Greg Cote

Hurricanes’ success in 2018 could hinge on what happens over the next 15 spring practices

Mark Richt coaches N’Kosi Perry during last year’s Miami Hurricanes spring practice. Will this be the spring Perry (or somebody else) dethrones Malik Rosier as starting quarterback?
Mark Richt coaches N’Kosi Perry during last year’s Miami Hurricanes spring practice. Will this be the spring Perry (or somebody else) dethrones Malik Rosier as starting quarterback? Miami Herald

We are seeing another sign of a football program’s growing strength and maturation as Mark Richt unfurls his third Miami Hurricanes season with the start of spring practice Tuesday.

There is an open quarterback competition, but it is a battle borne of strength, not desperation. It isn’t that UM is unsettled or searching at the most important position; returning incumbent Malik Rosier has proved himself capable. It is that the Canes QB stable includes a couple of other thoroughbreds poised to try and take Rosier’s job.

Richt is in the enviable situation of anointing a quarterback who has proved clearly better than Rosier or seeing the competition push Rosier to a higher level entering his senior season.

Make no mistake, though. The head coach knows who has earned his perch atop the depth chart.

“Who was it that said it, might have been the Nature Boy Ric Flair: ‘To be the man, you gotta beat the man,’” Richt said Monday. “Right this minute I see Malik as our No. 1 quarterback. Definitely No. 1 going into spring.”

Who will take the snaps for Miami will be integral in The U’s ability to take the next step from good to great. The Hurricanes are coming off a watershed year with the program’s first 10-win season, first ACC Championship Game appearance and first Orange Bowl invitation since 2003. Those things and the bling of the Turnover Chain spoke of a once-illustrious program either “back” or getting there. But the way the season ended — with a loss at Pitt, a 38-3 clobbering by Clemson for the ACC title, then a 34-24 OB loss to Wisconsin — reminded that the Return of the Canes still is a work in progress.

“The taste it left in our mouths didn’t taste good,” Richt said. “Our guys didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. I’m still living through it. Sometimes it helps getting a little angry. We got a whiff of what could be, getting so close [when 10-0] to being in that four-team playoff.”

One sign of progress now will be better quarterback play. Greatness instead of pretty good. The evolution of UM’s rise demands a dynamic QB who can do for this program what Jameis Winston did for Florida State or what Deshaun Watson brought to Clemson. A game-changer. That starts with a dual-threat essential to the offense Richt likes. It is all he recruits. It is why the coach was not unhappy when pure pocket passer Brad Kaaya elected to leave early for the NFL, even as many Canes fans were wringing hands.

Rosier stepped in and offered increased mobility, but a bit of unevenness and less accuracy makes you wonder if he is a finished product or if there is a higher ceiling. Rosier will have a month’s practice, through April 19, to indicate there is. That is a good thing — when your senior starter must get better or (perhaps) get replaced.

“If you look at Malik’s [2017] highlights, they’re pretty impressive,” Richt said. “But inconsistent play has been a part of our nemesis on offense and his personally. I do know for a fact that competition helps raise the level of everybody. If you are the guy and there’s nobody to compete with you, it’s hard to be great. People become complacent.”

N’Kosi Perry, the redshirt freshman, or Jarren Williams, the hugely touted true freshman, are capable of winning Rosier’s job this spring or into fall. I am not discounting redshirt freshman Cade Weldon, but Perry and Williams, by my eyes and from what I hear, clearly are the “it” guys.

My best guess (not anything Richt said) is that Williams, from Lawrenceville, Georgia, might be headed for a redshirt season, but whether now or later he’s a four-star recruit who could be dominant. You judge a player by the recruiting company he keeps, and Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer were among coaches Richt beat to win Williams.

Perry looms as Rosier’s most immediate competition if only because he already has banked the season of redshirt learning. He has gained more than 15 pounds from the 6-4, 172-pound beanpole who first enrolled out of Ocala. Speaking after the bowl loss, Perry already was looking forward to spring practice. “I love competition,” he said then. “That’s what brings out the best of me.”

Let the intrigue begin, then. Will Perry live up to the hype? Can Rosier stave off the challengers and hold on to what’s his? Might Williams prove so good so fast that the thought of a redshirt is quickly discarded? The season doesn’t start until Sept 2, but the competition that will shape it, especially at one position, starts now.

Richt was talking about spring practice in general in saying this, but it sure applies to the QB situation:

“For me spring ball is about seeing who’s going to step up,” he said. “Who’s going to become a leader? Who’s going to become a playmaker who can now be counted on where a year earlier we weren’t quite sure? Who’s going to become more than they’ve been to this point?

Answers starting soon, and starting at quarterback.

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