By Tom D’Angelo, GateHouse Florida
The Miami Hurricanes will enjoy an extra week of practice this season, opening Friday, a week ahead of most every Power 5 team because of their Aug. 24 showdown against Florida in Orlando.
The practice is the official unveiling of the Manny Diaz era. Diaz has pumped life into the program and fan base since being named coach Dec. 30, about 12 hours after Mark Richt resigned, and despite a disheartening, lifeless, can’t-wait-to-get-it-over 7-6 season in 2018, Diaz has found a way to increase expectations at a program that has spent the past dozen or so years typically underachieving.
As the Greentree Practice Fields and indoor facility beckon, here are 10 questions as the Hurricanes open camp:
1. Is Manny the man?
The addition of Miami has not gone as expected for the ACC. In fact, the Hurricanes have been the most disappointing program in the conference since joining in 2004, having played in one ACC championship game (2017) and suffering the second-worst beatdown in that game’s history, 38-3 to Clemson.
Now, Diaz is trying to accomplish something Larry Coker, Randy Shannon, Al Golden and Mark Richt could not: Win an ACC title.
Diaz says Miami is a “high standard place,” but recent history does not back that up.
“I don’t know how good we’re going to be now and I don’t really care,” he said. “I know where it’s going. … I know how we have to get it there.”
2. Who wins the quarterback battle?
We should know — or at least the coaches should know — after the second scrimmage two weeks into camp. Diaz has targeted that day to choose between redshirt sophomore N’Kosi Perry, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell, a redshirt sophomore.
“I’m hoping with the work they did in the summer time it will be rather obvious at that moment,” said Diaz, who added that once he knows, “whether that gets announced at that time, we’ll see.”
Let the gamesmanship begin.
3. Will the defense be forced to carry this team again?
Members of the defense were not happy last year and we started hearing grumblings late in the season about the offense not doing its part.
The Hurricanes had a championship-level defense. Miami was in the top three in 7-of-9 official ACC categories, including leading the conference in total defense, pass defense, opponents first downs and opponents third-down conversions.
Linebacker Shaq Quarterman believes that defense can be even better.
“My emphasis this offseason has been, not only on getting myself in better shape — I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in ever since I’ve been in college — it’s also about making sure I get the guys around me better,” he said
4. Can OC Dan Enos bring out the best in the offensive weapons?
Last season, just nine Power 5 offenses were more inept than Miami’s, which averaged 358.8 yards per game. Just six had fewer first downs. But the Hurricanes have weapons with their depth at running back (although unproven after DeeJay Dallas) and a solid receiving corps led by Jeff Thomas, K.J. Osborn and tight end Brevin Jordan.
Now it’s up to Enos, who comes to Miami after four years at Alabama, to boost this bunch. Enos said the offense will have components of the spread and West Coast offense.
“I think the best recruit we signed this offseason was Dan Enos,” Diaz said. “What I love about coach Enos’ offense is there’s always an answer for the quarterback. The way the routes are designed and understanding the leverage of the defense, there’s going to be a guy open on every pass concept.”
5. Can the linebackers live up to their billing?
Miami has the best group of linebackers in the ACC, and maybe only behind Alabama nationally. All three — Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Lantana’s Zack McCloud — are seniors and three-year starters. They combined for 200 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2018.
“Those are the decision makers in the defense, the guys that have to make all the calls,” Diaz said. “They’ve seen it all in college football. They have the ability now to make the players around them better.”
6. Who replaces DT Gerald Willis and S Jaquan Johnson?
Willis and Johnson, both second team All-ACC last year, were mainstays of that stout defense. Both are gone, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare.
The Hurricanes return their TFL leader, Jonathan Garvin, the defensive end from Lake Worth. But now is the time for Jonathan Ford to make a Willis-like jump as he moves into his position. Ford has played in 17 games his first two years. Coaches expect to see a different player in 2019.
The secondary suffered other losses, too, but the biggest addition is safety Bubba Bolden, who transferred from Southern Cal.
Bolden is a former first-team high school Parade All-American who played in 2017 at USC before sitting out 2018 and ending up in the transfer portal after facing a 28-month ban from the program. That ban reportedly was placed on him by the school in response to an incident during a house party at which underage drinking occurred.
7. What does it mean to open with a hated rival a week before everyone else?
Miami and Florida play in the showcase game as college football kicks off its 150th anniversary. These rivals are not very fond of each other and knowing all summer what was ahead certainly had to spice up their preparation for the season.
“We don’t play them that often, like FSU, who we play every year,” Quarterman said. “There’s always bickering back and forth. I don’t too much like them.”
Miami knows the history, how Florida ducked out of this game in the late ‘80s after losing three of the four previous games. Since, the teams have met six times, with the Hurricanes continuing to dominate, winning five.
8. Can the Hurricanes re-establish their recruiting base?
While the transfer portal helped Diaz fill holes this season, he knows it’s not a sustainable model to build a program. What is, is boosting recruiting that took a big hit last year.
Miami was 27th in 247Sport’s composite rankings, fourth in the ACC. Right now, the outlook is much better for 2020 with the Hurricanes ranked No. 7 nationally. Of course, that means little. Miami learned last year how fast commits will bail if the program isn’t winning.
“Every team in the nation flies an airplane to Florida to recruit our kids,” Diaz said. “The difference with us is we’re home and what we’re looking for, there are certain guys that have a lot of pride in where they’re from and they want to see their hometown team be great. If we can have those guys be the core of our recruiting class and sprinkle some guys that are from out of our area, that really has been how Miami has won in the past.”
9. Can Miami win the Coastal Division?
Forget winning the ACC, that’s Clemson’s baby now and for the foreseeable future. Clemson has the easiest path to the playoff once again playing in a league it has dominated for four years and will continue to do so.
What Miami has to think about, once again, is just getting to Charlotte in early December, which means winning the Coastal. Something it has done once.
Can it happen this year? Sure, because any team can win a division that is mediocre. Virginia was the preseason pick by the media to face Clemson in the ACC title game. Miami was second.
But Miami has as good a chance as anybody, and playing Virginia at home (Oct. 11) is a nice advantage.
10. So, what is the outlook?
With this schedule, which Phil Steele ranks as the fourth easiest in the ACC, Miami could approach 10 wins. Florida will be the lone preseason ranked team on the schedule, unless Virginia cracks the top 25. Beyond that, Virginia Tech and FSU could show up in the top 50 but then …Throw in non-league games against Bethune-Cookman, Central Michigan and FIU and Miami will win eight regular season games, nine if everything breaks right.