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College Football Preview 2022: 15. Miami Hurricanes

Tyler Van Dyke, Miami

15. Miami Hurricanes

With Tyler Van Dyke at the controls and a re-energized coaching staff, the 'Canes will take the final ACC Coastal Title

2021 Review
Opening the season against the reigning National Champions is never a fun way to start and Miami was no match for Alabama, losing 44-13. Things didn't get much easier over the next several weeks; the Hurricanes managed to squeeze by Appalachian State before losing at home to one of the season's greatest surprises, Michigan State. After throttling Central Connecticut State, ACC play also began shaky, as Virginia snuck out a 30-28 victory and North Carolina won a close 45-42 contest. The Hurricanes eventually figured things out down the stretch, winning five of their final six, with the lone loss coming to rival Florida State in Tallahassee. Despite the strong finish, the 7-5 record wasn't enough to save the job of Manny Diaz, as Miami seized the opportunity to bring back alum Mario Cristobal as head coach. Cristobal becomes the sixth head man to take over at "The U" this century (not including interim coaches) and the latest tasked with bringing the program back to national relevance.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Cristobal made quite the early impression in Coral Gables, bringing in last year's Broyles Award winner Josh Gattis as his offensive coordinator. Gattis will inherit a group that was 23rd nationally in scoring and had a Top 10 passing offense, but struggled to move the ball on the ground.

Miami entered 2021 expecting quarterback D'Eriq King to be running the show offensively, but a season-ending shoulder injury quickly forced redshirt freshman Tyler Van Dyke into a larger role than expected. Van Dyke quickly proved he was up to the job and finished the season on fire, totaling 2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. With a full offseason as the projected starter under his belt, Van Dyke is not only one of the best in the ACC, but has the potential to be one of the best nationally. 

No matter what, Van Dyke's return puts the Hurricanes in a good position offensively but to reach their ceiling, this group needs more from their rushing attack. There's potential here, with the returns of Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney Jr., but there needs to be more consistency. Knighton led the team with 561 yards in 2021, but he struggled to open things up, averaging under four yards per rush. Chaney is a powerful runner who has dealt with injuries; slated to be fully healthy for the fall, he could have a big year. Sophomore Thaddius Franklin Jr. will also figure into the rotation heavily after rushing for 172 yards on just 23 carries (7.5 YPC). His dynamic rushing ability will add much-needed explosiveness to this backfield.

Miami has had plenty of talent at receiver over the last half-decade, but the results haven't always shown up. Gattis has proven to be terrific working with receivers, coaching up Jordan Matthews at Vanderbilt and Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy at Alabama. Can he unlock this unit's potential in 2022?

With Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley gone, sophomore Key'Shawn Smith is the top returning receiver on the Hurricane roster. Smith can blow the top off of defenses, but drops were an occasional problem a season ago; he has the tools to form a fearsome combo with Van Dyke. Fellow sophomores Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George will also see plenty of targets after flashing real playmaking ability a season ago. One other name to watch is Clemson transfer Frank Ladson, a former highly touted recruit who never got it going with the Tigers. He's a tremendous athlete with elite speed, but needs to become a better route runner to make an impact in this offense.

Tight end has long been a position where Miami produces NFL talent, and senior Will Mallory could be the next in line. He's not quite as athletic as some of the past tight ends at "The U" but has reliable hands and a wide catch radius. He's the unquestioned starter entering the fall, but the 'Canes have two youngsters who may be too good to keep off the field. Sophomore Elijah Arroyo could see his role expand this year, while newcomer Jaleel Skinner was a big get for this new staff.

Cristobal, a former Miami offensive linemen himself, has a terrific offensive front at his disposal in Year One. The headliner of the group is junior left tackle Zion Nelson, an All-American candidate and future NFL Draft selection who should handle Van Dyke's blindside. In addition to Nelson, center Jakai Clark and tackle D.J. Scaife Jr. are also returning starters. The guard spots aren't as strong, which could hurt Miami's plans to improve their ground game.

There's a lot to like about this Miami offense and the addition of Gattis should only help; the personnel on this roster better fits the scheme he wants to run more than Michigan's. If the ground game can improve, it should be among the best in the ACC and a potential Top 10-15 unit nationally.

Defense: Diaz has been known as an aggressive and innovative defensive coach, but the defense was the weak spot on this team last fall. They were ninth in the ACC and 82nd nationally in scoring defense and were particularly susceptible through the air, allowing over 250 yards per game. 

Cristobal brought on Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator, after he briefly accepted the same position at Maryland earlier in the offseason. Steele will lead a group that was awfully inexperienced in 2021, but could be ready for major improvements.

Up front, the defensive line remains inexperienced, but there's potential here. A pair of sophomores, Leonard Taylor and Jahfari Harvey, are both prime breakout candidates. Harvey had seven tackles for loss in just nine games and returned an interception to the house, while Taylor is an impressive athlete for the defensive tackle position. Two former Power Five transfers arrive, and could both start right away. UCLA's Mitchell Agude tallied 55 tackles for the Bruins last year, while West Virginia's Akheem Mesidor is a former Freshman All-American.

Senior Waynmon Steed Jr. and sophomore Corey Flagg Jr. will be the starting linebackers in this 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Both have proven to be capable defenders, finishing first and second on the team in tackles a season ago, but is there another level they can reach? This is another position Miami is known for developing and Steele has coached up plenty of elite linebackers. Flagg topped the team in tackles last year and has the higher upside.

