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College Football Preview 2021: 15. Miami Hurricanes

D'Eriq King, Miami

 15. Miami Hurricanes

An explosive offense and improved defense gives the 'Canes a real shot at the ACC Coastal Title

2020 Review
Following a frustrating 2019, head coach Manny Diaz chose to switch things up offensively, bringing in a pair of big-name additions from the American Athletic Conference in coordinator Rhett Lashlee and QB D'Eriq King. The moves paid immediate dividends, with Miami starting off 2020 8-1, with their lone loss coming to the league's superpower, Clemson. The offense continued to play well in their next two games, but terrible defensive showings led to Miami losses, leaving them with an 8-3 overall record. King announced prior to the Cheez-It Bowl that he planned to return for a fifth year in 2021, but tore his ACL in the loss to Oklahoma State. His health will be at the front of everyone's minds as we inch closer to the start of the '21 season.

2021 Outlook
Offense: There's little denying how impactful the additions of Lashlee and King were to this offense. The group was significantly more explosive, fast-paced, and fun to watch, with the numbers backing up the decision. The Hurricanes ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring and just missed out on the Top 25, coming in 26th nationally.

King had no issues with the transition from Group of Five football to Power Five. He totaled over 3,000 yards of total offense and finished with 27 total touchdowns, finishing second on the team in rushing. The ACL injury was a major blow to a guy who could still have an outside shot at a Heisman run, but the timing means that he could still start the 2021 season, which opens September 4th against Alabama. If not, Miami will be forced to turn to a very unproven quarterback room, without an obvious backup now that N'Kosi Perry and Tate Martell have transferred. Tyler Van Dyke saw playing time in two games last fall so he has the very slight edge in "experience", but true freshman Jake Garcia could also vie for snaps. 

Even with King's running ability, Miami didn't record as strong of rushing numbers as they would've liked in 2020. Expect better production this fall, as the position group is deep and talented, while running behind a quality offensive line. Junior Cam'Ron Harris was the top option a season ago and will enter '21 as the feature guy. He proved to be the most explosive weapon the team has at running back and he also recorded 10 touchdowns. Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton return as well, two guys who could see expanded roles. They were used primarily as third down backs or situational pieces in 2020, but have the potential to do much more.

The receiver corps had their moments last year, but also dealt with a barrage of drops. The group remains pretty much intact, although they did say goodbye to tight end Brevin Jordan, one of the best at his position in the country. Senior Mike Harley led the team in receptions and yards in 2020 and has a chance to break some of Miami's all-time receiving numbers. Also back are juniors Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope, who provide solid support on the outside. The name to watch is Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo, who had 743 yards in 2019 but couldn't build on those numbers last season. Rambo is talented enough to be a very impactful transfer on offense, and he could also help out on special teams.

While a lot of Miami's offensive growth was credited to King and Lashlee, the offensive line's improvement was also crucial. It went from one of the ACC's worst to one of the conference's best, and now four starters are back. The headliner is redshirt sophomore Zion Nelson at left tackle, who showed tremendous growth last season and has now earned NFL Draft attention. At right tackle, former Houston transfer Jarrid Williams joined back up with King and has made an impact, while junior center Corey Gaynor anchors the middle.

Obviously King's health is at the front of everyone's minds as the Hurricane offense prepares for 2021. The good news is that even if he's unable to go to begin the year or not 100 percent, Miami has enough offensive pieces to put up points. If the receiver room can cut out the drops, it could rival teams like Clemson and North Carolina as the ACC's best.

Defense: Manny Diaz has his roots on the defensive side of the ball, but the Hurricane defense was awfully disappointing in 2020. Their numbers weren't atrocious, but the group played their worst ball against the best competition, including being ran all over by UNC in the regular season finale. Diaz decided to take matters into his own hands, shuffling up the coaching staff and taking over as the play-caller. He has earned a reputation as an aggressive defensive mind, so expect this Miami group to attack future opponents.

