One question Canes fans have debated a lot this decade: Are the Canes playing well below their talent level or are they simply not as talented as many people think?
Rivals.com recently averaged out where each Atlantic Coast Conference school finished in Rivals’ annual (and highly-subjective) recruiting rankings over the past 10 years.
Miami, with an average class ranking of 19.5 over the past 10 years, ranked fourth in the conference, behind FSU, Clemson and Notre Dame (which isn’t an ACC member in football).
Over the past 23 months, UM has lost to Virginia Tech (rated fifth in the ACC with an average recruiting ranking of 27.4), North Carolina (sixth at 28.5), Pittsburgh (eighth at 43.5), Virginia (10th at 45.8), Georgia Tech (11th at 51.5), Duke (12th at 57.9) and Boston College (13th at 60.2).
And here’s something more recent: UM entered Saturday’s loss to the Hokies with 10 active players who were rated by ESPN among the top 100 recruits in their respective classes over the past four years. Virginia Tech entered with one - Doug Nester, a backup offensive lineman rated 72nd in the 2019 class.
So yes, it’s easy to conclude that the Hurricanes -- on paper -- have more talent than most or all of the seven ACC schools that beat them in the regular season over the past three seasons.
But an evaluation of UM’s past four recruiting classes confirmed something else interesting:
Of UM’s elite recruits over the past few years, a significant percentage has either transferred, underachieved, gone pro early or failed to beat out less-recruited players for playing time. Injuries have been a factor in a few cases, too.
And there’s this: Several of these players simply aren’t as talented as recruiting sites made them out to be. Jack Allison, Miami’s top rated recruit in 2016, is a backup at West Virginia. Johnson, UM’s second highest-rated defensive recruit the past four years, has eight tackles in five games at Oregon.
And this, too: Some of these other ACC teams had older, more physically mature rosters - including Virginia and Boston College last year. That cannot be discounted.
Among recruits rated in the top 200 in ESPN’s annual recruiting rankings since 2016, UM has had 31 of those players on its roster at some point over the past four seasons.
But of those 31, only seven are current UM starters and only one of those seven (tight end Brevin Jordan) has played really, really well this season.
So that’s 31 top-200 recruits over the past four years, and only one on your roster (Jordan) playing at an elite level and a few others (led by Jeff Thomas) performing at an above-average level.
That list of 31 includes two players who had very good UM careers and turned pro (running back Travis Homer and defensive end Joe Jackson), four who transferred (Allison, receiver Dionte Mullins, Johnson and guard Cleveland Reed), one who was dismissed (Sam Bruce) and four who are on track to redshirt (senior linebacker Zach McCloud, running back Lorenzo Lingard, freshman receiver Jeremiah Payton and UCLA defensive end transfer Jaelan Phillips).
But there simply hasn’t been enough production this season from some of the others. An examination of UM’s top 200 ESPN recruits since 2016:
▪ Class of 2016: Allison (rated 68th) transferred and is now a backup at West Virginia… Bruce (77th) was dismissed and was last seen at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College... Mullins (92nd) was suspended by UM, left the program after catching only four passes, and ended up at Alabama State… Linebacker Shaq Quarterman (98th) has had a very good UM career but hasn’t consistently played up to expectations this season. Saturday’s loss was one of his worst games as a Cane…
Defensive tackle Pat Bethel (111th) is serviceable but not a high-level starter… McCloud (172) asked to be redshirted this season… Homer (175) and Jackson (182) left after their junior years and were third-day draft picks. Homer has no carries for Seattle and Jackson has three tackles in a limited role for Dallas…. Missing ESPN’s top 200 rankings that year was receiver/212nd ranked Ahmmon Richards, who could have been all ACC this year (or already turned pro) if a neck injury hadn’t ended his career 13 months ago.
