UM’s substandard offensive line play through one-third of the season -- the biggest problem holding this team back -- can be attributed, from a big picture standpoint, to recruiting misses, recruiting misevaluations, youth and some questionable decisions, including starting two inexperienced tackles in the opener against the Gators.
Youth shouldn’t be underestimated. Older lines are often better lines, and Miami is starting two freshmen and a sophomore and no seniors.
But after everyone saw Central Michigan — which was 1-11 a year ago — often get the better of UM’s offensive line Saturday, here’s what’s more difficult to understand, verging on dumbfounding:
▪ Of the five defensive linemen who registered in the stat sheet for CMU, only one — senior end Sean Adesanya -- received any offer from a Power 5 school.
Freshman defensive tackle Jacques Bristol, the player who beat coveted four-star UM junior lineman Navaughn Donaldson for a safety — was a two-star recruit from Sarasota who had no other FBS college offer besides Central Michigan, according to Rivals and 247 sports.
Sophomore defensive tackle Robi Stuart, who beat Jakai Clark for a sack, was a two-star recruit from Michigan who also had no other FBS offer besides CMU, according to Rivals.
Defensive end De’Andre Dill, who had a tackle for loss, had only one other FBS offer, from Temple.
Defensive end LaQuan Johnson, who had a sack Saturday, was a two-star recruit with no other FBS offers besides CMU, according to Rivals.
So how does this happen?
How does one of FBS’ least-recruited defensive lines dominate a UM offensive line that has nine players on its roster that received multiple Power 5 offers, including four with offers from some of the best schools in college football?
What’s more, how does this caliber defensive line produce four sacks and hold DeeJay Dallas and Cam’Ron Harris to 54 yards on 23 carries (a meager 2.3 per attempt)?
This doesn’t explain the inexplicable — like the fringe prospect Bristol beating Donaldson —but this does explain some of what we’re seeing:
▪ Adesanya, who beat Nelson for sacks on consecutive plays, not only is four years older than Nelson and more physically developed, but actually was recruited by more Power 5 schools than Nelson; he started his career at Illinois, and Pittsburgh pursued him too.
Keep in mind that Nelson, according to Rivals and 247 sports, had no other Power 5 offers besides Miami and had offers only from Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Campbell, Western Kentucky and Coastal Carolina.
Could you imagine a UM team — during its glory days — starting a freshman left tackle who was vigorously pursued by no other major programs?
▪ Some of UM’s most-recruited linemen are either backups or not playing at all.
Tackle John Campbell, who began the CMU game on the bench before entering the game, was a four-star recruit with 35 offers, including from Alabama, Georgia, UF and Ohio State. So has he not developed yet because of youth (he’s a redshirt freshman), coaching or because a bunch of top schools overestimated him? That’s difficult to say.
Guard/tackle Cleveland Reed, a four-star recruit, had offers from UF, LSU and Southern Cal, among others, yet couldn’t get any significant playing time for one of the worst pass-blocking lines in college football and left the program Friday.
So is that a case of offensive line coach Butch Barry underestimating what he had in Reed or UM overestimating him in recruiting? Remember that a year ago, Mark Richt told ABC that Reed would one day be a key component in an elite UM line.
Tackle Kai-Leon Herbert — a four-star recruit in 2017 — had offers from UF, Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Wisconsin and yet couldn’t beat out a natural freshman (Nelson) or anyone else for playing time. So did all of these schools overrate him? Or are Herbert and Barry responsible for his lack of development?
Three-star backup Zalon’tae Hillery, who wasn’t even seriously in the mix for a starting job in August, had an offer from Alabama, according to 247sports.com. Three-star backup Zach Dykstra (offers from Iowa, Iowa State) also can’t crack this lineup.
And there there’s the curious case of Tommy Kennedy, the Butler transfer who inexplicably received offers from UM, Texas, Oklahoma, Boston College, Arizona and Arizona State as a grad transfer. The former UM staff thought it might be getting be getting a plug-and-play left tackle with NFL potential.
Once he arrived, the new UM staff was shocked how ill-suited he was to be a tackle on a Power 5 team, quickly moved him to third string center and hasn’t given him a snap in four games.
