Miami Hurricanes fall practice begins Thursday at Greentree Field, with the September 3 opener against FAMU only a month-and-change away.
My five questions regarding the offense:
1. Who’s the backup quarterback?
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We already know the star of this team, and judging by his progress over two seasons and a veteran, supposedly healthy offensive line, there’s no reason to believe that Brad Kaaya won’t keep skyrocketing — new coaches and all.
So, as usual, I go into the fall wondering, ‘Who’s the next guy?’ Last season it was Malik Rosier, and what a spectacular job he did taking over for the concussed Kaaya in that miracle victory at Duke — 20 completions in 29 attempts with one interception for 272 yards and a 33-yard touchdown pass to Herb Waters (graduated) and 19-yard pass to Stacy Coley (now a senior). He also tossed an interception.
Rosier finished the season with 338 yards in seven games — 29 of 57 (50.9 percent), with the two TDs at Duke and three interceptions. He chose to leave baseball so he could concentrate solely on football in the spring.
So, going into the spring, it seemed for sure it would be Rosier taking over as the backup. But after watching Rosier struggle at times and seem out of synch in scrimmages, and after Richt wouldn’t publicly commit to a backup, and judging by his praise of redshirt freshman Evan Shirreffs, it appears Shirreffs will begin fall leading in that race.
Shirreffs, 6-5 and 210 pounds and from Jefferson, Ga., was a three-star prospect by 247Sports.com and won MVP honors at the Georgia vs. Florida All-Star game. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and 39 touchdowns, with four interceptions his senior season – not to mention he was valedictorian. Shirreffs displays great footwork, Richt said, can easily see over the offensive line and is a pure pocket passer.
Other scholarship quarterbacks are Vincent Testaverde (you may remember his father) and Jack Allison, the 6-5, 200-pound, four-star prospect from Parrish, Florida. Allison was rated the eighth-best quarterback in the country by 247Sports and threw for more than 1,400 yards, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions his senior year. He’ll wear the No. 11 of his role model, Ken Dorsey. We expect Allison to redshirt.
None of the backups looked great in the spring game, by the way. The defense devoured Rosier, Shirreffs and Testaverde, who combined for four completions in 17 attempts. Allison’s numbers weren’t reported.
“There weren’t many opportunities to have guys open,’’ Richt said that day.
2. Will this offensive line allow Brad Kaaya to breathe while being fabulous?
Definitely — if it stays intact. Brad Kaaya told us two weeks ago at the ACC Football Kickoff that nobody understood just how battered his O-line was during last season.
“One thing that no one realizes is that a lot of those guys were young last year and a lot of them were playing with injuries,’’ Kaaya said. “A lot of those guy are healthy now… Guys had torn MCLs, torn meniscuses. Everyone [was] saying, ‘The O-line, they’re not looking too good right now’ in certain games. It hurt me. Those guys were laying it out on the line for me.’’
They were young last year, but they’re veterans now: left tackle Trevor Darling, left guard Kc McDermott, center Nick Linder, right guard Danny Isidora and right tackle Sunny Odogwu/Tyree St. Louis (Odogwu was out all spring after knee surgery).
Kaaya insisted they’re all healthy now, and if so, there’s no reason to think they won’t be really effective blocking for a quarterback they now know so well. They all have gushed about new offensive line coach Stacy Searels, saying he goes over and over the fundamentals, and makes sure they understand everything before they move on.
UM finished 2015 ranked 33rd nationally in sacks allowed (19 total). But some of that was Kaaya being so proficient he got rid of the ball quicker. The Canes were 107th of 127 teams in third-down conversions, 84th in red-zone offense, 117th in rushing offense and 29th in passing offense.
“They’re moving well,’’ Kaaya said, “and as long as they stay healthy, they should be one of the best O-lines in the conference.’’
