Things might be down in Coral Gables as Al Golden takes over the program. But it's not unsalvageable.
The Miami Hurricanes have holes to fill and quality depth to add through recruiting (linebacker, cornerback, quarterback and receiver). But there is enough talent around at the moment -- assuming we see some better coaching and play calling -- that can have the Canes winning and competing in the ACC relatively soon.
For me, it all starts with the offensive coordinator and a commitment to running the football. If there is one real strength UM is bringing back next season, it is experienced talent on the offensive line and NFL-caliber talent in the backfield. Leading rusher Damien Berry and his tough, bruising running style is heading out the door. But with speedy redshirt freshman Lamar Miller, sophomore Mike James, Storm Johnson and Eduardo Clements expected back along with bulldozers Seantrel Henderson and Brandon Linder up front on the offensive line, the Hurricanes should and can become a team that consistently runs the football to setup the pass.
In Friday's 33-17 loss to Notre Dame, the Hurricanes ran the ball only 24 times for 103 yards. A 27-3 deficit by halftime obviously forced UM to pretty much abandon the run. But this goes well beyond one bowl game. In UM's seven wins this past season, the Canes ran an average of 42 times for nearly 196 yards and a total of 13 touchdowns. In the Canes' six losses, UM ran an average of 33 times for nearly 170 yards and six touchdowns. Nine carries and 26 yards may not seem like a lot. But it is the commitment to running first instead of throwing the ball that is the difference -- especially since the Canes led all FBS schools with 27 interceptions thrown.
With leading receiver Leonard Hankerson gone and Stephen Morris expected to take over as starting quarterback heading into his sophomore year, it only makes sense for the Hurricanes to take this run-first approach. While the Hurricanes do have some untapped talent at receiver (it's time to see more from LaRon Byrd, Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson, Kendall Thompkins and Tommy Streeter) and a budding young star at tight end in freshman Asante Cleveland, its going to take Morris (82-153, 1,240 yards, 7 TDs, 9 INTs) and his receivers some time to get adjusted to the playbook of UM's new and yet unnamed offensive coordinator. Feeding the ball to Miller, James, Johnson and Clements at least 42 times a game will only make that transition easier and take some pressure off a defense in 2010 that constantly had to keep coming back onto the field after turnovers.
Speaking of the defense, that is really where Golden has to restock the shelves with talent (we'll talk about linebacker shortly) and get a lot more production. Love him or hate him, leading tackler Colin McCarthy is gone and the linebacker spot is in dire need of not only help, but an upgrade in starting talent and depth. Sean Spence, the most consistent playmaker at linebacker for UM the past three years, needs major assistance heading into his senior year to help a UM run defense which ranked 81st nationally and gave up an average of 173 yards a game on the ground and 20 touchdowns on the season.
Who will Spence get that help from? Ramon Buchanan, who started 10 games on the outside, has had his moments (54 tackles, fifth most on the team). But he needs to take his level of play up a notch or two. Freshman backup middle linebacker Kelvin Cain (12 tackles) had a monster game at Duke in his only start of the season. And as of now, he's third leading tackler at linebacker returning for next season. That's scary. Scarier? The depth. All of it is young and unproven. Kevin Nelson, who was redshirted this season, was said to have the most upside of all the young players UM recruited. He and Cain should fight for playing time at middle linebacker. At outside linebacker, with senior-to-be Jordan Futch moving over to tight end (and maybe even fullback), the guys expected to provide depth are freshmen Tyrone Cornelius (a standout on special teams), James Gaines, and junior-to-be C.J. Holton (12 career tackles).
Aside from better tackling and improving the run defense, the Canes will have to continue to produce sacks (they finished 10th nationally) and tackles for loss (led country with 8.85 per game) without future first round pick Allen Bailey at defensive end. Bailey may not have made as much noise as Hurricanes fans wanted, but he still led the team in sacks for the second year in a row (7) and ranked third in tackles for loss (11).
The good news for UM? Veteran help returns. For starters, we began to see better play from redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Marcus Forston (a 5-star recruit at Miami Northwestern) as the season went on. He had six tackles in the bowl game including three in the backfield for loss and finished second on the team behind Spence in TFLs. Forston and junior defensive tackle Micanor Regis (42 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) will be among a ground of veteran defensive linemen, which will also feature defensive ends Olivier Vernon (39 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 4 QBH), a sophomore, junior Marcus Robinson (19 tackles, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks in 10 games), junior Andrew Smith (12 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks) and senior-to-be Adewale Ojomo (38 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 5 sacks).
The pass defense, which ranked second nationally, are where the bigger question marks lie. Sophomore safeties Ray Ray Armstrong, the team's third leading tackler with 79 tackles and 3 INTs, and Vaughn Telemaque, who finished fourth with 58 tackles and 3 INTs, are the veteran returnees. But it is unknown if junior cornerback Brandon Harris (44 tackles, team-leading 10 pass breakups) will be back. Ryan Hill, who had a stellar senior season despite a few bad moments in the Sun Bowl (51 tackles, 8 PBUs), along with Demarcus Van Dyke are gone, leaving UM potentially without its top three cornerbacks from the 2010 season. Sophomore Brandon McGee (15 tackles, 2 PBU in 10 games), former running back Lee Chambers and a cast of redshirt freshmen and potentially true freshmen are what the Hurricanes will have at cornerback next season should Harris decide to enter the NFL Draft early.
Special teams? Not only will the Hurricanes likely have new coordinator, but also a new kicker, punter and a need for improvement on kickoff and punt returns as well as kick and punt coverage. After their big day at Ohio State where they returned a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown, UM's return unit went into hibernation. Take away his 79-yard punt return at Ohio State for a touchdown, junior Travis Benjamin had 22 punt returns for a total of 27 yards the rest of the season. When it came to kickoff returns, UM ranked 102nd nationally with an average return of 19.96 yards on 44 returns. Matt Bosher ranked 16th nationally in punting with an average of 44 yards a kick and he made 13 of 17 his field goal attempts. UM's punt return defense ranked 56th and the kickoff coverage unit ranked 69th.