A series of notes and observations as the Hurricanes prepare to open the season Saturday against Bethune-Cookman:
> GOLDEN AND THE HOT SEAT: As much as Al Golden deserves heat for his 28-22 record (identical to Randy Shannon when he was fired), we need to recognize he hasn’t had the type of depth on the roster during his first four years on the job as he has now.
Monday, on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline, Golden noted this was this fall camp was the first time he had three full units per position in training camp and 80 scholarship players. Last year, Golden said, UM was operating around 69 to 70 scholarships.
Part of that are the NCAA sanctions. A bigger part of that are the staff's misses in recruiting. As I noted in a blog earlier this week, 30 of the 55 players on the depth chart released Sunday night belong to the last two recruiting classes (2014 and 2015).
You can look at it two ways:
One, it’s an indictment on Golden for having 23 of the 62 players who got into school and on the field in his first three signing classes either transfer on their own (DL Jalen Grimble, LB Gionni Paul, DL Corey King, DL Ricardo Williams, WR Robert Lockhart, RB Danny Dillard, DE Dwyane Hoilett, CB Vernon Davis, CB Larry Hope, DT Jacoby Briscoe, DB Antonio Crawford, WR Jontavious Carter, DT Dequan Ivery, DB Nate Dortch, TE Beau Sandland, CB Ray Lewis III) or get kicked out (LB Eddie Johnson, CB Thomas Finnie, OL Taylor Gadbois, LB Jawand Blue, DE Gabriel Terry, QB Kevin Olsen, LB Alex Figueroa).
Or two, the NCAA cloud kind of forced him to offer scholarship to some kids who didn’t belong here in the first place.
I fall somewhere in the middle of those two arguments to be honest.
Butch Davis, who also dealt with NCAA sanctions and plenty of losing, seemed to do a much better job stacking the roster with talent back in his day. Davis, by the way, went 31-15 his first four years on the job (against a weak Big East) but 0-4 against Florida State. His fifth season? He lost to Florida State again, but went 9-4 with a Gator Bowl victory and finished 15th in the AP poll. I would assume Golden, if he really deserves to continue as coach, should be expected to do about the same.
“If you finish on a bad note there's only one way to erase that, it's to go out there and do it,” Golden said Monday on Hurricane Hotline. “We've had a great team mentality all training camp. We just have to continue to do that."
> TOP CONCERN: It’s easy to spot the biggest question mark on the team: offensive line. With only 22 games of combined starting experienced back between three players, quarterback Brad Kaaya has his hands full entering the season. And he’s doing his part.
“When we go to the pass protection meetings, Brad gets up and runs the meeting,” Golden said on Hurricane Hotline Monday. “He points out 56 is the MIKE… it's created a cohesiveness and given him more opportunities to be a commander and not just a leader.”
Right guard Danny Isidora, who owns 13 of those 22 starts I mentioned early, told me last week we should expect to see a lot more rotation on the offensive line this season than we did a year ago when the only time backups got in were for injuries. Isidora, for instance, spent most of camp at right tackle, where Sunny Odogwu is slated to be the starter. Center Nick Linder, who started four games last year, has played a lot of guard and has two backups at center.
“I try to talk the guys, let them know what they got to do,” Isidora said. “Yeah, I started 13 games, but we have two other leaders. Nick Linder and Alex Gall, they're two good leaders too. We all try to coach the guys up. Me, Alex, Nick, we all try to coach the guys up, do the best we can. From a standpoint of experience, I feel like we kind of make up for the losses to graduation."
Miami recruited 11 offensive linemen in the last two years and many are highly touted. True freshmen Tyree St. Louis and Tyler Gauthier have both been very impressive in camp and will see playing time. Kc McDermott, injured last year, might not have won a starting job coming out of camp. But he’s UM’s best offensive linemen and that will probably show itself during the season. In other words, offensive line will be a concern early, but it may not be by seasons end.
> THE FRESH APPROACH: Golden said he expects nine redshirt freshmen and 12 true freshmen to play Saturday.
Here’s who you should be most excited about among that group from a few people who observed camp and shared their thoughts with me: running back Mark Walton, H-Back David Njoku, defensive linemen Kendrick Norton, RJ McIntosh and Demetrius Jackson, receiver Lawrence Cager, cornerback Sheldrick Redwine and safety Jaquan Johnson.