3. Which running backs will take the brunt of carries?
Joe Yearby, the 5-9, 200-pound junior out of Miami Central, quietly finished an impressive sophomore season with 1,002 yards and six touchdowns rushing and 273 yards and two touchdowns receiving. But talented Mark Walton, a 5-9, 205-pound sophomore out of Miami Booker T. Washington, was elevated to first-teamer in the spring, exhibiting money hands and impressive blocking skills. As a freshman, Walton rushed for 461 yards and nine touchdowns and added 293 yards and a touchdown receiving.
Gus Edwards, who sat out last season following foot surgery, is a 6-1, 230-pound bull that should help not only in goal-line situations, but in the regular rotation – Mark Richt has already informed us he’ll go with at least two, possibly three-man rotations. Edwards, a redshirt junior, rushed for 349 yards and six touchdowns in 2014, averaging 5.7 yards a carry.
Trayone Gray, a 6-2, 225-pound junior from Miami Carol City, rounds out the veterans. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry on his 23 rushes for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season.
The newcomer here is Travis Homer out of West Palm Beach Oxbridge Academy.
4. Who can catch?
That’s easy. Stacy Coley can catch –and run those big, graceful strides. Now the objective is for him to stay healthy. Like many receivers, he’s had hamstring issues throughout his career. Coley’s decision to stay in school rather than turn pro was huge for the Hurricanes. He played in 11 games last season and finished with a team and career high of 689 receiving yards – an ACC-best 634 of them in league games, averaging 79.2 yards per ACC games. He score four touchdowns last season.
The not-so-easy part: finding depth, expecially with the loss of second-year talent Lawrence Cager (ACL surgery). Junior Braxton Berrios (who reminds me that it just isn’t so when I say he looked faster than ever in spring) had eight receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown during the spring game. His 43-yard reception early in the scrimmage was a beauty, as, in stride, he hauled in a tight Kaaya spiral and out-sprinted the defense down the middle of the field. He’ll be a starter, and hopefully will stay healthy as well. He missed almost three games last season, but I believe this will be his breakout season.
Senior Malcolm Lewis, always a hard worker, is still waiting to emerge in his final season, and the Canes need him. After a severe ankle injury his freshman year at Georgia Tech, his best season came in 2014, when he caught 25 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown.
Newcomers Ahmmon Richards and Sam Bruce were major national prospects and huge gets for UM, as well as long and lean Dayall Harris, a confident, pleasant redshirt sophomore transfer who started his college career at Ole Miss. I learned Tuesday night that freshman Dionte Mullins, whose academic-related requirements were in question, will neither report Wednesday nor be at the opening practice. UM expects him to report before school begins, but nothing is certain. Redshirt sophmore Darrell Langham, 6-4 and 230 pounds, has no stats in two years at Miami. But despite some drops, he also had some pretty catch-and-runs at the spring game. Langham’s size is a plus.
5. Any Kellen Winslows out there?
Former UM great Kellen Winslow could sky, and so can 6-4, 245-pound tight end David Njoku, like Winslow, a receiving threat who has that certain something –such as speed, confidence and leaping ability to help him pull down what seems like an impossible catch. Njoku caught 21 passes for 362 yards, leading the team with a 17.2-yard-per-catch average. He scored one touchdown.
But there are more talented tight ends this season for Mark Richt to mix and match, which he likely will do often. Junior Chris Herndon, 6-4 and 253 pounds, was second among tight ends in 2015 with 18 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown.
In the spring game, Herndon added to the green team’s victory by dragging defenders behind him as he grabbed six catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Like Njoku, he’s versatile, but can use that big body to block, as well.
Others who will see playing time are senior Stan Dobard, who caught eight passes for 90 yards last season and added a touchdown. He has a great attitude, and could blossom with the new staff.
Newcomers include Michael Irvin II, listed as 6-3 and 230 pounds, out of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High and the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer and UM great Michael Irvin.
“I can throw him balls, and I mean one handed,’’ Kaaya said of Irvin, [and] he can lay out. He’s a good athlete. I think he’s going to be really special here. … At tight end, I think he can be just as much of a legend here as his dad ended up being.”