With practice opening Friday, UM football officials believe they have some elite, championship-contending talent at the skill positions.
What the Canes cannot be certain about is whether they will get elite production at those positions, because those running backs, receivers and tight ends are at least somewhat dependent on the two biggest question marks on the team: quarterback and offensive line.
Feedback from UM officials on those positions:
▪ With tight end Brevin Jordan out for most of spring with a knee injury, the Canes believe Will Mallory got significantly better. His already-strong receiving skills developed further, and his blocking — which was a deficiency — appears to have improved.
As a UM official said, “being forced to put his hand in the ground and be physical - it’s not something he had done before [doing it in spring ball]. He hadn’t been asked to do it in high school or fall and this is making him a more complete player. And his ability to stretch the field and run routes is exceptional.”
UM also believes, for the first time, it can rely on Michael Irvin Jr. for consistently “quality snaps” and play winning football. One UM administrator said nobody has changed, in a good way, and bought in more than Irvin did since the coaching change.
And the belief is that Jordan can be one of UM’s best tight ends this decade, with ex-Cane David Njoku.
▪ Cam’Ron Harris will be given every opportunity to win the starting running back job against DeeJay Dallas.
UM made clear that the best player will play, whether he’s the most experienced or not. Regardless of who starts, Harris and Dallas will play a lot.
“Everyone is excited about both those guys and how good they can be,” the UM official said, noting everyone can see how “hungry” Davis is.
One UM source believes Harris is going to be a star and emerge as a major threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
And a UM official said don’t overlook oft-injured Robert Burns: “When he has been healthy, he is very productive and impressive.”
Burns is coming off a minor knee procedure. Lorenzo Lingard, coming off last November’s serious knee injury, must prove in August that he’s ready to contribute early in the season; that will determine his initial playing time.
▪ At receiver, Jeff Thomas and K.J. Osborn assuredly will be two of the top three, and offensive coordinator Dan Enos said he wants five he can rely on.
Mike Harley Jr., Mark Pope, Brian Hightower, Dee Wiggins and freshman Jeremiah Payton have the best chance of claiming those other three spots, with Evidence Njoku trying to make a push after coaches told him this spring that he needs to play with more urgency.
“K.J. is ahead because of maturity and a knowledge standpoint; he approaches it more like a pro, and that’s partly because he’s a fifth-year senior,” a UM official said. “Jeff’s explosiveness brings something different. With the other guys, the coaches will try to figure out what their niche is.”
How has Thomas been in his second go-round at UM?
As a young man, UM believes he’s always going to need some level of maintenance and need to be checked up on. But as a player, Miami believes he’s the most game-changing athlete on the roster.
UM wants to move him around more so teams cannot bracket-cover him. So everything is on the table with Thomas: reverses, sweeps, bubble screens.
▪ Payton has impressed everyone as an early enrollee, and we hear he has a real chance to crack the top five. As one UM administrator said: “He’s not exceptional at anything, but he’s above average at everything. He’s as competitive as any guy in that room.”
Payton already has a reputation of volunteering to do anything the coaches are looking for someone to do, including playing any receiver spot.
UM people have seen clear improvement in Pope and “a lot of credit goes to [receivers coach] Taylor Stubblefield,” a UM administrator said. “We’ve seen more of his presence in the facility, hallway, watching film, asking questions.”
UM believes he’s very good running routes if he knows the route; the question is knowing the playbook well enough to know the routes and at what depth to run them and when to cut them off. There has been progress there, but the next month of practices will be telling.
Hightower was slowed by the ankle injury in November and the knee injury during spring ball, but UM has high hopes. As one UM official noted: “The injury set him back a little bit, missing summer workouts and conditioning and the weight room. But he’s a tough kid and smart and will be ready.”
▪ One UM off-field football official said even though N’Kosi Perry was named quarterback MVP of spring ball, that shouldn’t be overstated and the job is genuinely wide open, with the first few weeks of fall camp to determine the starter.
“The nice thing is all the kids really got better,” the official said. “All three have really done a nice job of improving, even with something as simple as N’Kosi just calling a play in the huddle.”
One UM source warned not to overstate the importance of Tate Martell’s mobility as a deciding factor and said not to make too much of the fact that Martell plays best out of the shotgun. UM believes he can play under center if needed and the Canes will tailor their offense to what each quarterback does best, depending on who wins the job.
Here’s one thing that has impressed UM about Martell:
“He blended into our locker room seamlessly,” one UM administrator said. “He has not been a distraction or ruffled feathers. The first part of being a quarterback is winning the locker room, and he’s done well at being one of the guys. He’s an excitable kid. Our players like him.”
And Jarren Williams “has gotten better,” a UM football official said. “He’s trying harder, working hard in the weight room and with his conditioning.”
▪ With the offensive line, UM looks at Navaughn Donaldson, Corey Gaynor and D.J. Scaife as very likely starters, but where Scaife will play — tackle or guard — will depend on who wins the other two starting jobs among tackles Zion Nelson, Kai Leon Herbert, John Campbell and guard Cleveland Reed.
One UM official said there is no one or two who distanced himself from the others among those four entering fall camp.
“All of them improved dramatically,” the official said. “Zion was the biggest surprise and we saw how much he grew physically. It shows how committed he was. Kai Leon fought through injury and got better. Cleveland is a big powerful kid. Zion is very tough and didn’t have to re-learn anything [with the new offensive line coach because he wasn’t here last season].... We may go from having three or four guys we can count on to six or seven.”
▪ UM wants to use a fullback at times, and Realus George has been up and down.
At times in practice, he was really good, but at other times, not nearly good enough. That must change, as far as elimination of mistakes.
▪ Enos has impressed everyone in the building. “Extremely intelligent, phenomenal mind for football,” a UM official said. “His ability to teach the detail part, how to go through every single read, really stands out.”
Here are my Thursday notes from the first day of Dolphins training camp.