SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
With UM’s football season ending abruptly Saturday, coaches take solace that every starter is likely returning except Mike James and Brandon McGee, unless there are transfers or juniors turning pro.
“You’ve got 10 returning starters on offense and Duke Johnson,” offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “Who wouldn’t want to coach that?”
The defense? Not nearly as rosy a picture, though the youth and potential of several key players offer at least some measure of encouragement. But let's not sugercoat: This defense must improve markedly for UM to have any chance of winning at FSU, at North Carolina and at Virginia Tech next year.
An in-depth position-by-position peek ahead to 2013, with input from Fisch and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio:
### Quarterback: Senior-to-be Stephen Morris “will have an opportunity to be among the best,” Al Golden said. “He’s going to be an excellent quarterback; he’s pretty good right now. I’ve been around Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Schaub, and Stephen’s arm is the best of all those guys. Elite arm.
“His leadership is extraordinary. He’s 208 pounds. Next year, he’ll be 218, will be able to take some punishment. He’ll run the ball better.”
Morris must improve in the red zone -- he was a dismal 4 for 22 inside the opponent’s 10-yard line -- and must boost his 58.2 completion percentage. He closed with 21 touchdowns, seven picks and an average of 279 passing yards per game.
“His footwork has to get better,” Fisch said. “If he has better footwork in the pocket, he’ll be more accurate.” But as Fisch noted, Morris has been hurt by more than two dozen drops.
Preston Dewey ended the season as the No. 3 quarterback, though Fisch insisted that Dewey and Gray Crow are “dead even” behind Morris and Ryan Williams. Prized oral commitment Kevin Olsen isn’t expected to arrive until the summer. So “Preston and Gray will get a lot of reps in the spring.” David Thompson, who redshirted after shoulder surgery, will miss spring ball to play baseball.
### Running back: With James graduating, UM hopes Danny Dillard emerges as a complement to Johnson, UM's best player. Dillard “is similar to Mike James, probably bigger,” Fisch said. “We hope he can be as good as Mike. He can be a real physical presence.” FYI: Johnson, whose carries should increase as a starter next year, finished his freshman year with 947 yards rushing on 139 carries (a robust 6.8 average).
Fisch expects Eduardo Clements (neck issue) to be ready for next season --- he had just seven carries for 16 yards --- and Dallas Crawford will get another look. Maurice Hagens is back at fullback. Two backs likely will be signed, with Ray Lewis III orally committed and UM remaining privately hopeful of landing South Plantation’s Alex Collins, even though he dropped his oral commitment.
### Receiver: Should be UM’s best and deepest position, with at least six able to make a strong case for playing time. “To have the same group, other than Davon Johnson and Kendal Thompkins, is going to be awesome,” Fisch said. “The receiver corps is going to be really good. I expect a huge jump from Phillip Dorsett. We’ll have Allen Hurns healthy.”
The top six going into the spring: Dorsett, Hurns, Rashawn Scott (back from suspension in January), Malcolm Lewis (“he was almost starting as a true freshman in week 2” before his season-ending injury, Fisch points out); Robert Lockhart (Fisch said he resembled Tommy Streeter with amazing practice catches before his injury) and Herb Waters, who came on very strong late and scored another touchdown Saturday.
Among the redshirt freshmen receivers, Jontavious Carter impressed coaches more than D’Mauri Jones, though it's hard to see either cracking the top six barring injuries. And don't discount Angelo Jean-Louis, who was UM’s highest-rated Class of 2012 receiver recruit but went to prep school because of academic reasons. Jean-Louis said he will enroll here in 2013.
### Tight end: A priority will be getting Clive Walford involved heavily in the passing game to start next season, not just in November, as was the case this year. "He can be as good as he wants to be," Fisch said. "He’s so gifted, strong, athletic and fast.”
Asante Cleveland, Dyron Dye and David Perry are back, but Cleveland simply hasn't lived up to the staff's initial expectations. Miami has oral commitments from the nation’s 11th- and 12th-rated tight ends: Tampa’s Travis Johnson and New Orleans’ Standish Dobard.
### Offensive line: From left to right, starters Malcolm Bunche, Jonathan Feliciano, Shane McDermott, Brandon Linder and Seantrel Henderson have eligibility left, though UM isn’t certain if Henderson will turn pro. If he does, Ereck Flowers can move in seamlessly. Jared Wheeler would become the top backup if Henderson bolts.
Among 2012 newcomers, Danny Isidora is ahead of Taylor Gadbois and could be a factor at guard.
### Linebacker: D’Onofrio told me he now has peace of mind with a unit that was a major worry before the season. If Ramon Buchanan gets another year of eligibility (still in question), UM will have Buchanan, Denzel Perryman (UM likely will keep him outside, but D’Onofrio said that isn’t definite); middle linebacker Jimmy Gaines (“he was the guy we were sorely missing before he came back for FSU. He’s been great”).
They’ll also have Gionni Paul (third on the team in tackles despite missing three games); Eddie Johnson (led UM in tackles for loss); and Raphael Kirby (“his skill set is really good”), plus Tyrone Cornelius, Thurston Armbrister and freshmen Gabe Terry (special-teams standout) and JaWand Blue (who redshirted).
