Patience for Al Golden is becoming increasingly thin.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Golden inherited a difficult situation at Miami, a point with which few will disagree. But he owns 2014, and he certainly owns whatever happens with the Canes in the upcoming years. And after four seasons of mostly mediocrity, the team’s fan base is quickly losing faith in the current regime. Talent has not necessarily been the issue, as evidenced by the gaggle of former Canes that participated in February’s NFL Combine.
Molding that talent into a consistent winner, however, has vexed a staff that went 6-7 a year ago and is just .500 overall in league games. If Miami treads water for much longer, it’s Golden’s career that could wind up sinking to the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
It’s been a challenging past decade for Miami football. The most challenging one since the pre-Howard Schnellenberger era of the 1970’s. Since 2003, the once-mighty Canes have had more NCAA run-ins than combined 10-win seasons, top 10 finishes, conference titles and major bowl invitations
. And their last postseason victory was in 2006, Larry Coker’s final year. Miami is only slightly better than average these days, a reality that’s taken time for many, in and out of the program, to adopt.
Miami will continue to lean on two primary strengths, a rich tradition, predominantly from 1983-2003, and the fertile recruiting territory that exists in its own backyard. The latter is particularly vexing, because the Hurricanes continue to attract many elite, pro-caliber players. Yet, Golden and his staff have been unable to parlay their natural resources into sustained excellence or certainly ACC dominance on the field. And the current roster doesn’t portend any seismic shifts in the recent history.
While a backfield comprised of emerging star QB Brad Kaaya and complementary runners Gus Crawford and Joseph Yearby may be shades of the past, the rest of the two-deep features more questions than answers.
The Hurricanes are an ACC enigma. They recruit well and prepare players for the NFL, but a return to national glory seems as out of reach as it was a few years back. Golden did a sound job of shepherding Miami through the noise and distractions of a bungled NCAA investigation. But that was then and this is now.
And now is the time to lead the program back into the Top 25. Failure to do so might mean The U pertaining to Golden in December is for unemployed.
What to watch for on offense: Coley’s answer. The sophomore season for WR Stacy Coley was a mystery to everyone. How could the kid who exploded on to the scene as a rookie in 2013 basically disappear last season? The Canes—and QB Brad Kaaya—need Coley to tap into his rookie form, because last year’s top three pass-catchers, Clive Walford, Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett, are gone. In fact, for Kaaya to reach his potential, Miami will also need TE Standish Dobard and receivers Rashawn Scott, Malcolm Lewis and Herb Waters to play their best ball this fall.
What to watch for on defense: Sorting out the D-line traffic. It’s been a long time since Miami dominated on defense at the point of attack. Too long, resulting in struggles versus the run and getting to the quarterback. And while the Canes are home to a lot of talented linemen, they’re raw and largely unproven. It’s incumbent upon some mix of former five-star DE Chad Thomas, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, who was suspended for 2014, and DT Ufomba Kamalu, to name just three, to really ratchet up their pass rushing skills this season.
The team will be far better if… the offense becomes far more efficient. Sure, the defense incurs the worst wrath, and often deservedly so. But how does an offense that ranks No. 4 in ACC total yards also finish No. 9 in total scoring? An inability to extend and finish drives. The good news is that QB Brad Kaaya is a year older and wiser. The concern? Replacing RB Duke Johnson, TE Clive Walford, WR Phillip Dorsett and LT Ereck Flowers will not occur without some growing pains, especially in the trenches.
The Schedule: Miami gets the annual date with Florida State to deal with, and this year it has to go to Tallahassee. That’s bad enough, but the Hurricanes also have to face Clemson from the Atlantic.
– Bethune-Cookman and a trip up the road to Florida Atlantic are nice and easy games to ease into the season, and the Canes need them with Nebraska, at Cincinnati and at Florida State to follow.
– The break after the FSU game is getting three home games in four weeks with the road trip at Duke. So if Miami can get past the first half of the year without falling apart, it should be okay.
– Miami only leaves the state of Florida – going to Cincinnati – once before Halloween.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Finishing up with a road game at Pitt after playing Georgia Tech. Not only do the Hurricanes have to play in cold weather on November 27th, but they have to do it six days after getting their defensive legs chopped up by the Yellow Jackets.
Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Brad Kaaya. Out of the disappointment that was a losing 2014 season emerged Kaaya, a franchise quarterback on which a program will be built. Forgetting for a moment the numbers, which included leading the ACC in passing efficiency, ahead of even Jameis Winston. It was Kaaya’s uncommon poise, maturity and leadership for a first-year player out of Chaminade College (Calif.) Prep that really has Miami gushing. And his work ethic and acumen signal continuous growth throughout his Hurricane career.