Simply put, Miami's pass defense has to be better if they want to seriously contend for an ACC crown. Fortunately, the lack of experience that permeated this group in 2021 shouldn't be as much of an issue this season, with plenty of pieces back.

Junior Tyrique Stevenson, a former Georgia transfer, was one of the team's best defenders before getting hurt late in the year. He's the most talented cornerback on this roster and should be fine handling No. 1 CB duties. The starting cornerback spot opposite of him is a bit more of a question, but the 'Canes return four others with starting experience at the position, including projected starter D.J. Ivey.

At safety, Miami loses Bubba Bolden, a leader for the group in 2020 who suffered through an injury-plagued 2021 campaign. A pair of sophomores, Avantae Williams and Kameron Kinchens, should handle starting safety duties and are a duo with the potential to be among the best in the ACC. Williams was a former five-star recruit who was dismissed from the team briefly last summer before being reinstated; he made 18 tackles in just four games. At the "Star" position, expect to see another former big-time recruit, James Williams. He was also limited down the stretch by injury in 2021 and still managed 31 tackles and two interceptions. His size and versatility makes him a real weapon for this defense and Steele should be creative with how he uses him.

It's unlikely Miami will be bitten by the injury bug the way they were last fall again and there's real star power on this side of the ball, plus a skilled defensive mind coaching it up. There is still lots of youth, so a complete defensive turnaround might not be in the cards, but I think this group will still be among the top-half of the ACC. 

Special Teams: Special teams should be a real strength for the 'Canes this season, as they return quite the character at punter in Lou Hedley. Hedley looks more like a linebacker than specialist, but he's proven he has quite the leg, earning All-American honors in 2020. Kicker Andres Borregales was extremely inconsistent in 2021, but that's to be expected of a true freshmen thrust into his role; he has a huge leg and the potential to be one of the best in the conference.

Bottom Line: There's a lot to like about the Hurricanes and the overall direction of the program, even if Cristobal and staff haven't coached a game yet in Coral Gables. The new staff has brought much-needed enthusiasm back into the program and their work on the recruiting trail is already receiving rave reviews from Miami fans and the general college football public. Sure, there will be an adjustment period as the new pieces fit into place, but it helps that this lineup has former five-stars dotting the roster all over and a budding superstar at QB in Tyler Van Dyke. It also helps that the 'Canes don't have to open up against Alabama this year and also play in a wide-open ACC Coastal, with Pittsburgh rebuilding and several new head coaches in the division. The 'Canes do get Texas A&M on the road this fall, but they should get a nice little warmup beforehand, opening up against Bethune-Cookman and Southern Miss, which should help their chances. A College Football Playoff berth is way too much to expect this early, but they have a good shot at winning the ACC Coastal before the conference gets rid of divisions next year, and go on to play in a quality bowl game.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Mario Cristobal is a former two-time National Champion with Miami thrilled to be coaching back at his alma mater. He's 62-60 as a head coach during previous pit stops at Florida International and Oregon. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was a big-time hire by Cristobal, coming off a Broyles Award-winning 2021 season. He's ascended the coaching ranks rapidly, getting his start as a grad assistant at UNC in 2010 before getting his first shot as a receivers coach with Western Michigan in '11. He spent a season with Nick Saban at Alabama as co-OC and WR coach before spending the last three years as the sole offensive coordinator at Michigan. Kevin Steele will run the defense, a football-lifer who has made his rounds around the collegiate ranks. He parlayed the Carolina Panthers LB job into the Baylor head coach position from 1999-2002 but was let to after going just 9-36 there. Since then, he's rehabilitated his image; after getting fired as DC at Clemson back in 2011 he spent time with Alabama and since then has been DC at LSU and Auburn. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Recruiting remained strong throughout the Manny Diaz era, but this new staff has a chance to be even better on the trail. They kept together most of the Class of 2022 after getting hired, finishing 13th nationally. The defensive line is where the big names arrive, with a pair of high four-star prospects coming in, with Cyrus Moss and Nyjalik Kelly. Moss was quite the addition coming from Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, while Kelly comes from Miami's own backyard in Fort Lauderdale. Tight end Jaleel Skinner was another big-name addition from inside the state, playing at IMG Academy, but the player who might have the best chance to play key snaps in 2022? Look no further than Athlete Chris Graves, who played primarily receiver in high school but could make the transition to cornerback. Graves is a long, fluid athlete who could play either side of the ball or make his presence felt on special teams this year.

2022 X-Factor: Jaylan Knighton, RB
After a solid debut back in 2020, Jaylan Knighton emerged as Miami's most consistent tailback last season, leading the team with 561 yards and eight scores. He also proved to be a real weapon as a pass-catcher, adding 280 yards receiving. However, the 'Canes are hopeful Knighton can do even more this fall and provide this offense with the balance they desperately need, especially with some losses at wide out. It was a season with ups-and-downs last year; a two-touchdown performance in the upset of Pittsburgh followed up by a 162-yard showing against Georgia Tech looked like a coming out party for him. However, he followed that up with a rough three-game stretch to conclude 2021; despite carrying the ball 43 times, Knighton managed just 100 yards against three average-to-bad defenses (Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Duke). He has the potential to be so much more for the 'Canes, but now it's about putting it together for an entire season.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (7-2 ACC, Lose ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Tyler Van Dyke
Defensive MVP: LB Corey Flagg Jr.
Breakout Player of the Year: S James Williams
Impact Freshman: ATH Chris Graves 

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