What we’re hearing from UM people heading into Sunday night’s opener against LSU:
▪ Though there’s always a risk of freshmen messing up assignments in their first game on a big stage, there’s considerable internal confidence in tight ends Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory.
“Real players,” is how one UM staffer described them.
In other words, legitimate tight ends who would be playmakers on most any top 20 team. Jordan will be a starter and Mallory will join him in two tight end sets.
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Both made a bunch of impressive catches in August practices and scrimmages – using their athleticism to extend for balls that were either well-defended or not thrown perfectly. Mallory jumped to haul in one pass above a defender’s helmet, causing jaws to drop at the first scrimmage.
Jordan (6-3, 245) is heavier than Mallory (6-5, 230) and probably better equipped to be an effective blocker at this point. Both are downfield threats. There might be some growing pains and mistakes initially, but the Canes are convinced they have two gems.
▪ One UM staffer said the Canes have more than half dozen receivers worthy of playing time and settling on a rotation has been one of the most difficult personnel decisions.
Ahmmon Richards and Jeff Thomas are going to play, and Lawrence Cager has earned playing time with a strong August.
Coaches like Mike Harley Jr. in relief of Thomas and freshman Brian Hightower warrants snaps and is expected to play against LSU.
That leaves Darrell Langham, Evidence Njoku, speedy freshman Mark Pope and freshmen Daquris Wiggins and Marquez Ezzard competing for time.
Richards is likely UM’s most talented player on offense, one Canes source said. “He’s looked very, very good.”
Hightower has excelled on deep balls and over the shoulder catches during August practices. And Njoku has quietly made a major move the past two weeks.
“He catches everything, looks like Jimmy Graham in the red zone,” one UM official said. “You throw it up, and teams can’t defend him.”
One UM person said Pope is too talented to not get offensive snaps.
Wiggins, who has impressed with his physicality, and Ezzard – who has displayed an ability to break tackles – might not be able to crack the rotation in competitive games but should get work in the Sept. 8 home opener against Savannah State.
But divvying up snaps will be a tough call for Ron Dugans, Thomas Brown and Mark Richt.
▪ Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas not only can play running back but also can line up at receiver.
Homer has exceeded everyone’s expectations; he’s strong enough to run between the tackles, fast enough to run away from defenders and has good hands.
Dallas, who also can be used as a Wildcat quarterback, impresses the staff not only with his play-making and versatility but his intelligence; during one scrimmage, he was deciphering blitz packages and calling them out to help his offensive teammates.
UM people believe much-improved Trayone Gray can be a key contributor in the red zone, on third and short and on screen passes and can potentially help wear opponents down when UM has a lead in the fourth quarter. The key is transferring what he’s done on the practice field to games.
Five-star freshman Lorenzo Lingard is going to have to wait for playing time; he needs to bulk up, learn his assignments and hit the hole quickly.
▪ What’s most going to help quarterback Malik Rosier, one UM person said, is having better weapons around him. With Richards and former Canes Mark Walton and Chris Herndon sidelined in the ACC Championship and Orange Bowl, Rosier didn’t have much championship-level offensive caliber talent around him in those games.
▪ The first-team offensive line looks pretty good but not elite. One UM person said Navaughn Donaldson could have been an elite guard but it remains to be seen if he can be at elite tackle.
Left tackle Tyree St. Louis has gained the staff’s confidence and one UM person said center Tyler Gauthier might be a better version of Shane McDermott. The guards (Jahair Jones and Hayden Mahoney) should be adequate, but Tennessee transfer Venzell Boulware will play if either starter struggles.
▪ Expect a potential creative wrinkle or two in Sunday’s game. “We will have some curveballs for them,” Richt said.
This UM coaching staff is skilled at exploiting mismatches; credit offensive coordinator Thomas Brown for making the suggestion to incorporate the Wildcat last season.
▪ One UM official said end Jon Garvin and tackle Gerald Willis have been the Canes’ best defensive linemen in August. Joe Jackson leveled off last season and the staff is pushing him for more.
Though Jon Ford might have the highest ceiling of the four non-freshmen defensive tackles and will get snaps, Pat Bethel and Tito Odenigbo appear more reliable at this point. Odenigbo has found a way to make plays in the backfield all camp.
Nesta Silvera has been on the third team throughout August – paired with fellow freshman Jordan Miller – but one UM official said Silvera is more ready to play now than Miller and has made several impressive plays in practice.
▪ The Hurricanes still need to see more from backup linebackers Bradley Jennings, Waymon Steed and Mike Smith for the Canes to feel there won’t be much dropoff when the starters are out of the game. But all three have improved in recent months.
▪ Zach McCloud would be considered a better player than Romeo Finley, but Finley – playing that new striker role – is likely better equipped to cover fast players in the slot.
▪ Everyone has been raving about how safety Sheldrick Redwine has looked opposite Jaquan Johnson. Amari Carter has come on strong after struggling somewhat in the spring.
▪ At cornerback, UM feels good about its top three of Michael Jackson, Trajan Bandy and Jhavonte Dean, who’s playing with more confidence. Bandy gives an emotional boost to this group with his vocal demeanor.
One UM source said D.J. Ivey and Al Blades look like the fourth- and fifth cornerbacks; both have done a good job jamming receivers at the line and making plays on the ball. Those two appear ahead of fellow freshmen Nigel Bethel and Gilbert Frierson.
Former Hurricanes players who were released by NFL teams on Friday and Saturday include seventh-round rookie defensive tackle Kendrick Norton by the Carolina Panthers (Norton had turned pro after his junior season); undrafted rookie defensive tackle Anthony Moten and veteran receivers Rashawn Scott and Malcolm Lewis (all three cut by the Dolphins); running back Gus Edwards (finished his career at Rutgers; cut by Baltimore); cornerback Ladarius Gunter (by Carolina); safety Kacy Rodgers II (by the Jets, where his father is defensive coordinator); defensive lineman/linebacker Ufomba Kamalu (by Houston), tight end Clive Walford (by the Jets); kicker Michael Badgley (by the Colts; couldn’t overtake NFL legend Adam Vinatieri); cornerback Dee Delaney and offensive tackle Kc McDermott (by Jacksonville) and defensive end Trent Harris (by New England).
Also, the Giants placed fifth-round pick RJ McIntosh on the reserve/non-football injury list. McIntosh, who has been dealing with a thyroid condition, had a medical procedure earlier this summer. And the Patriots placed Braxton Berrios on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury.
This is part 10 of a 10-columns-in-10-days series leading up to the opener. Please click here for my archives.
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