A UM official notes that not a single member of the coaching staff who pursued Kennedy remains, nor does former recruiting coordinator Matt Doherty.
Former UM punter Brian Monroe, a host on 790 The Ticket, jokes that UM was the victim of a catfish scheme with Kennedy.
So even though the Kennedy mistake should not be pinned on anyone still at UM, it’s shocking how the player could have been so misevaluated by the old staff.
UM also overestimated LSU transfer tackle George Brown Jr., who played only three games in two years here and left the team in July.
At least Miami got six starts last season from former Tennessee guard Venzell Boulware, who inexplicably turned pro after as a junior last season but didn’t make an NFL team.
▪ As far as players who started Saturday, only Donaldson was an elite recruit, in terms of being pursued by multiple upper-echelon schools.
Tackle/guard D.J. Scaife’s only other Power 5 offers were from NC State and Syracuse, according to 247sports and Rivals. Center Corey Gaynor had offers from Minnesota, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Nelson had no other Power 5 offers. Freshman Clark had 10 other Power 5 offers, with Auburn the best and most from the likes of Illinois and Oregon State.
So what’s interesting is that UM has more widely recruited linemen on the bench than in the starting lineup.
A couple other factors that need to be mentioned:
▪ In what was a mistake in retrospect, UM signed only one offensive lineman in the 2016 class — the one Mark Richt had less that two months to put together. And that player, Tre Johnson, never played in two years at Miami, transferred in 2018 and is now at Southern Mississippi, where he hasn’t played in a game.
If UM had signed a couple of skilled linemen in that class, they would be key seniors — or redshirt juniors — and key parts of the current line. That reality cannot be underestimated.
▪ Losing Hayden Mahoney, who graded out the best of UM linemen in some games last year, is missed. He transferred to Boston College, where he’s a backup. Losing him wasn’t an earth-shattering factor, but his presence would have assuredly helped.
▪ UM has failed to land several quality linemen who were targets in recent years, including TCU’s Lucas Niang (a projected first-round pick in April’s draft), Parker Braun (an All-ACC guard at Georgia Tech last season who bypassed UM overtures this year to transfer to Texas) and UF guard Brett Heggie (named the SEC’s offensive lineman of the week on Monday)
So whether it’s misevaluation, strikeouts in recruiting, age, coaching, players not reaching their potential for whatever reason - or what I believe to be a combination of all of these factors - here’s the bottom line:
This offensive line is well, well below the standards of what any Miami line should be.
Miami has allowed 18 sacks — second worst among all 130 FBS schools, ahead of only Akron.
Partly because of poor blocking, Miami has converted 22.7 percent of its third-down attempts (10 for 44) — ahead of only Northern Illinois and Georgia Southern.
And Miami is 125th of 130 schools in tackles for loss allowed.
So what’s next for this underperforming line?
For better or worse, Donaldson, Gaynor (who has had some good moments) and Scaife appear entrenched as starters, and UM went back to Nelson against Central Michigan after sending him to the bench for a series. That leaves Miami needing to decide whether to stick with Clark (a freshmen center playing guard) or Campbell as the fifth starter, unless one of the aforementioned backups — such as Herbert or Hillery — makes a move.
As for 2020 recruiting, Miami has one four-star offensive lineman committed: four-star Oakleaf-based tackle Jalen Rivers. The Canes also have two three-star commitments: Nashville-based tackle Chris Washington and Ocala-based tackle Antonio Smith.
The problem is that Miami is considered an underdog for Miami Norland four-star offensive tackle Issiah Walker, with UF considered the front-runner. Miami also isn’t considered a favorite for Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas four-star tackle Marcus Dumervil, though he told me last month that UM remains in the mix. He’s visited LSU and Oklahoma.
Unless there are transfers or unless Donaldson turns pro, all of the aforementioned members of this year’s offensive line will be back next season. UM also has freshman lineman Adam ElGammal, who’s a candidate to redshirt this year.
Manny Diaz dumped predecessor Stacy Searels because he wanted to replace all the offensive coaches and (as one UM official said) because Searels was too demeaning toward his players. Barry has tried to be more uplifting, Gaynor said. But the early results haven’t been promising.
The bottom line: UM’s line must be much, much better for the Hurricanes to have a chance to get the program back to where everyone wants it.