Who would’ve thought.
At this point last season, the Miami Hurricanes held a 5-4 record, which included their first 0-2 start since 1978 and an overtime loss to a Georgia Tech team that was defeated by The Citadel, an FCS team. Fans were waving the white flag on the season, deservingly so.
To summarize the rest of the regretful 6-7 season: Manny Diaz lost his locker room, Dan Enos forgot to laminate his play sheet during a rainy game, the offensive lineman couldn’t block, the running backs couldn’t run, the quarterbacks couldn’t throw, the receivers couldn’t catch, the kickers couldn’t kick, there was no playmaker and there was no sign of life.
In short, the ‘New Miami’ hype was all talk and no action.
So what did Diaz’s team do? Put their head down and work. And through six weeks this season, that plan has worked. There was no question that UM had the talent to thrive in the ACC, but there was always something that got in the way, whether it’s an attitude problem or poor coaching.
Diaz also did what many wouldn’t do. He took account of his mistakes.
“Manny Diaz’s ability to be aware of himself and his surroundings is what makes him such a successful coach to this point,” said safeties coach Ephraim Banda in July. “I know people will say what they will say last year about our [6-7] record, but there’s no question Manny has addressed and fixed issues, and many coaches out there are stubborn and won’t change. He is not that type of human being.”
The Hurricanes’ six biggest flaws last season were: quarterback play, play calling, pass/run blocking, kicking and receiver play.
So what did Diaz do? He utilized the transfer portal to scoop a star quarterback and kicker and a starting right tackle. He also hired an offensive coordinator, an offensive line coach and a wide receivers coach, each of which have been successful in their craft.
Fast forward to now, Miami has put last year’s woes in the past and hit the midway point of the season ranked No. 12 in the country with a 5-1 record.
It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a complete 180 from where the football program was a year ago.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about the Hurricanes heading into the second half of the 2020 season.
What we know.
Time heals, especially for offensive lineman.
Last season, Miami’s offensive line was arguably the worst in college football, as they gave up 51 sacks. And while there have been plenty of ups and downs thus far, the unit has been much better in 2020.
The Hurricanes grade out as the fifth-best pass-blocking offensive line in the ACC, according to Pro Football Focus. However, UM’s run block grade is the 12th best in the ACC. In 2019, Miami’s pass and run block graded out as the 11th best in the ACC.
Offensive tackle Jarrid Williams has graded out as the Hurricanes’ best pass blocker with an 82.8 grade, per PFF. With a 60.7 run-blocking grade, center Corey Gaynor has been Miami’s highest-graded run-blocking offensive lineman.
In UM’s first three games (UAB, Louisville and FSU), the Hurricanes allowed just three sacks. And in the past three matches (Clemson, Pitt and Virginia), the Canes’ offense line has regressed, allowing 14 sacks.
Coach Justice acknowledged the o-line’s woes and believes that the bye week came at the right time so they could adjust moving forward.
Throughout the season, you get so worried about playing games and playing schemes, but then your fundamentals can slip and that is what you saw in the Virginia game,” Justice said. “Before you know it, you are not having a good day and you aren’t running the ball well. It now allows us to self-scout and analyze it and clean it up moving forward.”
By far the best lineman as of late has been sophomore right tackle Zion Nelson, who’s been Miami’s highest-graded offensive lineman in three of their last four games (FSU, Clemson, Virginia). Nelson was rushed into the lineup last season as a true freshman and was considered the worst offensive lineman in the country, as his 12 sacks were five more than any other Power 5 offensive lineman. And his 38 QB pressures allowed were the sixth most among P5 offensive lineman.
This season, Nelson has given up just three pressures and one sack in 161 pass-blocking snaps this season.
D’Eriq King is as good as advertised.
Quarterback D’Eriq King has been the leader of the troops this season, as he’s thrown for 1,398 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes this season.
King has garnered an 81.9 passing grade, per PFF, which is the eighth-most among P5 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks. Only Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler (93.4), Alabama’s Mac Jones (92.5), Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (91.5), UNC’s Sam Howell (89.2), LSU’s Myles Brennan (88.0), Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman (82.6) and Florida’s Kyle Trask (83.4) have graded out better.
“It’s hard to quantify how much (success we’ve had because of him), but certainly a large part of it is because of D’Eriq,” Diaz said. “It’s not just even the performance on the field. I think he just gave us what we were so needing in terms of someone that the entire team can believe in and rally around. I think our players believe that every week we have a chance to win because he’s our quarterback.
“Again, his ability to connect with all of his teammates makes everybody feel together. But then the fact that he’s humble and is a low-ego guy, it’s hard for anybody to kind of beat their chest and say ‘I’m the man’ when you’ve got a guy like D’Eriq who just kind of goes about his business in a calm way as he does. We’re such a better team in so many ways because we have D’Eriq, and [he’s] a big part of why we are 5-1.”
King’s ability to use his legs has been vital to his success. His 248 rushing yards on scramble situations is the most of any Power Five quarterback this season. In addition, he’s totaled 16 rushes for at least 10 yards, which is the most by any QB in the country. And King has converted 18 first downs with his legs, which is the seventh most in the nation by a quarterback.
There are plenty of freshman with bright futures.
The Hurricanes have been solid at implementing different freshmen into the lineup and giving them meaningful snaps. From day one, Jaylan Knighton (109 snaps, 68.4 PFF grade) and Don Chaney (93 snaps, 63.4 PFF grade) have played key roles in the running back room, and as of late, they’ve been receiving more carries than junior starter Cam’Ron Harris (90 snaps.