▪ Class of 2017: Phillips (third when he signed with UCLA) is spending the year working his way back from injuries after transferring this summer… Thomas (55th) has been a very good player (21 catches for 256 yards) but Miami hasn’t been able to capitalize on his speed on deep balls this season… The aforementioned D.J. Johnson (62nd) left after a year and is now at Oregon…
Quarterback N’Kosi Perry (84th) couldn’t beat out Jarren Williams for the starting job but is competing with Williams to start Friday after replacing him against Virginia Tech… Guard Navaughn Donaldson (89th) has been a disappointment this season, having allowed sacks the past two games and not deemed good enough at tackle to fill that glaring need for Miami… Offensive tackle Kai Leon Herbert (99th) has been an even bigger disappointment, unable to beat out a younger, struggling, lightly-recruited player (Zion Nelson) for a starting job. Without speaking about anyone in particular, Manny Diaz made the point this week that there are more busts on the offensive line than any other position....
Running back Robert Burns (108th) and finally healthy after myriad injuries, has just seven carries for 42 yards in three seasons...Tate Martell (127th when he signed with Ohio State) has been a huge disappointment, third on the depth chart at quarterback and now a seldom-used receiver… Safety Bubba Bolden (129th when he signed with Southern Cal) struggled in his UM debut Saturday, but there’s confidence he will be a helpful player here.
▪ Class of 2018: Jordan (20th) has 23 catches for 369 yards this season and ranks among UM’s best players through five games… Defensive tackle Nesta Silvera (50th) played a lot in his debut Saturday after missing the first month with a foot injury… Running back Lorenzo Lingard (60th) - back from last season’s knee injury - played only special teams Saturday, told Diaz he’s not back to his old self and likely will redshirt...
Cornerback Al Blades Jr. (67th) is a backup but playing a lot..... Jarren Williams (106th) won the starting quarterback job and played generally well before throwing three interceptions in the first quarter Saturday and being benched… Receiver Brian Hightower (141st) has typically been receiving the fifth or sixth most snaps at receiver at UM’s deepest position.. ..
Reed (143rd) transferred last month after failing to crack the starting lineup… Running back Cam’Ron Harris (167th) has seen his per carry average drop from 5.9 as a freshman to 3.9 this season… Gurvan Hall (178th) has started four of five games at safety and played inconsistently… Striker Gilbert Frierson (188th) hasn’t played in four of UM’s five games… Tight end Will Mallory (190th) has three catches for 70 yards this season and his performance has been uneven.
▪ Class of 2019: Payton (61st) is on pace to redshirt. Cornerback Williams (174th) has appeared in five games and will not redshirt.
Incidentally, Rivals.com included three players among its top 200 recruit list that were omitted by ESPN: Receiver Mike Harley Jr. (16 catches, 200 yards in his best season since arriving in 2017); Mark Pope (five-star recruit playing the fourth-most snaps at receiver; 7 catches for 149 yards this season) and guard/tackle D.J. Scaife (a decent player on one of the nation’s worst offensive lines).
Now let’s be clear: At no school will all, or even most, of the top 200 recruits become elite players. The problem is, UM hasn’t had nearly enough of its 31 become exceptional players here yet, with only Joe Jackson, Brevin Jordan, Jeff Thomas, Quarterman and Homer achieving that status here, and the jury out on a bunch of others because of youth or other issues. And of those five, Jackson and Homer aren’t around and Quarterman hasn’t played as well as he did the past two years.
What’s also reality is this: Your two five-star players on the roster (Lingard and Pope) aren’t having the impact you might expect from second-year five-star players for reasons beyond their control -- injury (in Lingard’s case) and in Pope’s case, the fact that older, talented players are ahead of him at receiver.... UM’s second-highest-rated offensive line recruit of the past four years (Herbert) has been a bust… And as noted, Allison, Johnson and Mullins were all clearly overestimated as prospects.
So is it justified to say UM is losing to ACC teams with less talent? Absolutely. But all of the above serves as a necessary footnote to that assertion, as does the reality that some of these players simply aren’t as good as Rivals or ESPN or 247sports thought they were.
And keep this in mind, too:
▪ While UM has landed a substantial amount of top 200 players, it no longer gets many of the top 25 kids that dot the rosters of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma. According to ESPN’s evaluation, UM landed only one top 50 recruit the past four cycles (Jordan, at 30). There are fewer busts among the genuinely elite kids.
▪ And this is important, too: For all of the impressive talent on UM’s roster at several positions (tight end, defensive end, receiver), that talent is not having the effect on winning that everyone would hope because the deficiencies at UM’s two weakest areas (offensive line and kicker) have been so damaging to Miami in close games.