Welcome to Hype Week, our look at the teams fans and analysts seem to be especially excited about heading into the season. Some of these squads may turn out to be really good! Others, though, could drastically underperform expectations. Our goal is to examine why each of these teams is getting so much hype, and whether they can live up to it. Previously, we’ve covered Penn State and South Florida; today, Miami (No. 20 in SI’s preseason Top 25) goes under the microscope.
Let’s start with this: Miami is not “back” yet. It seems anytime there is optimism about the Canes, folks are too quick to jump the gun. As I’ve said before, Miami isn’t back until Miami wins another national title. The Canes have won five national championships in the past 35 years, but it’s been 13 seasons since they finished in the Top 10 or won double-digit games.
Still, it’s starting to feel like Mark Richt has Miami on the right path. The Hurricanes finished last season on a five-game winning streak, all by at least two touchdowns, capped off by a thumping of a good West Virginia team in the Russell Athletic Bowl. They also are on track to land a top-five recruiting class. Richt and his staff have developed a nasty front seven on defense, something the program hasn’t had in years. There’s plenty of speed on offense, led by a crew of young wideouts featuring budding star Ahmmon Richards. I think Miami has the potential to make a run at the ACC title … next year. Then again, if the Canes can figure out their QB situation—and last year’s underwhelming O-line improves in support of whoever’s in the pocket—Miami’s defense looks salty enough to hold up its end of a playoff contention argument right now.
What to love: Miami has one of the best D-lines in the country, with a legit front four of Chad Thomas (11 tackles for loss last season), Kendrick Norton (10 TFLs), RJ McIntosh (nine TFLs) and Joe Jackson (8.5 sacks as a freshman last year) and there’s some studs behind those guys too. The linebackers are fast and fierce—keep an eye on sophomore Shaq Quarterman, who looks like he’ll be an All-America before he leaves Coral Gables. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has a lot to work with now. Last season his group was pretty green up front, especially the freshman linebacker trio, but it still ranked fifth in FBS in tackles for loss and 22nd in sacks.
One ACC coach last winter told me he thought Miami was the most talented team he faced in 2016. And this was a guy who had also faced Clemson.
“I think we are close to getting over the hump,” Quarterman said. “We are really focused on the little things, not just with the starters, but with everyone because it’s the standard. If everyone keeps that standard then we’ll be right back on top where we are supposed to be.”
Miami lost a solid corner to the NFL in Corn Elder, and a key to this year’s defense has been the emergence of two newcomers at cornerback: Dee Delaney, a grad transfer who was a two-time FCS All-America at The Citadel, and junior college transfer Jhavonte Dean. Both are long and very athletic.
Canes cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, a former first-rounder himself at Miami, said Delaney is a pleasant surprise. “He’s just very strong and physical and athletic, and most of all, he’s almost taking control of my room already,” Rumph said. “He’s the guy who’s disciplined because he’s coming from The Citadel, he’s a little older, and he’s urgent, similar to [2016 grad transfer] Adrian Colbert last year, so we’re just excited about him.”
Back to the biggest question at Miami—who will take over for three-year starter Brad Kaaya at quarterback? Canes fans are enamored with gifted dual-threat freshman N’Kosi Perry, but he needs to keep his mistakes to a minimum (starting with being cleaner taking snaps from under center) if he wants to remain the fan favorite in that competition. He and fellow freshman Cade Weldon are battling Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs. Only Rosier, a 6' 1" junior, has any experience, having thrown two touchdowns and three picks in his 61 career passes.
“The road map is to compete and compete with as many guys as you think have a realistic shot at winning the job,” Richt said at the start of training camp. “In this case, it’s four guys. When you rep that many guys, it’s hard to get the continuity you want. On the other hand, we’re trying to learn as much as we can. Sometimes, if you’re with the [first string], and you might have better protection, then I can see how you react when things are going good. Then if you get with the two unit, against the number one defense, and the protection might not be holding out as good as with the ones, I got to see how you’re going to react to that. I got to see how you react. If a guy misses a block, what are you going to do? Are you going to secure the ball and get what you can get? Find somebody and run out of bounds or run down the field and slide—how are you going to react? How are you going to react if you throw a pick—what are you going to do after that? How are you going to react if you have a rough day overall—can you recover and be mature enough to go back and compete? The goal is to try to be as equal as I can with the reps with the one unit and two unit, and even the three unit sometimes. Then you learn a lot. Kids think, ‘I can only show what I can do behind the [first-string] offensive line.’ No, you’re showing me what to do behind the [second-string] line. I want to see how you’re going to react to a little bit of adversity.”
Richt has about two weeks into the season to get things figured out at QB, since the Canes open with FCS Bethune-Cookman and then travel to Arkansas State before taking on archrival Florida State in Tallahassee. The pressure on the new starting quarterback against what should be a devastating Seminoles front figures to be excruciating. After that, though, the road schedule is pretty manageable, with trips to Duke, North Carolina and Pitt remaining. Miami doesn’t face defending national champion Clemson or NC State, two teams that will have dominant defensive lines.
This is going to be an intriguing team to follow as it matures over the course of the season. As much as I like the defense and the potential of the receivers, let’s pump the brakes on the Miami hype a little bit longer.