Assessing Canes football and handing out awards at the season’s halfway point, with UM standing at 5-1 and 16th in the AP poll:
▪ Best players: 1) Gerald Willis. The defensive tackle has been a menace; his 12.5 tackles for loss are second in the nation. He not only has emerged as a high-end NFL draft prospect but has more than compensated for the early departures of Kendrick Norton and Richard McIntosh Jr.
2) Jeff Thomas. The most electrifying player UM has had this decade; no wonder Mark Richt was giddy when getting his letter of intent in January 2017. He’s second in the country in yards per catch at 24.7 and has 17 plays of 20 or more yards.
3) Joe Jackson. The junior defensive end has five sacks, an interception return for a touchdown and has done good work setting the edge in the running game.
4) Jonathan Garvin. Jackson’s partner in chaos has two fumble recoveries, 3.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss (tied for fourth in the country) and three passes defended.
5) Jaquan Johnson. The senior safety, who would be higher on this list if he hadn’t missed two games, had five tackles on FSU’s first series Saturday, despite leaving the game briefly after making a big hit. The glue of this defense.
▪ Most improved besides Willis and Thomas: 1) Quarterback N’Kosi Perry. Erratic in practice last year and during spring ball but now emerging as an efficient, dynamic threat at quarterback. Has 11 touchdown throws, three interceptions.
2) Romeo Finley. Gone from an afterthought to a key piece of the defense in the new striker position. Has allowed only two completions for 27 yards this season.
3)Safety Sheldrick Redwine. Rebounded from poor close to last season with two interceptions, two sacks and excellent play in the defensive backfield.
4) Guard Hayden Mahoney. UM’s most consistent offensive lineman.
5) DeeJay Dallas. Averaged 6.4 yards per carry and essentially forced coaches to use him as a 1A, rather than a No. 2, behind Travis Homer.
▪ Best achievement: UM ranking second in total defense (237 yards allowed per game), third in pass defense and first in third down conversions (19.8 percent) and tackles for loss and 23rd in scoring defense.
▪ Most improved area: Third-down conversions on both sides of the ball. UM has gone from 125th on offense on third down last season to 35th this season. Defensively, UM has gone from 75th to first in that area.
▪ The Malik Rosier most exasperating award: To receiver Lawrence Cager, for following awful plays (including three drops Saturday) with awesome ones (two fourth-down touchdowns). He has 12 receptions all season but six are for touchdowns.
▪ Biggest non-injury related disappointment/concern: 1) Offensive line. Mark Richt said when he arrived, the position group that was furthest away from national championship level was offensive line, tackle in particular.
Alas, 32 games into his UM tenure, that’s still the case, though he insisted this week that the group has improved. But center Tyler Gauthier was blunt: “We got out tails kicked most of the game against FSU.”
Tyree St. Louis and Navaughn Donaldson are pretty good tackles against many teams. But against elite defensive lines (LSU and FSU), they don’t quite measure up – one reason why UM on Tuesday continued its FSU game experiment of having D.J. Scaife at right tackle and moved Donaldson to right guard.
At the moment, the team’s most consistent offensive lineman is overachieving Mahoney — whose only other offers were Akron, Elon, Boston College and Old Dominion.
Richt keeps saying this UM line is going to be very good when freshmen Scaife, Cleveland Reed and John Campbell are ready. That day needs to be sooner rather than later. And why isn’t four-star Kai Leon Herbert any factor? On Zalon’tae Hillery? Disappointing.
2) Jeff Feagles. Benched after averaging 37.8 yards on 15 punts.
▪ Boldest move: Switching to Perry after a five-touchdown game by Rosier against Toledo. Richt hasn’t wanted to compare Perry with Rosier in conversations with local reporters, but ABC’s Brock Huard said coaches told him they believe Perry has more athleticism than Rosier and is a “more natural, accurate passer.” And we’re told UM wasn’t happy because Rosier left too many plays on the field.
▪ Best in coverage: Redwine, who has allowed only two of 10 passes thrown against him to be caught, for 23 yards, with two interceptions, per Herald correspondent Daniel Gould. Top corner Michael Jackson has allowed 9 of 23 to be caught, for 153.
▪ Biggest surprises beyond Perry’s midseason rise to the starting quarterback job: 1) Lack of playing time for the two five-star players on the roster: running back Lorenzo Lingard (26 offensive snaps) and receiver Mark Pope (53).
Pope and four-star Marquez Ezzard (19 offensive snaps) have played much less than the two freshmen receivers who were there for spring ball — Dee Wiggins and Brian Hightower, who each have 138 offensive snaps, per Gould.
2) Defensive end Demetrius Jackson’s reduced role. Once UM’s best run-stopping end, his 41 snaps are far less than Scott Patchan’s 108. Linebacker Zach McCloud also has lost playing time; his 114 snaps are less than Finley’s 166, Mike Pinckney’s 287 and Shaq Quarterman’s 250.
▪ Saddest news: Richards’ career-ending neck injury. And to a lesser extent, major, possibly season-ending injuries to freshman end Gregory Rousseau and tight end Michael Irvin Jr.
▪ FYI: The natural freshmen with the most offensive or defensive snaps, in order: Tight end Brevin Jordan 352, Hightower and Wiggins 138 apiece, tight end Will Mallory 118, Scaife 112.
Here’s my other UM piece from Tuesday, with lots more notes.