Barry Jackson

Here’s what’s happening in ultra-competitive Miami Hurricanes battle for receiver jobs

Miami Hurricanes receiver Lawrence Cager catches a touchdown pass against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. He’s competing for a starting job.
Miami Hurricanes receiver Lawrence Cager catches a touchdown pass against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. He’s competing for a starting job.

A six-pack of Canes notes on a Wednesday:

One interesting competition, with no clear leader, is the battle among Lawrence Cager and highly skilled freshmen Mark Pope and Brian Hightower for a starting job when UM opens in three receiver sets, alongside Ahmmon Richards and slot receiver Jeff Thomas (or Mike Harley).

The loser of the starting slot battle could also enter that “Z receiver” competition among Cager, Pope and Hightower.

“It’s open,” receivers coach Ron Dugans said Wednesday. “Nobody at that position has just separated themselves as far as the consistency part of it. That’s what I’m looking for, being consistent.”

Cager, now two years removed from a serious knee injury, “has done really good,” Dugans said. “He’s been physical. Made some plays and missed a few I wish he would have made. But overall, he’s done a good job for us.”

Pope, who arrived on campus in May, also “has done some really good things,” Dugans said. “His thing coming in was confidence: ‘Coach, can I learn the plays?’ You’ve got to trust he coach, man. He’s done some really good things, shown some flashes. Got to be consistent.

“Hightower has shown some flashes also. My biggest things for those guys is being consistent. You’re not just ball-catchers. You’ve got to be able to block on the perimeter, also. If they’re not blocking, you’re not going to play.”

Richards, back from December knee surgery, is beginning to look like his old self.

“The first day of camp, we had one on ones against the DBs,” Dugans said. “It was in the red zone. Think it was Michael Jackson … He went up and high pointed the ball and almost one handed it and came back down and it’s like wow. Just glad to have him back. It’s been a pleasure to see him out there working and trying to get back into playing shape and try to lead the younger guys. It’s been a blessing for all of us to see them back.”

Darrell Langham has been playing behind Richards.

Langham said he “would like to play a little more snaps this year” but said he hasn’t been injected into the competition at the Z receiver spot even though he said he could play there. He said Dugans “wants me to use my body more physically, push people around, knock people away, use my frame as an advantage.”

I would be a bit surprised if Thomas isn’t a starter, but Harley is formidable competition.

“I had about three clips from yesterday’s practice,” Dugans said of Thomas.

“[He went] inside to crack block a guy, missed a guy and tried to run through a DB. I’m like wow, where has that been. As far as him run blocking and not just loafing, feel like that’s not important, it’s important to him now. He’s going to play a big role. Harley has had really good practices. Those guys are being leaders. I feel like both of those guys whether inside lane or outside lane can help us play.”

What about freshmen Daquris Wiggins (an early enrollee) and summer arrival Marquez Ezzard?

Ezzard is playing the slot. “The biggest thing with him is knowing what to do and take it from the classroom to the field,” Dugans said. “It’s been kind of a struggle there as far as that goes with him but today he looked better effort wise and assignment wise.”

Dugans said Wiggins “has been playing on the boundary. You see him one time, he looks like Jerry Rice. The next time you see him, it’s like WHAT ARE WE DOING? It goes back to being consistent and coach him hard and they will do what you demand.”

Evidence Njoku, meanwhile, is working his way back from October knee injury. He’s able to practice.

The downfield passing game so far isn’t where anyone would quite like.

“It’s been up and down,” Dugans said. “It’s been either get wide open and maybe overthrow, or get wide open and dropped ball or get wide open and a catch. It’s been a little bit of three of those different things.

“We got to get in sync with the QBs, the QBs got to get in sync with us. We got to make sure we’re leaving the QBs enough grass to complete the ball. Little things we got to understand as a group to make completions down the field.”

Asked how many receivers he wants to regularly play, Dugans said: “You want to play close to eight guys and roll them in. I want to play a lot of receivers. In order to play a lot of receivers, they’ve got to know what to do. Right now, everybody doesn’t know what to do.”

Susan Miller Degnan will have a story on the status of tight end amid Michael Irvin’s knee surgery that will sideline him four months. As for tight end coach Todd Hartley’s other job — special teams — he said that DeeJay Dallas and Jeff Thomas are front-runner for the two return jobs but “Pope has showed me things” and Harley and freshman cornerback Nigel Bethel will also get some work on returns.

New kicker Bubba Baxa has “answered the bell,” Hartley said, praising his accuracy through five days of camp. “He’s very composed, strong leg” with at least one field goal over 50 yards so far in camp. Punter Zach Feagles “has had a great camp.”

Zach McCloud has embraced the new striker role, a position also being played by Derrick Smith Jr. and Romeo Finley.

“It suits all of us,” McCloud said. “I’m always excited to do new things. Call me a linebacker, call me a striker. I’m doing both.”

McCloud said as a striker, he’s playing more man coverage against slot receivers but “other assignments are the same. In high school I never did anything like this.”

McCloud still has wrapping on a wrist injury he sustained in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh and re-injured in the spring.

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