Is it a great group? Hardly. But it could be good enough if Johnson, Perryman and Kirby keep developing. Johnson needs to get his act together; he was left home Saturday for undisclosed reasons, just as he was for the Virginia game. (He missed a team meeting before that game.)
Bottom line: The linebackers must improve both against the run and in coverage against skilled tight ends and running backs.
### Defensive end: UM had only 13 sacks as a team, and the pass rush from this group wasn't nearly good enough, though freshman Tyriq McCord (3.5 sacks) was impressive in that regard. Starter Shayon Green didn't produce a single sack. McCord could challenge him for playing time -- opposite Anthony Chickillo - but only if he bulks up. “Tyriq has long arms but needs an offseason in the weight room. He’s 218 and needs to get to 235,” D’Onofrio said. “Shayon is a 255-pounder.”
Behind those three, UM needs at least two others to emerge among Kelvin Cain (UM thought he would be more of a factor), Jalen Grimble (a disappointment was who moved over from tackle), Ricardo Williams (hasn't done much) and freshmen Jelani Hamilton, Dwayne Hoilett and Jake O’Donnell. Hamilton played less as the year went on because McCord passed him, but D’Onofrio insists he didn’t regress. Hoilett and O'Donnell redshifted, and UM needs to see more to determine if either can help.
### Defensive tackle: After Curtis Porter returned for the final four games, he and Olsen Pierre became UM’s best tackle tandem, by far, and UM hopes Porter, a junior, eschews turning pro. With those two together, UM was competent defending the run after being abysmal earlier in the season.
But two more reliable tackles must emerge among Earl Moore, who D’Onofrio said was the best of the three freshmen tackles; Luther Robinson and Corey King (UM likes his upside); and freshmen Dequan Ivery (has dropped from 327 to 302 pounds) and Jacoby Briscoe.
D’Onofrio said Briscoe has practiced some on the offensive line but will stay on defense…. UM is in the mix for at least two junior college tackles (Lavon Hooks, Toby Johnson) and Delray Beach Atlantic’s Keith Bryant remains a soft oral commitment.
### Cornerback: The group struggled Saturday and loses McGee. Freshman Tracy Howard made his first start against Duke and almost assuredly will start next year, likely opposite Ladarius Gunter, who had some good moments this season but not Saturday. Figure on Antonio Crawford, UM's fastest corner, pushing Gunter. Thomas Finnie's play was too erratic.
“Tracy has improved quite a bit," D'Onofrio said. "Antonio has excellent coverage skills, can really run. And we’re excited about Nate Dortch and Larry Hope” - who both redshirted.
### Safety: The safety play wasn't nearly good enough this year, but UM believes Rayshawn Jenkins/Deon Bush can be its best safety tandem in several years if both freshmen keep improving. “Jenkins is a tremendous talent, has all the skills to be a big time safety,” D’Onofrio said. Kacy Rodgers, who had numerous breakdowns, and AJ Highsmith likely move into backup roles.
### Matt Goudis will replace senior kicker Jake Wieclaw and potentially, senior punter Dalton Botts.
### Impending free agent Reggie Bush’s return to the Dolphins next season continues to look increasingly iffy. Even in games when he doesn’t fumble, he’s playing fewer snaps than Daniel Thomas, partly because of Thomas’ superior pass protection. And Dolphins coaches like how hard Thomas runs.
Thomas has 142 snaps, Bush 94 in the past four games, including the two that Bush was benched a few series for fumbling. Thomas’ 3.3 per carry average is third-worst among qualifying NFL backs and trails Bush’s 4.2. But here's the catch: Bush’s 1.9 average after contact is among the league’s worst, while Thomas is a bit better after being hit (2.1).
### Some in the Dolphins front office would like to see the coaches play seam-stretching third-round rookie tight end Michael Egnew, but offensive coordinator Mike Sherman suggested that’s not going to happen anytime soon. “I make a lot of good plays in practice but mess one up now and then,” Egnew said. “They want me to be more consistent. I believe Jeff Ireland still has faith in me.”
### According to one of his agents, the Dolphins never called about Seattle’s Russell Wilson before the draft, though several teams didn’t because of his size (5-11). Wilson, drafted 75th, has a 90.5 rating; Tannehill, picked eighth, is at 70.8.
### Though Internet speculation has linked the Heat to free agent Kenyon Martin – who would have interest in signing here – Miami has not brought him in for a workout nor made overtures. Martin, who chose the Clippers over the Heat last February, will be on Miami's list if a need for a power forward emerges. But Miami likes its roster as constituted.
### The Marlins are shopping shortstop Yunel Escobar, acquired from Toronto. If he’s dealt, that could leave Greg Dobbs and Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base, because Escobar is slated to play third if the Marlins can't find a taker.… Manager Mike Redmond last week called an angry Giancarlo Stanton, who is not eligible for free agency until November 2016, to try to smooth things over. The Marlins are not shopping Stanton, whose salary could jump from 500,000 in 2013 to $7 million in arbitration in 2014. Josh Johnson expects Stanton eventually wants to play in California, his home state.