With Alabama kicking off the season opener with Miami tomorrow, I spent some time this week speaking with Cam Underwood at State of the U, SBNation’s Miami site. In case you’d like to see it, here’s the other half of the preview on their site where I spent about 1500 words talking about Alabama.
1) After a tough year 1 as the head coach in Miami, Manny Diaz turned the Hurricanes into a solid top-20 team last year. What’s the general fan sentiment around him as a new, baby-faced head coach?
Diaz is a solid coach, so there’s promise, but some things he’s tried went awry. We all remember the way he stole Dan Enos from Alabama and that....failed. Miserably. He’s replaced the OC with Rhett Lashlee, which is a big upgrade. Diaz hired his successor from Louisiana Tech, Blake Baker, to run the defense as DC. That also failed miserably. Now Diaz is handling DC duties himself. That was the right and necessary move.
I have hope that Diaz has the chance to win big here at Miami. He has the mentality for it, but he’s still only heading into his 3rd year as a Head Coach. This season is going to go a long way towards telling the story of Diaz’s tenure here. No pressure, right?
2) This is more of a general question that you may not have a specific answer for: In 2020, the Hurricanes seemed to fairly easily dispatch teams that they should beat, and were thoroughly trounced by Clemson and North Carolina- the only two legitimate upper tier teams they played. Clearly the team wasn’t susceptible to mental lapses against inferior opponents, but what needs to change in 2021 to be competitive with the upper echelon?
That is the main question facing this program. Miami has struggled against high quality opposition since 2003 with only a couple exceptions. Miami has been a team that rides the wave of emotion, positive and negative, more than most. To really get over the hump and beat teams that are a challenge, maybe a bit over their level, the Canes are going to need someone to make a program-changing play in a big moment. For about a week, it looked like Trajan Bandy had done that in the epic 2017 beatdown of Notre Dame, but alas....
Miami has one of the best rosters in the Country. But if you look at the many games the Canes have lost to inferior teams, and the blowout losses to comparable or better teams, there’s a disconnect. There has to be a time when the recruiting stars turn into on-field excellence. And I know I’m preaching to the choir here when doing a Q&A with you Bama fans (you have an incredibly talented roster and play up to the level of talent on the roster year in and year out), but making the leap from recruiting well to playing well is the next vanguard for the Miami Hurricanes.
3) How confident are you that D’Eriq King is ready to go? If he is ready, do you think he’s got what it takes to make the leap from a promising talent to a legit national super star? And if his knee isn’t ready, who takes his place (and how bad is it going to be?)
I am 100% confident in King. He’s had a great recovery and I do not believe Miami would rush him back for this game. There’s too much at stake the rest of this year to do that.
Yes, King has the talent, and demonstrated excellence, to go from great (which he is) to elite. He has all the tools: he can run, he can throw, he’s very experienced in his 6th year this year. He’s thrown for more than 7600 yards with 73 TDs and 15 INTs. He’s run for nearly 2,000 yards and 32 TDs. And he was a receiver when he first got to college, so he has catches and a kickoff return TD to his credit as well. Apart from being shorter than you’d like at a generously-listed 5’10”, he has every tangible and intangible quality you want from your starting quarterback. As King goes, Miami goes this season. And I can’t wait to see where he takes us.
Even though King is 100% going to play in the opener, I’ll just say the backups are super freshman Tyler Van Dyke and true freshman Jake Garcia. Both were blue chip recruits, but Garcia was the highest rated QB to commit to Miami since Kyle Wright in 2003. Their battle isn’t for this year, it’s for the QB1 job next year after King leaves. Neither one is ready for primetime yet, so it’s good that King came back and is healthy once again.
4) Miami returns all of their receivers from 2020. Tell us about the main threats and how they’re used in the offense.
Returning all of the receivers — minus TE Brevin Jordan, now in the NFL — is a thing, but there are several who needed to show improvements over last year. Mike Harley is the leading receiver coming back. He’s a slot receiver who uses speed and skill to win at the line and down the field. He’s grown as a player a lot and is now one of the most consistent players on Miami’s offense. You’ll see him frequently used running RPO slants, speed outs, digs, bubble screens, seam routes, and corner routes as the #3 receiver to the field side of the formation.
Joining Harley is Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo. He was looking for a starring role that wasn’t coming at OU, but he has a chance to grab that here at Miami. Rambo has played at the highest levels of the sport, and his experience and skill will be a value add to Miami’s receiving corps. He fits what Miami wants to run from a route perspective, and hopefully the change of scenery will reinvigorate his performance.
