University of Miami

Miami coach Mark Richt has variety of reasons for perceived offensive line struggles

University of Miami head coach Mark Richt comments on the loss against the Virginia Cavaliers.

University of Miami head coach Mark Richt comments on the loss against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday, October 13, 2018.
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University of Miami head coach Mark Richt comments on the loss against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday, October 13, 2018.

The Miami Hurricanes had traveled half the field to start the second half when coach Mark Richt encountered a critical decision. Miami started at its 25-yard line and, with 11 plays, the Hurricanes steadily crawled to the Virginia Cavaliers’ 25.

On third-and-2 a few moments earlier, Richt called a run up the gut for fullback Trayone Gray. Down by seven points, the coach sensed an opportunity to tie the score and wanted to give his running back another shot. On fourth-and-1, Richt called another fullback dive to Gray. This time it went nowhere. Miami turned the ball over on downs and eventually fell 16-13 in Charlottesville, Virginia. If the Hurricanes’ offensive line had gotten just a few feet worth of push, Miami might have avoided a stunning upset.

“We got seven guys we think can play for us. We need to get them in the game. I think we’re doing a good job of it,” Richt said Wednesday on the Atlantic Coast Conference weekly coaches teleconference. “I think they’re catching a little too much heat, personally.”

Richt, then, has heard the criticism levied toward his offensive line from both media and the fan base. The start to ACC play has been particularly rough for the group of seven, which now includes three returning starters, three seniors and a true freshman. Against the North Carolina Tar Heels last month, Miami surrendered two sacks and six tackles for a loss despite only running 48 offensive plays. Against the Florida State Seminoles on Oct. 6, the Hurricanes allowed five sacks and 13 tackles for a loss.

And in the shocking loss to Virginia on Saturday, Miami (5-2, 2-1 ACC) gave up two sacks and three tackles for a loss on 58 plays in their most stagnant offensive performance of the season. Freshman offensive lineman DJ Scaife struggled in his first start at right tackle. The interior rotation of offensive linemen Tyler Gauthier, Jahair Jones, Venzell Boulware, Hayden Mahoney and Navaughn Donaldson struggled to open up holes in the running game — take out a 70-yard run by running back Travis Homer and Miami averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Senior offensive lineman Tyree St. Louis, who has started every game at left tackle, hasn’t been steady enough to overcome deficiencies elsewhere.

Still, Richt insists the Hurricanes’ perceived struggles up front don’t rest strictly on the offensive line. Inconsistent perimeter blocking, Richt said, has prevented some big plays in the running game, drops by wide receivers have contributed to a mediocre passing offense and some poor decision-making by quarterbacks has made everything look worse.

“I see what happens,” Richt said. “I see we may block a guy to the perimeter — we don’t get the perimeter blocking that would score a touchdown if everybody got their hat on the right people, block like they should. I’ve seen quarterbacks bail out of a perfectly good pocket, start a scramble when they didn’t need to do that. I’m not saying it’s happening every down, but it’s a little bit of everybody taking a turn. When you do that in offensive football, you’re not going to continue drives.”

It all translates into an offense which ranks in the bottom half of all Power 5 Conference teams in many metrics. Miami logged only 6.6 yards per pass attempt Saturday and 5.1 yards per carry, continuing their slide down the national rankings in myriad statistical categories. The Hurricanes rank 56th in the nation at 7.7 yards per pass attempt. They’re 46th in the country with 4.7 yards per carry. Their quarterbacks have now been sacked 16 times, which places them in a tie as a the 36th most frequently sacked team in the country.

Saturday was as disjointed as the offense has looked all season. It was also the most Miami has shifted pieces for a single game this year. The Hurricanes changed quarterbacks early in the second quarter. They started Dee Wiggins for the first time as fellow freshman wide receiver Brian Hightower was unavailable due to an undisclosed injury. And, of course, they shuffled the offensive line all game.

The game’s initial alignment — from left to right: St. Louis, Mahoney, Gauthier, Donaldson, Scaife — started together for the first time, and Miami frequently worked in Boulware and Jones at both guard spots.

Richt isn’t done tinkering.

“We don’t think changing the combination really has been problematic because these guys are getting a lot of reps during practice in the spots that they play,” Richt said. “Now, if you have the same five every snap no matter what, could that be beneficial? To a certain degree, yes. Again, if you don’t have anybody else who can play, then that’s what it looks like.”

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