Receivers Keshawn Washington (68 snaps, 66.8 PFF grade) and Michael Redding III (47 snaps, 62.6 PFF grade) have shown flashes and could very well see more time if UM’s upperclassmen at WR continue to struggle.
On defense, safety Brian Balom (72 snaps, 58.9 PFF grade) and linebacker Corey Flagg (72 snaps, 67.5 PFF grade) both missed the Virginia game, but have seen increased roles. Flagg graded out as the second best run defender at linebacker versus No. 1 Clemson and has begun receiving second team reps.
It’s important to note that this has been the oddest offseason and season of all time. So as Miami enters the second half of the season, expect a lot more freshmen to get extra time on the field as they’ve been able to adapt and see more reps in practice and games.
“As we continue to self-scout ourselves this bye week and maybe moving forward, I think you’ll see more and more young guys play for us,” defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. “Our young guys — it’s behind the scenes, obviously, no one being at practice or anything — but our young guys are really stepping up in a big way.
Just like it took time for Nelson to get comfortable at the college level, expect former four-star recruit Jalen Rivers, who’s played in just 11 snaps in 2020, to get in the mix soon.
“Whenever he does enter that lineup, you may not see him leave until the day he leaves Miami,” said Justice. “That’s how strongly we feel about him. We see a progression with him every single week. He is going to be a guy for us. … He’s working every day. He’s improving. He’s getting better. He’s pretty close to possibly breaking that lineup.”
What we don’t know.
If Miami can play off of a bye week.
During Diaz’s tenure as head coach at Miami, they’re yet to win off of a bye week, falling to Virginia Tech and FIU in 2019 and Clemson in 2020.
The Hurricanes head into their second bye of the season and their final five-game stretch having averaged just 22.33 points per game in their last three games. And for a team eyeing an ACC Championship Game berth, that isn’t going to cut it.
“I think the bye week came at a good time,” said Lashlee. “We saw some things that we can clean up that I think will help everybody, and hopefully, we can be more effective down the stretch. If we get the passing game that’s going to hopefully open up the run game more and we can just execute at a higher level.”
Undoubtedly, Miami will need to defeat NC State off of the bye and pick up their offense before opposing defenses solve them.
Who Miami’s playmaking receiver is.
Before Mike Harley’s dominant outing versus Virginia, I would have been more concerned. But after Harley, who caught a career-high 10 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown, put his foot down and addressed the WR unit’s woes, there seems to be hope.
Also, Mark Pope, who caught a heavily contested 50-50 ball for a 38 yard gain, and Dee Wiggins, who had three receptions for 36 yards, did their part in King’s 322 passing yard performance.
Nonetheless, coach Diaz has kept the WR depth chart as an open contest, which seems to be exactly what the receivers needed to see in order to step up to the plate.
What’s next for the running back room.
After totaling 38 carries for 311 yards and five touchdowns in the first three games, Cam’Ron Harris has seen a huge decline in production. He has registered 28 carries for 35 yards and zero touchdowns in the past two games (Pitt and Virginia).
“Disrespected me 3 games str8. I’m going to find a way to overcome that. Keep doubting me,” Harris said on Twitter following Miami’s win versus Virginia, in which he recorded eight carries for eight yards.
On the other hand, Chaney and Knighton have been utilized more. Chaney has carried the ball 18 times for 61 yards in the last two games. As for Knighton, he’s rushed for 62 yards and 19 carries while catching six passes for 26 yards in the same stretch.
UM’s struggles on the ground are not all on the running backs, as offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee explains.
“In our run game, we are having more uncharacteristically negative plays this year and that has really kind of stunted our momentum at times, and that’s not just on Cam Harris and the running backs,” Lashlee said. “That’s on our offense. We can do a better job upfront. Sometimes it’s the quarterback. Sometimes I could put him in a better situation. It’s a team deal and nobody is to blame.”
Miami’s run block has notched a PFF grade below 50 in two of the past three games: 39.5 vs. Clemson, 58.8 vs. Pitt and 48.9 vs. Virginia.
Moving forward, the Hurricanes’ offensive line will have to improve its run blocking, in addition to producing more through the pass offense, in order to allow for the RB’s to get loose.
What the deal is with UM’s linebackers.
Expected to bring experience behind fifth-year senior Zach McCloud and sophomore Bradley Jennings, Miami’s most disappointing unit this season has been those of the linebackers.
Both McCloud (257 snaps, 49.2 PFF grade) and Jennings (257 snaps, 45.9 PFF grade) are among the lowest graded linebackers with meaningful snaps on the team and in the ACC.
This has been an ongoing issue all season, as we’ve noted, and the Hurricanes are increasing their reps with young linebackers, Flagg and sophomore Sam Brooks, in hopes of finding the right fit. Against Pittsburgh, Brooks (33 snaps, 58.9 PFF grade ) and Flagg (24 snaps, 65.6 PFF grade) had their fair share of second-team reps behind McCloud (44 snaps, 62.8 PFF grade) and Jennings (39 snaps, 61.6 PFF grade).
“I thought all four guys played a really good game,” Baker said after the win over Pitt. “It has been fun to watch Corey and Sam push BJ and Zach and make them better. Until someone emerges and becomes the man, we are going to play all four of them.”
“I think all four of them feed off each other and play better when the snap counts are 50/50, at least that is what I saw last weekend. I think all four deserve to play and until they prove otherwise, we will roll with a rotation.”