The 3rd starting WR is super freshman Key’Shawn Smith. A sleeper recruit from San Diego, Smith was released from his NLI with Wazzu after Mike Leach left the school and pivoted to Miami. He’s got size, speed, and skill, and has been one of the biggest breakout players through the spring, summer, and fall camp. He not only gets open, but he also catches the ball, which is something that could not be said of other wideouts on Miami’s roster.
Former starters Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins, both of whom who have struggled mightily with drops, are now at the bottom or off of the 2-Deep. They’ve both been very inconsistent in their college careers, and it seems that their inconsistencies have finally started to cost them playing time.
At TE, Will Mallory stepped up to replace Brevin Jordan when the latter was injured for most of last season. He’s a big, dynamic TE who can make plays at every level of the offense. Joining him is freshman Elijah Arroyo, who is yet-another blue chip talent to continue the legacy of #TEU for the Canes into the future.
5) Is there any chance the rushing game gets any more traction than their rather inconsequential showing in 2020?
There’s a chance Miami’s running game finds more traction than in years past. But, to be perfectly honest, that will probably have to happen in games other than this one. Miami’s offensive line is talented and has 91 starts of returning experience to their credit, but Alabama presents a unique challenge in terms of the size, and skill, of the defenders they’ll be tasked with blocking, and we’ll see if they’re up to the task.
If the OL can create space to run, Miami has many dynamic players who can take advantage of that space. QB D’Eriq King leads the way, and RBs Cam’Ron Harris, Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton are all dynamic in their own various ways. Knighton is the fastest of those players, Harris is the most elusive, and Chaney is the most physical. And King has the ability to go from a passer into a runner at a moment’s notice. But we’ll see how much space those players have to operate, and if it’s more than they and other Miami runners have had in big games in recent years.
6) Tell us about the Miami defensive scheme. What formations/personnel/philosophies are we going to see?
Miami runs a multiple defense that is predicated on getting up the field and creating havoc in the opposing backfield. Miami is mostly a 40 front team, but the Canes will mix in 30 fronts from time to time as well. In the back end, Miami’s a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 depending on how you want to count the STRIKER (hybrid LB/S) position in the structure. Obviously, with teams spreading the field more now than in the CFB past, having another athletic player to defend in space has been an important development.
As Nick Saban noted in a recent media availability, Manny Diaz is fond of dialing up CB blitzes, normally from the short side of the offensive formation. Miami has their Corners play a bit more aggressive than other teams, but the performance of those players could stand to see improvement this season.
7) With Jaelen Phillips moving on to the NFL, where is the pass rush going to come from?
I just want to remind you that Gregory Rousseau sat out last season after 15.5 sacks in 2019 and was a 1st round draft pick as well. He didn’t contribute to Miami’s pass rush last year, but he’s not to be forgotten.
The answer to the question: I don’t know. I’m not too concerned because DL coach Jess Simpson is one of the best in the game at any level, and he always finds someone to create a pass rush. The most likely candidate this season is DE Jahfari Harvey, with Chantz Williams as the next best natural pass rusher on the roster. Converted LB Zach McCloud and Tennessee-transfer De’Andre Johnson are other players that Miami will play at DE and hope they are able to generate pressure off the edge. Even with all of those guys, it’s like Miami’s pass rush from the edge takes a step back this season.
8) Which defender is going to make the best/most impactful play against Alabama next weekend?
S Bubba Bolden. He’s the best defender on the team and there was an argument that he was the best defender in the country through the month of September last season. If anyone is going to make a game-changing play to turn this game in Miami’s favor, it’s Bolden.
9) Say this game comes down to a battle of special teams.... Do you like your chances?
If the special teams you’re referencing is kicking, I feel great. Andy Borregales takes over as kicker for his brother, 2020 Groza Award winner Jose, and he’s great just like his brother. If this game comes down to a kick, I feel great about the freshman stepping up and nailing it.
If the special teams you’re referencing is some kind of return......I don’t like it. Despite having a wealth of talent and athleticism on the roster, Miami’s return units, both punt and kick return, have been among the worst in the country over the last 20 years. If that’s where a play needs to be made for Miami to pull out a victory on Saturday, I would not feel positive about that situation for the Canes.
10) Finally, how do you predict Miami’s 2021 season will turn out?
I think that Miami will show that they’ve taken a step forward as a program and be competitive on Saturday before ultimately losing to the Tide. After that, the Canes will run the rest of the table 10-1 and emerge as the ACC Coastal Division Champions. From there, anything is possible.
Huge thanks to the guys over at State of the U for answering my massive list of questions! While you’re at it, Jake Marcus wrote a phenomenal 3-part series previewing Alabama from their side of things, and you should check it out.
Seriously, I think this dude knows our team better than most of us do.
Best of luck to all tomorrow! I hope guys play well, nobody gets hurt, and Alabama wins 49-0.