Barry Jackson

The big problem UM must hope improves. And 10 takeaways from UM’s loss to Gators

Ten takeaways from UM’s 24-20 season-opening loss to the Florida Gators at Camping World Stadium in Orlando:

▪ We kept hearing from Manny Diaz and Dan Enos in August that the offensive line had responded in practice and would be effective.

“Coach [Butch] Barry has done a tremendous job with the offensive line; I’ve seen drastic improvements in that area,” Enos said 11 days ago.

Though you want to be positive publicly and give your players a chance to prove you right (or wrong), that faith proved to be ill-founded on a night Miami allowed 10 sacks and couldn’t get the running game going out of traditional (non-Wildcat) sets. And two issues to emerge in the aftermath:

  1. The Canes apparently didn’t believe they would need to make significant schematic changes to deal with their offensive line deficiencies. In retrospect, they were necessary.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said UM should have rolled out Jarren Williams more, should have chipped more and should have moved the launch point more, slid protection and altered the snap count. Perhaps more of that could have helped slow the Gators’ relentless pass rush. Herbstreit also wondered, earlier, why UM didn’t give tackles Zion Nelson or John Campbell more help.

2. The Canes, based on reports from practice, worked primarily three first-team tackles throughout fall camp, all inexperienced: natural freshman Nelson and redshirt freshman Campbell (who won the jobs) and disappointing Kai Leon Herbert.

In retrospect, should the Canes have taken a longer look at guards Navaughn Donaldson or D.J. Scaife at tackle - positions where they have experience - as opposed to leaving them at guard? (And yes, we know Donaldson appears to be a better guard than tackle.)

But was it too much to expect two totally inexperienced players to handle the key offensive tackle assignments against a top 10 opponent?

Butch Barry knows far more about his personnel than any of us, and Nelson did everything right throughout the summer and fall camp to earn the job. UM people are convinced he has a bright future, and he shouldn’t be judged off an opener against a high-level opponent.

But the question now becomes whether you stick with this group - assuming Nelson and Campbell will improve with time and against less formidable competition - or do you consider moving Scaife to tackle and giving Cleveland Reed a chance a guard?

In fairness, not all of the sacks were the fault of the offensive line - not by a long shot. Williams could have avoided at least three of them with quicker decisions, maybe more. Mike Harley Jr. blew a block on one of them.

“Sacks does not always equate to offensive line play,” Manny Diaz told Don Bailey Jr. on WQAM. “There were times we were supposed to chip we didn’t chip. I think those guys in this setting showed they could play for the Miami Hurricanes.”

But the line play, overall, was substandard - between the poor pass protection, the inability to create holes consistently in the running game and the false starts and holding penalties.

And while the Gators have a good defensive line (with All-SEC end Jabari Zuniga), this isn’t considered an elite defensive line, either.

UF’s 10 sacks were its most in 20 years. UM hadn’t allowed 10 in a game in at least 14 years.

▪ I like the idea of creating a package for Tate Martell, and putting Martell in motion paid dividends on two DeeJay Dallas Wildcat runs, including Dallas’ 50-yard touchdown.

But the two fourth quarter plays where Martell lined up at quarterback were ill-timed: a second down play deep in Gators territory that went nowhere, two plays before Bubba Baxa’s missed 27-yard field goal; and another that also went nowhere on a key first down play on UM’s next possession, blunting momentum from a KJ Osborn reception on a pass from Jarren Williams.

Let’s see if the Martell-at-QB-change-of-pace plays work at less critical times before using them in crucial situations.

But give Enos credit for smart use of the Wildcat; we would have liked to have seen more of it with Dallas at the controls.

▪ Except for the long Josh Hammond catch against striker Gilbert Frierson and a TD throw against Mike Pinckney, UM held up well in pass coverage despite having only four scholarship cornerbacks available.

Among defensive backs, kudos to Amari Carter for his interception and Trajan Bandy for excellent work in coverage.

The secondary’s only significant misstep was poor tackling (by Gurvan Hall, Blades and Carter) on Kadarius Toney’s 66-yard touchdown early in the game.

▪ Really liked how UM’s defensive tackles held up in the post-Gerald Willis era, at least against the run. Jon Ford was impactful, Pat Bethel was solid and the Canes’ defensive ends set the edge effectively. The Gators ran 27 times for 52 yards, just 1.9 per carry, after averaging 213 yards rushing per game last season.

But overall, the defensive line mustered just one sack against a Gators offensive line with four new starters. That must improve, and I’m presuming it will.

▪ UM was victimized by at least two bad calls, including a clear holding on the Toney TD play. But the three delay of game penalties were unacceptable, as were the volume of penalties (14-119) and the timing of them - including two critical ones after the late Romeo Finley interception.

“We made enough mistakes to lose three games tonight,” Diaz told Bailey Jr. “Most of our penalties were really avoidable. They were all in some crucial times, taking away some crucial big plays for us.”

▪ After passing for 158 yards in the first half (on 12 for 14 accuracy), Williams was just 7 for 16 for 56 yards in the second half, in the face of heavy pressure. But he showed poise throughout. It looks as though UM has found a solution at quarterback.

“I think he showed why why we picked him to be our guy,” Diaz said. “He was running for his life, but… he managed the situation well. He will look at the film and realize there were times he could have gotten the ball out quicker to make the protection better.”

▪ Bandy, to Don Bailey Jr. on WQAM: “[Last year], it felt like everything was OK that we lost. Now you’ve got guys falling down to the ground crying, so I know they’re very passionate about winning. I feel we’re not going to lose any more games.”

▪ Like how Enos incorporated the tight end more. Jordan had five catches for 88 yards, and his chemistry with Williams (they’re best friends) was clearly an asset.

▪ There’s a lot expected of Jeff Thomas after his reinstatement, and this was a disappointing night.

His fumbled punt turned momentum and he caught only two pass for 28 yards, with UM rarely targeting him (at least on plays that didn’t end in sacks).

But credit Thomas - along with center Corey Gaynor and Scaife - for great blocks on the long Dallas TD. Thomas also had one run for 16 yards and gained 32 yards on a late kickoff return, his only kickoff return of the night.

▪ While several of the second-year players were very good (Williams, Jordan), others had quiet nights, including Cam’Ron Harris, who ran six times for 15 yards, and Will Mallory (holding penalty and no receptions).

Mark Pope caught a pass early (for four yards) but wasn’t heard from after that, and sophomore receivers Brian Hightower and Dee Wiggins weren’t targeted much and had no receptions.

Defensively, Greg Rousseau had a sack and Hall was solid in his debut as a starting safety, aside from the missed tackle on the TD run. Al Blades Jr. committed the damaging penalty for what appeared to be excessive celebration after the Finley interception but held up fine in coverage, aside from one penalty.

▪ Quick stuff: UM had won 12 consecutive games that it had led by six or more at halftime. That streak ended… UF won for only the third time in its past 11 games when it had multiple turnovers... Herbstreit predicted UM would make the ACC championship game. But UM’s ACC opener and next game - Sept. 7 at North Carolina - won’t be seen in most of South Florida unless Comcast/Xfinity and AT&T Uverse strike deals with ACC Network in the next 13 days.

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