Best defensive player: Senior S Deon Bush. Bush is one of the few sure-things that Miami has on defense entering 2015. And his leadership and versatility will be on display for NFL scouts throughout the season. Bush is a tempo-changer from the defensive backfield, leaving a distinct mark as both a run stopper and a pass defender. And while best suited to remain at safety, the staff has already expressed comfort in employing its selfless senior leader at cornerback if the need arises during the year.
Key players to a successful season: The offensive tackles. One sure-fire way to cap Miami’s potential this season is to allow the pocket to become congested for Brad Kaaya. The Canes must create an environment for their franchise quarterback to blossom in 2015. And now that Ereck Flowers is NFL-bound, the onus falls upon the enormous quartet of Taylor Gadbois, Trevor Darling, Kc McDermott and Sunny Odogwu to ascend from raw talents to maulers on the flanks of the offensive line.
The season will be a success if … the Hurricanes win eight regular season games. The coach is in his fifth season, and the quarterback is no longer a rookie. So, despite facing obstacles on both sides of the ball, Miami ought to be ready to ascend beyond last year’s six-win campaign. Coastal Division contention is always a possibility, especially since Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will be faced at Sun Life Stadium. It’s time for the Canes to approach the 2013 team that won nine games, despite collapsing late in the year.
Key game: Sept. 19 vs. Nebraska. While it’ll have no bearing on the ACC divisional races, a visit from the Huskers will unveil plenty about the Canes’ potential this season. In a probable swing game, this is an instance where Miami must earn a quality win before league play begins. In fact, with Bethune-Cookman and Florida Atlantic in the first two games, and a trip to Cincinnati on Oct. 1, the Hurricanes are eyeing a 4-0 start before their showdown with Florida State on Oct. 10 at Doak Campbell Stadium.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Yards per play: Miami 6.7 – Opponents 4.8
– Third-down conversions: Miami 37% – Opponents 40%
– Red-zone touchdowns: Miami 52% – Opponents 62%
What you need to know about the offense: Coordinator James Coley has spent this offseason trying to fine-tune an offense that lacked efficiency and committed too many penalties in 2014. Sure, the Canes piled up the yards a year ago, but points were scarcer, a telltale sign of poor execution. Coley and his staff will be facing dueling realities this season. On the one hand, his franchise quarterback, Brad Kaaya, is a valuable year older and on the verge of becoming one of the nation’s better young passers. On the other, though, some of last season’s top skill position players are gone, and the O-line must gel this summer. The backfield tandem of Gus Edwards and Joseph Yearby is capable of offsetting the production of Duke Johnson, and backup QB Malik Rosier presents options as a change-of-pace. But the tight ends and wide receivers, like Stacy Coley and Rashawn Scott, must come together in support of the continued development of Kaaya. No assistants is facing a tougher job this offseason than line coach Art Kehoe, who’s replacing three starters, and banking on the healthy returns of two of his top tackles, Taylor Gadbois and Kc McDermott.
What you need to know about the defense: Credit goes where credit is due. And beleaguered coordinator Mark D’Onofrio is arguably coming off his best season with the Hurricanes. Miami improved in most statistical categories in 2014, while ranking 15th nationally in yards per play allowed. Still, D’Onofrio understands this is not the time to become content, and that there’s more work to be done. The biggest hole is at middle linebacker, where perennial all-star thumper Denzel Perryman is being supplanted by Raphael Kirby. The unit’s strength? A deep defensive backfield with a high ceiling. The greatest unknown? That would be a D-line that could hold the defense’s fate in its hands. Although there’s ample potential up front, it’s counterbalanced by precious few proven players. DT Ufomba Kamalu has leading man potential, while fingers are crossed that pass rushers Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad can begin approaching their sizable potential. If the front is a factor, Miami is capable of matching last season’s defensive results.
Players You Need To Know
1. QB Brad Kaaya, Soph.
Even the coaching staff that worked so hard to sign Kaaya last February was blown away by his development as a rookie. The 6-4, 209-pound sophomore is already the face of the Miami program, with a chance to join the pantheon of greats to ever play the position at the school. Showing uncommon poise, instincts and accuracy for a rookie in 2014, the ACC Rookie of the Year completed 221-of-378 passes for 3,198 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Now, Kaaya must continue to evolve, while finding new favorite targets to supplant WR Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford.
