Scouting the Gators’ opponents: Miami

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Miami head football coach Manny Diaz speaks during the Atlantic Coast Conference media days in Charlotte, N.C., last Thursday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

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.

tom_dangelo@pbpost.com@tomdangelo44

10 COMMENTS

  1. Over confidence? Time for talk is over, let’s see for ourselves; I’ll make up my mind on 24 Aug 19. Until then, I just expect a rough, competitive game — the team who has the most discipline and the best conditioning will win. Bring it on! 👍🐊🏈

    • Enos was destroyed by Clemson. I think he was coaching at that game. His offense was ok against the teams they went against during season but there were holes and Clemson found every one of them. I am guessing that NS would have been making changes.

  2. Enos didn’t spend four years at Alabama; he spent one. Prior to that, one year at Michigan as an offensive assistant (where Saban poached him from) and before that, three years as Arkansas’s offensive coordinator.

    Should be a good-enough game. Prefer these games are week three, after both squads cut their teeth against warm-up type talent—as that usually helps. Miami has opened seasons against Florida State in the past (2004, 2005 and 2006) which were offensive duds, while the 2009 version was a shootout with little defense.

    Florida 2019 is getting that Miami 2018 treatment—a Top 10 ranking because of the 10-3 season and a signature win the year before (re: UF beating No. 5 LSU in 2018, UM beating No. 3 Notre Dame in 2017). Canes didn’t prove worthy of the ranking—worked by LSU in last year’s opener. How do the Gators respond? Definitely a lot of confidence from the players—which could prove to be overconfidence is Diaz has Miami looking more like 2017’s version than 2018.

    Fact remains, Richt stepping down was addition by subtraction—and the Diaz hire is on-brand, with some immediate upgrades that UM wouldn’t have seen going into fall with Richt still at the helm. A lot of pick ups in the Transfer Portal, good hire in Enos, revamping of the S&C program, too.

    Looking forward to the season getting here, already.

  3. note to gville sun. tickets for the miami game are $200, not $2 like your favorite team south carolina. the press coverage for miami i think is better, first its mostly content, not opinion, and second, it is focused, not irrelevant. ive been following that coverage and feel like i know way more about their offseason than i do ours, even after reading everything i can from the sun. and this is what i think is going on. expect tate martell at qb. he has the leadership edge. he likes the shotgun rather than under center. miami fans believe the defensive coaches they have are so good they can take an inexperienced defensive backfield to a high level right off the bat against florida. they are convinced they will run the ball better and believe they will have the same energy and vibe they had under butch, jimmy, dennis, and howard.
    and while some of that may be true, i contend that times have changed for all of the florida teams, the nature of recruiting results in a lot of talent not staying in state. once, the best players in the state battled one another, and by staying got to a high level quickly. but now the best players are IMG type kids, not even floridians, and they go back to the states they came from, lifting those programs, and our schools are starting off behind. so our teams start slower than they once did, which i think is an advantage for UF this year due to some success last year to build from. I expect a good defensive front from miami, an improved offense, and a will to win. i think we will win but it will be close. i neither know nor care about whether miami wins its conference, i just care about aug 24

  4. Manny has a solid pedigree– having worked with Mullen he must know the offense pretty well, though Mullen keeps morphing and evolving. Bottom line we have a veteran coach who has faced the best, while Manny is a rookie with no head coaching experience. Advantage Gators.