Barry Jackson

Buzz on 10 Canes facing high stakes

UM quarterback Malik Rosier (12) sets up to pass during warm up drills before the Orange vs White scrimmage at Boca Raton High, on Sat., April 22, 2017.
UM quarterback Malik Rosier (12) sets up to pass during warm up drills before the Orange vs White scrimmage at Boca Raton High, on Sat., April 22, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Hurricanes players facing particularly high pressure this season?

I’ll be eager to see how these 10 respond, with each facing some combination of high expectations, increased responsibility and/or the need to impress NFL scouts.

Chatter on each of them, heading into Saturday’s opener against Bethune Cookman (12:30 p.m., Hard Rock Stadium):

• Quarterback Malik Rosier. One UM official who has watched practices throughout August said he’s “going to be streaky, but he knows the offense, he’s more decisive than ever before and he’s operating the offense the way Mark Richt wants him to operate the offense,” throws a good deep ball and gives UM mobility at a position where it’s increasingly important in college football.

The second scrimmage was the best Rosier has ever looked at UM, that official said. It also helped that him that N’Kosi Perry experienced the type of freshman growing pains that some UM fans hoped he would avoid.

“We’re got the right guy,” running back Mark Walton said of Rosier. “Malik is trying to be a more vocal leader.”

• Defensive end Chad Thomas. He’s the lone remaining five-star player on the roster, and if you want perspective on why Ohio State has been so much better than UM this decade, here’s one reason:

In 2013, Ohio State landed St. Thomas Aquinas’ Joey Bosa, ranked as Rivals’ No. 47 overall prospect. He had 26 sacks in three seasons, turned pro and had 10.5 sacks as a rookie for the Chargers.

A year later, Miami landed what it thought would be a better player, Booker T. Washington’s Chad Thomas (rated 22nd overall). He had 5.5 sacks in three seasons and enters this season worthy of a sixth-round grade with the potential to move up, according to one NFC executive.

It’s now or never for Thomas and coordinator Manny Diaz said Thomas senses “this is his time.”

A UM official said there has been more consistent effort from Thomas throughout the summer.

“Before, he would make a play and then take a few plays off,” that official said. “He’s not doing that now.”

Dee Delaney. With a big year, UM’s new No. 1 cornerback could be a mid-round NFL draft choice or higher. But he also acknowledges that some have told him he’s taking a risk by leaving The Citadel and playing better competition.

He said he knows he has four months to make a massive impression.

“Polished, disciplined and doesn’t drop interceptions,” one UM official said, noting he has met or exceeded all expectations.

• Walton. One AFC front office official said Walton is UM’s best prospect in next year’s draft if he turns pro after his junior season and he “has a chance to be a second- or third-round pick. Tough, good body control, good hands. Does a lot of good things.”

But Pro Football Focus noted Walton's elusive rating of 61.2 ranked only 41st in this class, and that he didn't escape tackles enough on running plays, noting that he was tackled on first contact 71.2 percent of the time, which ranked 49th among backs eligible for next year's draft.

And he must prove he can thrive against top-10 competition; he has a career 2.8 average on 19 carries against FSU and Clemson.

Walton said he believes he has improved in three areas he made priorities this offseason: being a better blocker, “trusting my ability to run through holes better and breaking more tackles.”

Kendrick Norton and Richard McIntosh Jr. With dominating seasons, they could become potential second-day draft picks, or mid-rounders, if they turn pro. So millions of dollars ride on their play.

Both were enormous assets last year, helping elevate UM’s run defense to 28th nationally and 21st in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.5). One UM source called them Miami’s best d-tackle combo in a decade.

But Diaz wants to see development as pass rushers – Norton had two sacks, McIntosh 0.5 in 2016 - and wants them to be more “dynamic.”

• Safety Jaquan Johnson. He becomes the voice of the secondary now in calling out signals, his responsibility infinitely higher with the departures of Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter.

Among UM defensive backs, he was second behind only departed Corn Elder in yards per attempts in his coverage area last season (5.4).

“There was always another guy before,” Diaz said. “It was Rayshawn and [Jamal] for Jaquan. All of a sudden, you have guys looking at you in terms of setting the mood every day. Can you handle being the man when it’s your turn to be the man?”

So far, UM has been pleased.

Chris Herndon. Mel Kiper rated him a top-10 tight end prospect if he had turned pro last January but doesn’t rate him top 10 now. His coaches love him.

“Chris Herndon is an unbelievable football player, just because he’s so versatile,” tight ends coach Todd Hartley said. “You’re talking about a kid who can be really good in the slot, a guy that can line up as a traditional tight end and be the best tight end in the country, and you can put him at fullback and he can hold his own at fullback. A guy like that gives you a lot of options on offense.”

Herndon is an above-average blocker and has good hands; he’s a coach-pleaser consistent with everything he does.

The only unknown is whether he can be a dynamic downfield threat at anything close to David Njoku’s level.

Njoku, a special talent, averaged 16.2 yards per catch last season, fourth in the nation among tight ends. Herndon averaged 11.9 (26th among tight ends) but caught a 35-yard pass against Virginia Tech and a 48-yarder against Georgia Tech, so the potential is there.

KC McDermott. His UM career has been marked by uneven play that has frustrated coaches at times in the past.

But he has impressed everyone at left tackle during practice; Malik Rosier said he’s UM’s most improved player. Richt raved about him.

“When they moved me to tackle, I knew it would be a challenge,” he said Wednesday. “My focus and intensity got higher. I really pushed myself to get better this offseason. It showed this camp and will show during the season.”

• Kicker Michael Badgley. Kiper doesn’t list him (or any UM players) among the top 10 prospects at their positions, but Badgley has an NFL leg.

Odds are he will be needed to win a game this season and he can’t have a repeat of the missed extra point with 1:38 left in the 20-19 loss to FSU.

He was solid on field goals (21 for 26) and great on long kicks (10 for 11 from 40 yards and up), but he missed two from 20 to 29 yards and two from 30 to 39.

And his two missed extra points gave him six misses in 133 career attempts.

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