) have been the occasional glimpses of hope. Shannon’s 2009 team beat three ranked opponents and rose to No. 8, only to to lose to two unranked foes late in the year. Golden’s 2013 team started 7-0, then lost four of six.
Then came the ultimate tease. Miami won its final five games of 2016, Mark Richt’s first season in charge, then won the first 10 of 2017. The Canes were No. 2 in the country, and gimmicks like the Turnover Chain made it seem like the swagger, long missing, was all the way back.
And then they lost nine of their next 16 games. Swagger gone.
Rather than try to make the changes necessary to rebound — which would likely have required him relinquishing his play-calling duties and firing his son, a.k.a. the QBs coach — Richt shocked many by retiring. It certainly caught Manny Diaz off guard; Richt’s defensive coordinator from 2016-18, Diaz had taken the Temple head coaching job a couple of weeks prior and was interviewing offensive coordinator candidates when he got the news.
Within hours of Richt’s retirement, however, Diaz was back in Miami, hired as Richt’s replacement. And now he becomes the latest man to attempt rejuvenation.
The hire certainly made sense. Offense was the problem under Richt, not Diaz’s defense. The Hurricanes improved from 54th to 11th in Def. S&P+ in his first year in town and held steady in the teens the next two years, too. Though a Florida State grad, Diaz is extremely Miami (his father was at one point the mayor), and he has spent his first offseason as head coach doubling and tripling down on basically two things: swagger and competition.
There are certainly reasons for optimism. But there were for Richt, too, right up until the late stages of 2017. With the right recruiting and the right quarterback, Miami can surge upward pretty well. But it can fall apart pretty well, too.
My 2018 Miami preview basically focused on two ifs: if quarterback Malik Rosier (or anybody else at the position, really) could take a step or two forward in his development, and if star receiver Ahmmon Richards could stay healthy, the Hurricanes’ offense could move beyond 2017’s up-and-down ways and provide a steady threat. And if it did that, then with another good defense and a manageable schedule, virtually every game on the slate was winnable.
Richards played in one game and caught one pass in 2018 before not only succumbing to injuries again, but retiring from the sport. Meanwhile, Rosier did not develop in any visible way. After producing a 131.1 passer rating and a 54 percent completion rate in 2017, he sank to 111.7 and 53 percent, respectively. He was surpassed by redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, who fared no better. Perry provided a brief spark (158.5 rating, 57 percent completion rate) during a 5-1 start but cratered quickly and comprehensively (88 rating, 46 percent the rest of the way).
Miami not only didn’t get good answers to those ifs. The Canes got the worst possible answers. And they head toward 2019 with all the same questions as before.
The names are different, at least. Perry is back, as is No. 1 receiver Jeff Thomas (who would have made one hell of a No. 2 behind Richards) after considering — committing to, actually — a transfer. But Diaz hired former Alabama assistant (and Arkansas offensive coordinator, and CMU head coach) Dan Enos as both coordinator and QBs coach, then brought in as many new faces as humanly possible in the name of competition.
- The primary names in the QB race are Perry, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams (a Richt signee), and another former blue-chipper, Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. Martell completed 23 of 28 passes and rushed 19 times for 147 yards as Dwayne Haskins’ backup in Columbus last year, and he was miraculously granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA’s Wheel of Destiny. The three youngsters battled throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.
- Diaz also added a MAC ringer: Buffalo grad transfer K.J. Osborn. A key piece in the Bulls’ MAC East title run, Osborn was, per marginal explosiveness, more of a big-play threat than anyone on Miami’s roster, and while he’s not a surefire No. 1 target — you never know how the transition to higher competition levels will go — he is at worst a great complement for Thomas, tight end Brevin Jordan, and slot receiver Mike Harley.
Enos couldn’t save Bret Bielema’s job at Arkansas, but he coaxed efficient passing numbers out of QBs like Brandon Allen and Austin Allen. Miami doesn’t need its QB of choice to become Tua Tagovailoa (not that the program would object to it), but the Canes haven’t cleared the bar at the position since Brad Kaaya left.
If the passing game can pry some opposing defenders out of the box, DeeJay Dallas could thrive. The junior averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season thanks to random explosions, but the Canes struggled in run efficiency. (They struggled in everything efficiency.) He is a home run hitter, as are a pair of blue-chip sophomores (Cam’Ron Harris and, if immediately eligible, Auburn transfer Asa Martin*), but improving consistency could depend on a drastically redesigned line.
