With UM practice opening Tuesday, the quarterback battle (primarily among N’Kosi Perry, Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs) will command much of the attention. Some players expect Perry to win it, but Rosier and Shirreffs remain with the starters for now, Perry fumbles several balls Tuesday - according to Chris Herndon - and it’s far too early to establish a favorite.
• Cornerback: UM has what appears to be at least three above-average ACC starters among Citadel transfer Dee Delaney, junior college transfer Jhavonte Dean and Malek Young; the three should play together a lot. But when UM opens in base defense, only two will start.
Delaney, a legitimate NFL prospect, will play a lot. Dean has impressed everyone – "he looks like Adrian Colbert" with very good makeup speed, according to one UM official – but cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph also treasures the instinctive, ball-hawking Young, whose spring work suggested he can be special. Trajan Bandy and Michael Jackson are the top contenders for the No. 4 job; UM loves how Jackson came on this spring but also likes Bandy’s maturity and toughness.
• Starting receivers opposite Ahmmon Richards: Expect a ton of three-receiver sets. One UM official called Braxton Berrios the best option for one of the other starting receiver jobs; Berrios, underutilized on offense last season, is UM’s best route-runner (according to Mark Richt), is polished and his ability to elude tacklers is underappreciated.
But freshman Jeff Thomas, also ideal for the slot, has been drawing raves from players, and with his run-after-the-catch skills, he will be difficult to keep off the field. There’s a reason why one UM official said Richt seemed more excited about Thomas than any other faxed commitment on signing day.
Lawrence Cager, a potential starter if he regains all his skills after last summer’s major knee injury, and Dayall Harris are competing at the "X" spot, though UM hasn’t ruled out playing Berrios outside.
Also competing: Dionte Mullins (jury out; his play tailed off this spring after a strong start, a UM official said), early arrival DeeJay Dallas (showed a knack for snatching the ball out of the air this spring); and speedy freshman Mike Harley.
Darrell Langham has improved, but it’s difficult to see him going from non-factor to playing a lot. Evidence Njoku would seemingly be a redshirt candidate.
• Starting center and left guard: Kc McDermott and Tyree St. Louis enter as favorites at tackle, and Navaughn Donaldson is the likely right guard. That leaves Tyler Gauthier and Nick Linder (back from injury) competing at center (Gauthier was with the starters Tuesday), with the loser battling underachieving Trevor Darling at left guard. Gauthier had snapping problems this past spring but otherwise impressed UM with his blocking and toughness. UM also expects Kai-Leon Herbert to challenge for time.
• Snap distribution at defensive end: Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has the enviable task of sharing snaps among four ACC-caliber starters: projected starters Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson (8.5 sacks as a freshman), Demetrius Jackson and Trent Harris, plus Scott Patchan (back from knee problems) and high-end arrivals D.J. Johnson and Jon Garvin.
Garvin had a "hell of a spring" and deserves to play some, one UM official said. And Johnson has impressed early.
But Diaz and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski have a tough call about how to split snaps among seven worthy players. They believe Harris is more valuable than some people believe. And Diaz loves how Demetrius Jackson played before his injury last season.
• Backup running back jobs: Travis Homer is the heavy favorite to be Mark Walton’s primary backup; UM knew he was fast but his toughness and ability to break tackles impressed coaches this spring.
UM was impressed with Robert Burns before his spring shoulder injury, but he’s doubtful for the opener, leaving Trayone Gray in line for the No. 3 job, with freshman receiver Dallas also an option. Dallas likely will get some work at running back this year.
• Depth at tight end: Richt has expressed concern with what’s behind Chris Herndon. Walk-on Malik Curry, Michael Irvin Jr. and freshman Brian Polendey are competing - Richt said all cycled through with the second team - but "I’d be very concerned if something happened to Chris.”
• Depth at defensive tackles: UM might have its best starting tackle duo this decade with Richard McIntosh Jr. and Kendrick Norton. But with Courtel Jenkins dismissed from the program and Gerald Willis on leave this season, UM can’t afford an injury.
Their primary backups: Anthony Moten (improved this spring, according to coaches) and Patrick Bethel (the converted end “thrives inside in traffic,” a UM official said). But UM needs to see growth from Tyreic Martin and Ryan Fines.
• Punter: Summer arrival and Under Armour All American punter Zach Feagles – son of ex-Hurricane and former NFL punter Jeff Feagles - enters as the clear favorite over Florida Gators transfer Jack Spicer, though Richt has said the job is open.
• How much work to give UM’s backup linebackers: Depth is better with the return of Jamie Gordinier, Darrion Owens another year removed from knee surgery, and middle linebacker Mike Smith much improved. Charles Perry and three freshmen add more depth; Manny Diaz said UM isn’t sure if Waynmon Steed – off a high school knee injury – will redshirt. He didn’t practice Tuesday.
But it’s almost impossible to see any of them wresting starting jobs from Shaq Quarterman, Miek Pinckney or Zach McCloud.
Here’s my post from Tuesday on some interesting things Heat guard Tyler Johnson said today.