Well folks, the Mark Richt era is officially off and running and it has started strong with the Canes going 3-0 through the first quarter of the season. The undefeated record and domination of each of the Canes first three cupcake opponents has invigorated the fan base with optimism and earned the Canes national respect with a #15 AP Poll ranking. Thing are looking up for a program that has been demoralizingly downtrodden for over a decade, and there are some key storylines to examine going forward.
Manny Diaz and Craig Kuligowski have rejuvenated the defense
Before the season began we knew that, at long last, the defensive scheme was the correct one for the type of players that Miami produces. Manny Diaz’s 4-3 defense is the most aggressive in all of college football with incessant blitzing and a primal focus on big hits and turnovers. It’s a scheme perfect for the Canes given the sheer athleticism of recruits from the ‘State of Miami’ region. Mark D’Onofrio’s moronic bend but don’t break, over-complicated 3-4 did not allow players to pin their ears back and attack, instead eschewing the classic physical, blitzing 4-3 Miami defense for one in which players struggled to understand their role on each play and had to analyze the opposing offense’s every move before reacting. D’Onofrio’s defense took Miami’s biggest advantage, speed and athleticism, out of the equation with an absolutely ridiculous scheme that is in large part responsible for him now coaching at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club instead of a college program.
Diaz’s hiring has been a breath of fresh air for the Miami defense, as his hyper-aggressive approach is one that perfectly suits the Canes. Coupling Diaz with Craig Kuligowski, the best defensive line coach in the nation according to many, and the Canes now had a defensive staff ready to revamp that side of the ball. The only question going into the season was simply if the talent and depth was there for the defense to be able to succeed this season. The secondary looked paper thing, and the dismissal of Al Quadin Muhammad, Juwan Young, and Jermaine Grace lead to three true freshman starters at linebacker. Depth was a mess across the board on this defense, and the outlook for the season did not exactly look rosy.
However, in the first three games the Miami defense has not only surpassed expectations, it has shattered them. The front seven has done a tremendous job generating pressure as the Canes are tied for fifth in the nation in sacks. The secondary has held down their end of the bargain as they have prevented any of my Miami’s first three opponents from going over 200 yards passing, and the defensive line has been able to clamp down on rushing (10th in yards allowed) and have generated tackles for a loss in scores. As a result, the Canes are eighth in the nation in total yards allowed.
Through the first three games this defense has been absolutely cooking despite early season expectations to the contrary. With little experience and little depth across the board it seemed the Canes had a recipe for defensive disaster this year, but Diaz’s simplistic, attacking style has neutralized the inexperience of the linebacking core and instead allowed them to harness their athleticism. Kuligowski meanwhile has found a way to tap into the abounding talent of long underachieving former 5 star recruit Chad Thomas, who many have speculated prefers his music career over football, and developed young talents Demetrius Jackson, Kendrick Norton, RJ McIntosh, and Joseph Jackson into impact players. In Diaz’s blitzing scheme, the front seven is absolutely crucial, and good coaching from Kuligowski and Diaz, excellent scheme fit, and a talented and athletic array of pieces up front have allowed the group to feast. On the back end, safety play has been standout as Rayshawn Jenkins has played like the experienced senior he is, and Jaquan Johnson has displayed impressive physicality for a 5’9 player while Jamal Carter has been rock solid. The cornerbacks have been slightly mixed in the early going as starter Adrian Colbert went down with an injury, but Corn Elder has looked the part of a #1 corner and Sheldrick Redwine was a serviceable #2.
While the first three opponents have been as weak as you’ll find in football, the early returns on this defense look tremendous. Fans need to temper their expectations given the competition, but early on, the pervading theme here is that the new scheme is the perfect fit for Miami and the Kuligowski/Diaz duo have done an outstanding job putting these players in a position to succeed despite their youth. The future looks bright on defense, and the days of incompetent coaching and idiotic schemes under D’Onofrio and Golden look long gone.