Of that group, I expect Cager to become a Kaaya favorite, a Tommy Streeter-like weapon in the red zone. “Just very fluid, in and out of cuts,” Golden said of Cager, a 6-5, 215-pound U.S. Army All-American listed as the backup to fifth-year senior Rashawn Scott. “He can go up and get it. His catch radius, quarterbacks are very comfortable throwing to him. He can absorb the ball five feet in any direction.”
> WHAT ABOUT TIGHT END? Replacing Clive Walford’s passing game production won’t be easy and I’m not sure there is a tight end on the roster – Standish Dobard, Jerome Washington or Jake O’Donnell – who can do that. But Njoku and sophomore Chris Herndon, listed as H-Backs, could be the ones who end picking up the slack while the other three serve as blockers.
Both are Njoku and Herndon are athletic like Walford was and according to Njoku have lined up at various spots on the field throughout camp. “I'm at the Y, H and sometimes outside,” Njoku said.
Sounds like offensive coordinator James Coley wants to use his H backs to exploit matchups. Maybe that’s something he picked up from the Dallas Cowboys during his visit this spring.
“From terms of where I sit, I just want to see production,” Golden said of the tight ends/H Backs. “I don't care who gets it. Those guys have to add up to what Clive's production was. It's a very good group. It's a deep group. You can see Chris Herndon and David Njoku are kind of the same."
> DEFENSIVE SURPRISES: They may not be fan favorites like highly touted high school stars Al-Quadin Muhammad and Chad Thomas, but sophomore rush end Trent “Toolbox” Harris and sophomore linebacker Darrion Owens do get a lot of love from the coaching staff. And both appear poised to be future leaders of this defense.
"He's the type of guy that does everything you ask him to do,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said of Harris. “He's done nothing but gotten better since he got here.”
Senior Tyriq McCord told me he’s actually learning from Owens, who is listed as the starting strongside linebacker and is playing three positions, something D’Onofrio doesn’t do with anybody in his system.
“Just his toughness,” starting inside linebacker Raphael Kirby said when asked why Owens got the starting nod over McCord. “He sets edges, runs to the ball. He looks to make the play, does his job. He doesn't make MEs. He doesn't cost us yards. He's a great guy, great kid on and off the field. All those things tie into why he's had the success he's had."
> SPECIAL TEAMS: Don’t underestimate the value of walk-on kicker Jon Semerene earning the starting job on kickoffs. UM was putrid on kickoff coverage last season and it hurt them badly with field position. Golden said Semerene had four kickoffs in the team’s last scrimmage and three went deep into the end zone.
Also, having an experienced kicker in Michael Badgley and punter in Justin Vogel will help this team immensely. Badgley’s range has improved considerably. He made a 55-yard field goal into the wind in the final scrimmage according to Golden.
“Badge is nuts. I don't listen to anything he says because he thinks he can make every kick. He's always pointing to the ground, I can make it from here. I can make it from here,” Golden said. “You'd rather have him like that than the other way. He's courageous, he's tough. It's just nice to have a kicking game where we have veterans there."
Perhaps the best thing about UM’s improved depth is that starters on offense and defense won’t be so heavily relied upon to also play special teams. That, of course, led to some breakdowns on kickoff coverage.
> SAFE AT SAFETY: UM’s defense cut down on the number of big plays it allowed last season (76th in terms of plays 20 yards or more in 2013 to 5th in 2014). A big part of that was improved play at the safety position -- or the health of Deon Bush, who has finally learned not to injure himself while tackling.
I only expect better play from the safety position this season now that fifth-year senior Dallas Crawford has figured things out (Golden said he’s better on deep balls and making checks) and Rayshawn Jenkins ins healthy. Remember, UM made those improvements last year with former walk-on Nantambu Fentress making eight starts while Crawford tried to adjust after switching back over to defense from running back.
Now, UM has four legit starting safeties and a future star in Jaquan Johnson. Considering safety is the most important position in D’Onofrio’s defense because of the responsibility that comes with it (checks, etc.), I expect improvement on the defense – which means more turnovers and big plays.