Guard Navaughn Donaldson is the only full-time returning starter up front, while sophomores DJ Scaife Jr. and Corey Gaynor and Butler grad transfer Tommy Kennedy also have decent experience. But offensive line coach Butch Barry could turn out to be as important a hire as Enos.
* It doesn’t appear Martin will be eligible, but with the NCAA, you never, ever know for sure.
Having a disappointing offense is bad enough. When it’s wasting a good defense, it makes everything even more frustrating.
Granted, Miami’s defense wasn’t perfect under Diaz — it did, after all, rank in the teens in Def. S&P+, which more or less matches its recruiting rankings. The Canes were merely good against the run, not great, and gave up a few too many big plays (mostly against Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl).
That said, the pass defense was dynamite. The U led the nation in sack rate and havoc rate, dominated third downs, and did about as good a job as anyone in FBS at leveraging you into passing downs (fifth in Standard Downs S&P+).
Diaz loves himself some TFLs (first in FBS last year) and forces the issue to grab some. Upon his promotion, he brought in a kindred spirit as his defensive coordinator: former Louisiana Tech DC Blake Baker, with whom he coached in Ruston in 2014. Tech was fourth in sack rate and 13th in TFLs last season.
Miami will boast as many play-makers as ever this fall. End Jonathan Garvin logged 17 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and five pass breakups in 2018, cornerback Trajan Bandy combined 11 passes defensed with 4.5 TFLs, “striker” back Romey Finley had five TFLs and six PDs of his own, and somehow linebackers Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney (combined: 25 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, six PDs) still have eligibility remaining. Seems like they’ve both been in Coral Gables since about 2007.
If there’s a concern, it’s depth. The linebacking corps is stocked, but only six linemen recorded double-digit tackles, and just three (Garvin, end Scott Patchan, and tackle Pat Bethel) return; in the back, only four DBs logged double-digit tackles, and only Bandy returns.
Granted, tackle Gerald Willis III, now a Baltimore Raven, came out of nowhere to dominate last fall, and there are plenty of breakthrough candidates: redshirt freshman end Patrick Joyner Jr., sophomore tackle Nesta Jade Silvera, junior safety Amari Carter, and sophomore DBs Gurvan Hall Jr. and Al Blades Jr., to name a few. And maybe we see a late-career explosion from someone like Patchan or linebacker Romeo Finley. Still, depth is a point of uncertainty until proven otherwise.
Diaz also brought in some ringers on defense as well: Virginia Tech pass rusher Trevon Hill, UCLA OLB and former No. 1 overall recruit Jaelan Phillips (who will apparently sit out 2019), UCLA tackle Chigozie Nnoruka, and USC safety Bubba Bolden. Hill has 20 career TFLs, and Phillips and Bolden are both former blue-chippers whose careers were derailed by injury out west. Nobody hit the transfer market harder than Diaz this offseason.
You know what compounds offensive efficiency issues? The worst punting in the country. Miami was 130th in punt efficiency, which, combined with offensive woes, meant opponents’ starting field position was the 33.5, seventh-worst in the country.
Enter Scary Tattoo Guy. JUCO transfer and converted Aussie Rules semi-pro Louis Hedley has almost no choice but to put up better numbers, but we’ll see how much better.
The rest of the unit is decent. DeeJay Dallas and Jeff Thomas are both dangerous return men, and Bubba Baxa (62nd in field goal efficiency) was solid for a freshman.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|7-Sep||at North Carolina||61||8.2||68%|
|2-Nov||at Florida State||28||0.5||51%|
|23-Nov||vs. Florida International||88||17.3||84%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||19|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||60 / 12|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||14.7 (21)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||23|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / -2.1|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+0.4|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||60% (63%, 57%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||8.8 (-1.8)|
For the second straight year, Miami’s prospects hinge primarily on the QB position. The Canes will have another dangerous defense, and the offensive skill corps has everything you need. Granted, the line is a question mark, but if Perry, Martell, or Williams can provide reasonably solid efficiency and decision-making, Miami is once again in position to win a lot of games.
Even with their offense projected just 60th overall (they were 66th last year), the Canes are projected favorites in 11 of 12 games this fall. After the season opener against Florida (in which they are a 10.7-point projected underdog), they don’t play anyone projected higher than 28th, and they are favored by at least 7.6 points in nine games. They get Virginia Tech and Virginia, probably the two most dangerous Coastal rivals this season, at home in Hard Rock Stadium in back-to-back weeks. The table is set for a strong record and division title run.
Of course, the table was last year, too, and Miami went 7-6. It seems the most dangerous thing Miami can do is actually have expectations. We’ll see if Diaz can change that.
Team preview stats
All 2019 preview data to date.