2. S Deon Bush, Sr.
On a defensive roster flush with uncertainty, Bush is one of the few Canes the coaching staff can truly count on. The 6-0, 193-pounder is close to a complete safety, a centerfielder who covers as well as he tackles in the open field. In fact, he’s a punishing hitter who revels at sprinting full steam toward the line of scrimmage. Bush has no shortage of intangibles either, from his keen instincts to the fire with which he plays. He tied for second nationally with five fumbles, while making 53 tackles, four stops for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.
3. RB Gus Edwards, Jr.
Lost in the fog of Duke Johnson’s finale and Joseph Yearby’s arrival is the fact that Edwards is a very nice back. He’s neither Edwards nor Yearby, in that he won’t make people miss. In fact, the 6-2, 230-pounder seeks out contact, often bouncing off tacklers or burying them with a stiff-arm. However, Edwards is hardly one-dimensional. He runs with terrific balance and can get to the edge, amassing 687 yards and 11 touchdowns on 127 carries through two years.
4. RB Joseph Yearby, Soph.
The former can’t-miss recruit got his feet wet as Duke Johnson’s apprentice in 2014, finishing second on the team with 509 rushing yards and a touchdown on only 86 carries. Yearby should become the flashy complement to 230-pound Gus Edwards, using his open-field shiftiness and bursts through the hole to flex opposing defenses in all directions. When the 5-9, 195-pound burner gets to the edge, it’s very difficult for defenders to get the angle on him. First, though, he needs to exit the doghouse after being suspended for the spring game.
5. WR Stacy Coley, Jr.
Will Miami see the Coley who looked like an emerging superstar as a rookie in 2013? It’s one of the most important questions for the offense heading into the new year. Last season was essentially a lost one for Coley, the 6-1, 187-pound burner. In a complete head-scratcher, he caught 23 passes for 184 yards and no touchdowns. It was an incomprehensible sophomore slump that new wide receivers coach Kevin Beard is working hard to reverse with attentive mentoring and discipline this offseason.
6. S Rayshawn Jenkins, Jr.
When back problems required offseason surgery, Jenkins’ experience and savvy were missed by the ‘Cane defensive backfield in 2014. The surgery is expected to correct a chronic condition that affected Jenkins even when he was the starter in 2013, so he could be like new as a junior in 2015. At a minimum, his return means Miami will be deep and proven at safety, since Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford are back as well. Two years ago, the 6-1, 209-pound Jenkins started 12 games, making 46 stops and three interceptions.
7. CB Artie Burns, Jr.
Burns made a successful jump from wide-eyed role player in 2013 to 11-game starter in the secondary last year. He has plenty of natural ability, most notably a 6-0, 193-pound frame and the speed to recover on blown assignments. But now Burns will be counted on to make more money plays after his 2014 stat line included 40 tackles, two sacks, six pass breakups … and not a single interception.
8. LB Jermaine Grace, Jr.
After proving himself from off the bench in 2014, Grace is poised to nab the starting weakside job likely to be vacated by Raphael Kirby’s move inside. Grace is safety-sized at 6-1 and 208 pounds, which permits him to fly all over the field like a sure-tackling guided missile. Despite not starting a single game, he was second on the team with 60 tackles, including 6.5 stops for loss, three sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries. The staff can use No. 5 in myriad ways, such as on blitzes and in coverage.
9. WR Rashawn Scott, Sr.
The Hurricanes are excited about the return of Scott, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy during his career. In 2013, he missed all but four games with a shoulder injury, and then sat out all of 2014 with a clavicle problem. But in 2012, Scott’s potential was on display, as he caught 35 passes for 512 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. The 6-2, 205-pounder has the experience and the work ethic to be the steady veteran that an iffy receiving corps is seeking.
10. OG Danny Isidora, Jr.
Now that three starters from a year ago are gone, including standout LT Ereck Flowers, Isidora has a chance to be one of the young anchors of a rebuilding Miami O-line. He started all 13 games at right guard in 2014, gradually improving as the season unfolded. The 6-4, 322-pounder speaks softly, preferring to let his physicality and drive blocking on running plays do the talking.
11. P Justin Vogel, Jr.
Vogel arrived as a walk-on transfer from Florida and instantly impacted the Hurricane special teams unit. While there were some inconsistencies late in the year, he still averaged 42.8 yards a punt to earn All-ACC Third Team. Vogel, who has since earned a scholarship from Al Golden, also handled kickoffs for the team, averaging 62 yards a boot.