Barry Jackson

How far is UM away from elite level? Coaches, analysts, NFL executive weigh in

As another UM season opens, what’s clear is that Mark Richt and his staff have elevated this program to a level just below elite.

What’s less clear is just how big a gap remains between eighth-ranked UM and the elite of college football — Alabama, Georgia, Clemson — and perhaps Ohio State and Oklahoma. As perspective, consider Alabama had 18 five-star recruits on its team last year and Georgia 11. (UM had one and only two now.) Clemson has three likely top 12 overall 2019 draft picks; UM doesn’t have any.

So how big is the gap? We posed that question to a bunch of observers this offseason:

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz insists the 38-3 loss to Clemson in the ACC title game was not reflective of the difference between the teams, partly because UM was without injured playmakers Mark Walton, Chris Herndon and Ahmmon Richards, but for other reasons too.

“It’s certainly closer,” Diaz said. “It looked to me like we were a little surprised by the occasion, and it took us a while to get into the flow of the game. That’s all part of the education process of when you are getting into those type games and playing against people who have been there.

“We saw on the sideline during the game, we had a look in our eye that we had not seen from our guys. And that’s how we really knew no matter what you can say in preparation, the moment of being there in that environment, where everyone knew you win and you’re in the playoff, that’s something you have to experience. We should have had 11 guys covering No. 13 [Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow]. We had no one covering No. 13. When you see guys making that type of error, you had these expressions on the faces that we were not yet into it. We got into it but by the time we got into it, the damage had been done.

What’s encouraging to Diaz is this: “We outrushed them [104 to 77]. If you are physically being dominated, you would think it would show up on the line of scrimmage, which I don’t think it did. So we don’t think the score fairly reflected the difference between the two teams. We don’t feel like we were physically outmatched, but we feel like we were taught a lesson by a team that had been on that stage.”

But Diaz acknowledges there is a gap between Miami and the top of college football. So what does Miami need to reach that level?

“The difference is competition level every day at practice,” he said. “When you look at Clemson, you see a team that has been recruiting at that level for nine years, since Dabo Swinney has been there. All the great Hurricanes who come back talk about the Greentree practice field being the ultimate testing ground, not Saturday at the stadium. We don’t have that yet.

“That affects a little bit of the comfort level of the guys, that understanding if I don’t do my job and attack every day with all I have, I will be passed and maybe never see the field again. The players in our locker room have done everything we’ve asked, pushing the program somewhere it hadn’t been in 10 years, but to take the next step, you’ve got to add more, to add the competition level to get the most out of those guys. We’re trying to close the gap between the twos and the ones.”

Richt said Wednesday: “We are not elite until we win enough games to say we’re elite. People want to say we’re pretty good but even top 10, who knows? We’ll find out when we play ball.

“When we got here [in 2016], I thought of all the position groups on the field, that [offensive tackle] position had the least amount of guys that were ACC championship caliber. We’re still kind of fighting that battle.”

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit: “The gap is still there [but] I don’t think the gap was representative of the score of that [UM-Clemson] game. The Canes have barely gotten back to getting the number of scholarships that other people have to sustain injuries like [they had]. You have to get better quarterback play for sure, but they’ve got to get a deeper, more talented roster. The recruiting makes you think they are headed in that direction.

“You will notice in the next couple of years, the way Mark Richt is going to recruit, when you lose a caliber athlete like [Walton, Richards and Herndon], I don’t think you will see as big a drop-off. You take three of their best weapons off of that lineup, if that happens to Clemson, there’s other guys there that are not quite maybe have the same experience but have a similar skill set. That’s what they’re building towards as far as skill is concerned.

“The other thing is you have to take baby steps. If you look back at Miami specifically, I remember in the last part of the ‘90s, the way Butch Davis built that, it took some time to build a defense and do it the right way. Of course, Miami wants it instantly.

“They want to be able to win a national championship. Butch Davis laid out a perfect blueprint for taking a few steps, a few steps and 2000 they came up just a little bit short. The Washington game, they beat Florida State and Florida State, and man, we got shortchanged. They came back in ‘01 with an attitude. It was a process of building it back up.

“When I look at Mark Richt, I think he is doing the exact same thing in his second year. Great recruiting class [this year]. They’ve got to get better at quarterback. You’ve got to get more consistent throwing the football than the way Malik Rosier played. I look forward to seeing where they’re going in the future. It’s good for the ACC for Miami be a factor and be reckoned with every season.”

Recruiting analyst Mike Farrell: He also points to depth as the biggest difference but said there’s at least one position — running back — where UM “might be better than Clemson” in 2018.

Former Canes and NFL linebacker DJ Williams: “The gap with those teams is still pretty large. We can match up with those guys with our 1s. But when you go into second deep, third deep, I don’t think our second and third guys can match up to them.

“Also, Alabama is like we used to be. When they step on the field, they know they’re going to win. They have this inner confidence. I don’t think we have that yet. Last year felt good, but it surprised a lot of guys on the team. I can’t wait until they get that mind-set to where they step out and know the game is theirs.”

Recruiting analyst Larry Blustein: “Miami is not playing for the national title this year; it would be a real surprise. The gap is still there but is closing. Maybe at the end of 2020 you consider them for one of the top few teams in the country. If they made it [to that level] in 2018 or 2019, it would be a surprise.

“They’re there at running back [with the elite programs], with the surplus they have there. They are there at linebacker, but that will change at the end of this year [if three juniors turn pro]. They’re there in the secondary. Receiver has a lot of ifs — if Ahmmon is healthy, if Lawrence Cager can do something, if the freshmen can come around.

“They still need to get there on the defensive line. Same thing on the offensive line; they may be as deep as they’ve been but there’s not a really, really elite offensive lineman. Navaughn Donaldson is on his way to being that but the rest are serviceable guys. Alabama loses a defensive lineman every year and has another one plugged in that’s equal or better. Miami has to get to that point.”

Miami-based recruiting analyst Charles Fishbein of Elite Scouting Services points to quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and secondary as areas where the gap remains, but believes this incoming UM class will help close that.

“As good as Miami’s d-line is, Clemson’s has first-round picks, and I don’t know Miami has that yet,” Fishbein said this winter. “Miami did a good job of covering up a lot of holes in the secondary. They need better players and more depth. Guys like Gurvan Hall are better than what they had. Their secondary recruiting is a lot better now.”

An AFC executive: He said the gap is sizable, and the two areas where UM must improve to be on the Clemson/Alabama level are quarterback and offensive line. He said the line isn’t physically talented enough, and UM must hope Rosier improves substantially. “Rosier is just a guy,” the executive said.

Former UM center and 790 The Ticket host Brett Romberg: “There’s a big gap in the depth. I think the difference-maker is going to be the nasty offensive line play and the ability to basically reload the way we did back in the day, the way Alabama, Georgia, Clemson do now. That small falloff from the starter to the second string guy is all the difference in the world.”

UM athletic director Blake James: “The gap is getting closer with every passing day. We signed an outstanding group of young men, a great class that will continue to elevate us. I’m confident Mark will have us competing with whoever is the best in the country. Whether it’s Alabama or Georgia, time will tell if those are the teams at the top [down the road]. I do know that’s the direction we’re going and we’re confident we will be in that conversation in the coming years.”

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