I caught up with UM assistant Aubrey Hill earlier this week and asked him if he feels like the luckiest receivers coach in college football. Hill didn't need to really answer the question. It's beyond obvious he has one of the deepest and finest collections of talent at the position around.
Through two games, a dozen players (five receivers, two tight ends and five running backs) have caught passes for UM. Of those 12, seven have made catches of 20 or more yards. Hill smiles at those stats and said part of what has made Miami's offense have so much success early on this season has been that diversity of pass catchers.
"Defenses always want to make you one dimensional whether you run the ball or pass the ball. They want to take one particular back out, one particular tight end out, one receiver out," Hill said. "I think it makes it more of a task when you are more diverse with the people you put on the field and the many positions you put them in. In my opinion it's pretty simple: Would you rather have one toy on Christmas or several toys on Christmas? I'd rather have as many gifts as possible."
The gifts come in many shapes and sizes. But none may be more valuable to the receivers according to Hill than junior Leonard Hankerson, who was on the verge of being passed up by the younger talented guys behind him before making a huge turnaround this off-season. Hill said Hankerson did exactly what was asked of him -- work on the drops, his conditioning and become a leader.
"It's amazing the return you get when you put something in it," Hill said. "I think leadership is so important in our group because there are so many teams with so much talent, but who have never really gelled. I think that comes from not having that leadership or direction. We're fortunate we have that direction with Hank. He says 'Guys we need to do this, we need to do that,' reinforcing what the coaches are saying; making sure guys are on time just keeping guys on point. That's the type of influence he has."
Another player setting the right example according to Hill is sophomore LaRon Byrd, who rebounded from a catch-less night at Florida State (when he suffered a few bruised ribs) by leading UM with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Tech. Hill said Byrd brings his "hard hat and lunch pail" to UM each day and is the first one to come in for film study and the last to leave. He's also the first to turn in assignments. And Hill said Byrd (6-4, 215) has only begun to bloom under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's guidance.
"LaRon is getting better day-to-day from practice to practice," Hill said. "He's running crossing routes, double moves, comebacks, curls. He's running all the routes the receivers do in the NFL. I don't think he did all those things in high school. He's probably one of those guys you could say is a really good size and speed guy and is a natural catcher, but still has some rawness in route-running but has really improved."
One primary focus for all the receivers this offseason -- aside from better route running -- was improving their blocking, a mandate from Whipple across the board. Hill said Travis Benjamin, who leads the team with seven catches and 157 yards receiving, is someone who has improved the most in those areas.
"We're a lot more team oriented as a group and as an offense and we're really excited about going downfield and having a presence in the run game," Hill said. "You have receivers downfield cutting. Those guys aren't worried about how many touchdown or catches they have, but how many times they can knock down defensive backs. You can see those guys really excited coming to the sideline saying 'Coach did you see me knock those guys down?'"
Two receivers nobody has been able to see yet on the field are redshirt freshmen Kendall Thompkins and Tommy Streeter. I asked Hill when they might see the field.
"We're really excited about them as far as where they're going, direction they're headed," Hill said. "The biggest thing with them is consistency. But you see they have a lot of skill, athleticism, a lot of big play ability. The biggest thing with them isn't a matter of if, but when. I'm sure their opportunity will come this year and hopefully the near future where they can come in and help us in the passing game and run game."
One thing Hill said has definitely developed after UM's first two games is a genuine level of excitement about the offense from recruits. Hill said he's been receiving more phone calls from players Miami is after who have been more than impressed with Whipple's play calling.
"Many recruits prior to the season started were kind of waiting to see how the offense was going to do," Hill said. "It kind of speaks for itself when you do well on the field and you get the recruits calling saying good game, great win, we like what we saw. If it was the other way around still, where we were the ones calling all the time then you know how we're doing."
Since NFL rules do not allow scouts to ask talk to assistants about underclassmen, Hill said the only player he's been approached about has been senior Sam Shields (who even though has made the move to defense is still apparently being thought of by some scouts as a receiver).
"They all keep telling me they really like the young guys," Hill said. "And that they'll be coming back to see me again real soon."