Kaaya looking solid but taking time to acclimate to pro-style scheme
Much of college football has been eagerly awaiting the Kaaya-Richt pairing with Richt’s reputation as a quarterback guru and Kaaya’s immense potential, but it has started quietly in the early going. Kaaya has never truly played behind center before (a massive part of Richt’s pro-style scheme), and it has taken some time for him to adjust (as evidenced by an ugly 2 interception game against FAU). Fans have taken note and been critical of the signal caller, but after a 300 yard, 3 touchdown performance against Appalachian State, Kaaya has quelled any talk. Through the first three preseason type games for the Canes, the passing offense has been a mixed bag as the team breaks in a new scheme and an array of new receivers. Kaaya and the passing offense should dominate in time, but fans need to be patient. It takes a lot of time to acclimate to Richt’s complex scheme and adjust to playing behind center. Plus the Canes receiving threats still leave something to be desired as Stacy Coley can’t stay on the field, Njoku is still fighting to cut down on drops, and while Ahmon Richards will be a star someday, he is still a true freshman. The Kaaya-Richt pairing is an exciting and dynamic one, but it will need time to gel together. Expect a solid season from Kaaya that gets increasingly dominating as the season progresses. While many have pegged Kaaya to leave after this season to the NFL draft, he might be better served to stick around for another year to truly be ready for an NFL offense.
Mark Walton: The Next Great Miami Back?
What a start Mark Walton has had! He has accumulated over 400 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns in three games in what has been an absolutely electric first quarter of the season. Walton graduated high school a year early to come to Miami, and it appears his body is beginning to mature and enable him to reach his potential. He is bigger, stronger, faster, and has better vision than last year. His 80 yard touchdown scamper on the first play from scrimmage against App State displayed the power, shiftiness, and acceleration he boasts. Walton won’t be able to keep up this torrid pace as the Miami offensive line will struggle against some of the better ACC front seven’s, but he well on his way to a thousand yard season and becoming the next great Miami Hurricane back. His play style and soft-spoken nature are scarily redolent of Willis McGahee, and his development is one of the most exciting new storlyines on this team.
Also of note: Thomas Brown has done a phenomenal job developing the running backs as a whole. Behind Walton, Joe Yearby is quietly having a great start to the season with over 250 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns, and Gus Edwards had an excellent 100 yard game against Florida A&M. These running backs as a group look absolutely elite and mightily improved from last season.
The offensive line has been a mixed bag and could become this team’s achilles heal.
Against FAU, the line was a mess in pass protection and against App state the line was a mess in run blocking outside of one explosive Walton run. Throughout the first three games, the starting five have looked frustratingly inconsistent and they could be a major issue as the season progresses. Kaaya is an elite quarterback in college football and Walton is an elite back, but neither will be able to do anything if they are constantly pulling turf out of their facemasks. The offensive line clearly has the potential to be a solid group this year, but if it cannot gel together in a hurry, this team will fail to reach its ten win potential. The offensive line can be a good one, but it has not come together quite yet… It needs to before Miami reaches the season defining four game stretch of FSU-UNC-VT-ND.
Leaked new uniforms are a classic look
Richt wanted a more traditional look… And he got it. These may be fan versions, but you get the idea. This new look debuting against FSU will be the regular uniforms going forward according to reports, and it is a clean, classic approach that is absolutely perfect. Check them out.
Predictions after 3 ‘Preseason’ games
Richt has the opportunity to have immediate success in year one. This team has issues when it comes to depth and experience across the board, but the talent is there for a ten win season. Florida State can be beat this year (look at the thrashing Lousville gave them!) and Notre Dame is reeling right now with a 1-2 record. The Coastal is wide open with the contenders being Miami, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh. North Carolina and Pittsburgh are both very solid teams but neither is as talented as Miami. The Canes lack of depth and lack of experience will come back to bite them at some point, but I am extremely optimistic about this team. Richt has rejuvenated the program, and both the future and the present look bright. Miami will go 10-2 with an ACC Coastal Division title. The Richt effect is real, the U may back sooner than we all thought…