When the Miami Hurricanes hit the field at Hard Rock Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday for their annual spring game, all eyes will be directed at the quarterback.
But the astute fan should be paying close attention to the five players directly in front of him.
Regardless of who coach Mark Richt names the starting quarterback — whether it’s front-runner Malik Rosier or fellow signal callers N’Kosi Perry, Jarren Williams or Cade Weldon — the quarterback stands no match for opposing defenses if the offensive line can’t give him enough time to make a play.
Richt understands that, which is why he made one big move with a homegrown player after the offensive line struggled in the team’s first scrimmage last weekend.
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Sophomore-to-be Navaughn Donaldson, who started 10 games at right guard last season and was an All-ACC honorable mention, moved outside to right tackle Tuesday. Richt indicated Wednesday there’s a good chance Donaldson doesn’t move back.
Richt said he believes the move will make the Hurricanes more physical up front and will allow the Hurricanes to utilize their most experienced offensive linemen in the best way possible. The rest of the first-team offensive line (for now): senior left tackle Tyree St. Louis, redshirt senior left guard Jahair Jones, senior center Tyler Gauthier and redshirt junior right guard Hayden Mahoney.
“If that holds up, that will be good for us because we’d have a lot of veteran guys with a lot of experience. … I like the progress,” Richt said Wednesday morning on WQAM’s The Joe Rose Show.
That is especially true for Donaldson.
The 6-foot-6, 350-pound lineman, a former standout at Miami Central and only underclassman among the starting offensive linemen, played exclusively at guard as a freshman last year while he adjusted to the speed of college football. Richt said he was hesitant to move Donaldson outside because of how well he was performing at guard.
But the offensive line struggled in the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday — Richt said afterward that defensive end Greg Rousseau, end Scott Patchan and linebacker Bradley Jennings accounted for eight sacks.
“We thought we might have some answers out there [at tackle], but part of the reason we had so many sacks was we just couldn’t even get off of the snap,” Richt said. “Those young, long, fast ends were just running right by us and not getting touched. We had to make a move.”
Richt and the coaching staff are hoping the move pays off. The Hurricanes are tasked this season with replacing mainstays in Kc McDermott and Trevor Darling, who accounted for 74 starts during the past four years. They’re also tasked with keeping their quarterback (whoever it may be) upright more than in years past. Miami gave up 29 sacks last year — most in a single season since giving up 35 in 2009.
But even with four upperclassmen and a potential star in Donaldson anchoring the offensive line, Richt acknowledged there is still plenty of work to do at the position.
“We’ve got some good, young linemen, but you’d hate to rely on true freshmen if you don’t have to,” Richt said. “I’m not sure we have a true, true left tackle in the program, so in recruiting, we’ll definitely have to find that guy that could be that left tackle.”
Other highlights from Richt’s interview:
▪ While Richt said the quarterback battle is still ongoing, the coach said Rosier is still “way out in front” compared to his fellow quarterbacks when it comes to adapting on the fly.
“Sometimes, your quarterback needs to redirect who the [middle] linebacker is and things of that nature, help the line out in protection. … Malik understands that fully and gets us in the right spot,” Richt said. “Malik’s thing has been, he’s just been streaky. We all know that.”
▪ Richt said wide receiver Ahmmon Richards has been practicing “in a non-competitive way” as he continues to recover from surgery following a season-ending knee injury suffered prior to the ACC Championship Game. Richards, who broke Michael Irvin’s freshman receiving record in 2016, is Miami’s leading returning receiver from last year, hauling in 477 yards and four touchdowns on 24 catches despite only playing in eight games. Richt said Richards “will be healthy all summer.”
In Richards’ absence, 5-10 Jeff Thomas and 5-9 Mike Harley have made strides this spring.
“The two smallest guys we’ve got have been the most productive guys we’ve got,” Richt said.
▪ On the defensive line, Richt said the Hurricanes “need a little more beef inside” as they attempt to replace the production on the interior of the defensive line lost from Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, both of whom left school early for the NFL Draft. Gerald Willis and Jon Ford are the top two candidates so far this spring, with Tyreic Martin and Pat Bethel on the second team. Two freshman defensive tackles — four-star Nesta Silvera from American Heritage and Jordan Miller out of Sandalwood in Jacksonville — enroll in the summer.
▪ Richt said he sees Rousseau’s potential. The 6-6 freshman early enrollee and former standout at Miami Champagnat Catholic has already put on 20 pounds and mauled the offensive line in the scrimmage. Richt said Rousseau accounted for four sacks on Saturday.
The goal now is making sure he’s ready for when practice transitions to live game action.
“I’m not saying Rousseau’s not going to be a great player,” Richt said. “We just didn’t challenge him enough, I can tell you that.”