The top priority for Diaz and the entire defensive staff should be figuring out the rush defense. It was easily the worst part of this defense in 2020 and will need to be improved. The defensive line has to be better and there is several key names returning. Veterans Nesta Jade Silvera and Jonathan Ford are key returnees inside, but it's unclear how the Hurricanes will replace NFL-bound pass rushers Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche. Zach McCloud, a three-year starter at linebacker who is back for his sixth year on campus, is expected to move to defensive end and fight for a starting job. He was a key cog for this rush defense from 2016-2018 but redshirted in 2019 and then gained an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. Who starts opposite him at end is unclear, although senior Deandre Johnson appears to be the early favorite.

The linebacker group also has to be better and there's reason to believe that it will be. Junior Bradley Jennings Jr. and sophomore Gilbert Frierson are both returning and will start. Jennings was quiet his first two years in Coral Gables before emerging last year, while Frierson is a playmaker at the "Striker" position who finished third on the team in tackles, with 53. Depth is a potential concern with this group, which may become a factor the deeper we get into the season.

In the secondary, the Hurricanes retain most of their key pieces and also add a big-name transfer in Tyrique Stevenson. Stevenson looked like he would contend for a starting spot with Georgia this year but instead decided to head to the ACC, where he's likely to start right away. Joining him at corner will be a pair of juniors, D.J. Ivey and Al Blades Jr., who both have played a healthy amount of snaps in their 'Canes career so far. Sophomore Te'Cory Couch came on strong late in 2020 and should also vie for playing time.

Safety Bubba Bolden didn't receive quite as much fanfare as King, Phillips, or Roche when he transferred to Miami from USC, but he provedto be just as impactful. He ended up leading the team in tackles with 74 and proved to be their most consistent defender. His versatility and natural instincts make him the ideal defensive back for a defensive coach like Diaz. The starter joining him at safety is unclear, with junior Gurvan Hall Jr. and redshirt freshman Avantae Williams competing for the starting gig. Senior Amari Carter will also factor into this secondary after notching 53 tackles a season ago, while true freshman James Williams was a huge recruit who comes from nearby American Heritage High School.

Even though losing Roche and Phillips may hurt the Miami pass rush, the defense as a whole should be improved. The front seven has more experience than in year's past, and the secondary will be good, particularly with new DB coach Travaris Robinson in town.

Special Teams: Kicker Jose Borregales is a huge loss on special teams, a former transfer from Florida International who earned All-American honors after going 20-22 on field goals. The Hurricanes are hoping his younger brother, true freshman Andre Borregales, can come on and replace his older brother. Punter Lou Hedley is a Ray Guy Award contender who averaged over 47 yards per punt last season. He's one of college football's most intriguing personalties at the position, looking more like a linebacker than punter at 6'4", 225 pounds.

Bottom Line: Miami made improvements across the board in Year Two of the Diaz era, but the blowout losses to Clemson and UNC inside the conference showed that there's still room for growth. The return of both King and Lashlee offensively ensures this group will be explosive once again, but the defense will determine whether this is simply a "good" Miami team or one that can contend for an ACC Title. The Hurricanes are talented enough to win the Coastal, but the non-conference schedule will serve as a true measuring stick of what this program is capable of. Not only do they open the season playing against college football's best program in Alabama, they also welcome a sneaky Appalachian State team and a Power Five foe in Michigan State to Coral Gables. Surviving that trio of games and then pushing for a division title will be difficult, but not completely out of the question.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)
Offensive MVP: QB D'Eriq King
Defensive MVP: S Bubba Bolden
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Tyrique Stevenson
Impact Freshman: S James Williams

Recruiting Breakdown
Although Miami's work in the transfer portal has received significant attention, the staff continues to do a great job on the high school recruiting trail. They landed the 11th-rated group in the Class of 2021, coming in second in the ACC behind only Clemson. Five-star prospects Leonard Taylor and James Williams are candidates to see immediate action, even at positions that are generally considered strengths for the Hurricanes. Quarterback Jake Garcia is a former USC commit who transferred all the way from California to Georgia after his high school cancelled their season. He's a high four-star recruit who will surely factor into the quarterback competition with King's health currently a question. Other names to watch include tight end Elijah Arroyo and athlete Chase Smith. Arroyo was a nice pickup from the state of Texas who has all the tools to be a tremendous weapon in the passing game, while Smith is incredibly versatile and could line up just about anywhere for the Hurricanes.

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