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July 22, 2011
OVERVIEW: Miami returns six starters from an offense that led the ACC in yards per game but ranked just fifth in the conference in scoring. Why didn't all those yards result in more points? The Hurricanes committed 36 turnovers. Middle Tennessee was the only FBS program that coughed up the ball more often. The Hurricanes won't contend for an ACC title unless they take better care of the ball. New coach Al Golden likely will rely on the run a bit more than predecessor Randy Shannon. UM's new coordinator is Jedd Fisch, who was the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback coach last season.
BACKFIELD:The turnover problems start at quarterback, as Miami threw the most interceptions (26) of any FBS program last season. After showing plenty of promise in 2009, Jacory Harris took a step backward in 2010 and threw 15 interceptions to go along with 14 touchdown passes. Stephen Morris replaced an injured Harris late in the regular season and threw nine picks and seven touchdowns. They are competing for the starting job. Although the Hurricanes have plenty of questions at quarterback, they're fine at tailback. Lamar Miller (108 carries, 646 yards, six TDs) is a rising star who could compete for All-ACC honors this season, while Mike James (70-398-3) gives the Hurricanes a nice one-two punch. Miami was in even better shape at this position before Storm Johnson transferred to UCF.
RECEIVERS: The departure of third-round pick Leonard Hankerson leaves a huge void. Hankerson was the ACC's leading receiver as a senior, with 72 catches for 1,156 yards and 13 touchdowns. Nobody else on the team had more than three touchdown catches last season. The Hurricanes' top returning receiver is Travis Benjamin (43 catches, 743 yards, three TDs). Benjamin has star potential: He caught five passes for 127 yards against Maryland and had six catches for 96 yards against Pittsburgh last season. The Hurricanes also return LaRon Byrd (41-441-1). Miami could get a major impact from TE Blake Ayles, a USC transfer who was rated as the No. 31 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. Ayles' 6-foot-6 frame should make him an inviting target and a difficult matchup.
LINE: Miami's in good shape here. Brandon Washington earned first-team all-ACC honors as a guard last season and heads into his junior season as a legitimate All-America candidate. Sophomore T Seantrel Henderson is a former five-star prospect who moved right into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season, though he actually exited spring practice behind Malcolm Bunche on the depth chart. Other returning starters include senior C Tyler Horn and senior G Harland Gunn. The Hurricanes will have a new starter at one tackle spot. Jermaine Johnson and Ben Jones were listed as co-starters at that position on the post-spring depth chart, though it wouldn't be a surprise if Henderson and Bunche ended up as the starting tackles. Brandon Linder's versatility should allow him to earn plenty of playing time as well. Linder made five starts last season and took snaps at guard, tackle and center. Miami allowed only 17 sacks, the second-lowest total in the ACC.
OVERVIEW: Golden and new coordinator Mark D'Onofrio are taking over a team that should have one of the best defenses in the ACC this season. The Hurricanes return seven starters from a unit that ranked third in the conference last season. Miami is loaded with talent up front and at safety, though the lack of experience at cornerback is troubling. D'Onofrio did a nice job overseeing the rebuilding of what had been a porous Temple defense; his units with the Owls were aggressive and extremely physical.
LINE: Miami led the nation with 94 tackles for loss last season and should be strong up front again this season. Senior T Marcus Forston recorded 12 tackles for loss last season - including seven over his final four games - and could parlay a big season into a first-round draft selection. Other returning starters on the line are junior E Olivier Vernon and senior T Micanor Regis. Vernon delivered six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season, while Regis provided three sacks and eight tackles for loss. Other linemen with starting experience include E Adewale Ojomo and T Luther Robinson. Ojomo had five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss last season. This line definitely knows how to rush the passer, but Miami must do a better job of stopping the run. The Hurricanes ranked ninth in the ACC and an embarrassing 84th overall in run defense last season; they allowed 172.8 rushing yards per game and 4.11 yards per carry.
LINEBACKERS: Sean Spence heads into his senior season as a legitimate All-America candidate. Spence, who will be a four-year starter, made 110 tackles - 16 for loss - last season to earn second-team All-ACC honors. Spence is the Hurricanes' top playmaker. Ramon Buchanan also returns to the starting lineup after producing 54 tackles last season. Buchanan sat out spring practice while serving a suspension, but he was reinstated in April. James Gaines and Jordan Futch are competing for the other starting spot. The Hurricanes could have a tough time replacing Colin McCarthy, who made a team-high 119 tackles as a senior last fall.
SECONDARY: Miami has one of the best group of safeties in the nation. SS Ray-Ray Armstrong made 79 tackles and three interceptions last season, and was a second-team All-ACC pick. Armstrong is considered a sure-fire pro prospect. He will team with FS Vaughn Telemaque, who had 58 tackles, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries last season. The Hurricanes also have JoJo Nicolas, who made nine starts at strong safety and recorded 36 tackles last season. The problems are at cornerback, where Miami must replace Ryan Hill and All-America selection Brandon Harris. Nicolas is moving from safety to fill one cornerback spot. Lee Chambers, who began his college career at tailback, exited spring practice atop the depth chart at the other cornerback slot. Depth could be a problem at corner because of the inexperience at the position.
Miami must find a new kicker and punter now that Matt Bosher has completed his career. Junior Jake Wieclaw is the front-runner at both spots, though each job remains up for grabs. Wieclaw hasn't attempted a field goal or a punt in a college game, though he did set an Illinois state record by making 48 career field goals at New Lenox (Ill.) Lincoln Way Central. Wieclaw could face a challenge this summer from true freshman Matt Goudis, who went 12-of-16 on field-goal attempts with a long of 55 his senior year at West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade. Goudis also averaged 40 yards per punt, and 80 percent of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Dalton Botts, a transfer from Moorpark (Calif.) Community College, also has a good shot at the punting job. Botts, a former high school quarterback, averaged 37.5 yards per punt at Moorpark. Miami has a tradition of outstanding return men, but the Hurricanes shockingly ranked just 102nd nationally in kickoff returns and 105th in punt returns last season. Miami also was 52nd in punt coverage and 69th in kickoff coverage. Those numbers are discouraging for a team with this many athletes.
Bunche, a redshirt freshman, has impressed the new coaching staff enough to supplant Henderson as a first-team offensive tackle. While there's no guarantee he will remain in that spot by the start of the season, Bunche has shown he's ready for a major role on the line this fall. A couple of other newcomers also have a chance to make their presence felt. Although Miami already has plenty of firepower on the defensive line, DE Anthony Chickillo's talent could allow him play immediately. Chickillo was the No. 44 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. True freshman WR Phillip Dorsett's speed could allow him to make an impact on offense and special teams. Dorsett returned four kicks for touchdowns as a senior at powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.
Miami continues its annual tradition of grueling Septembers. The Hurricanes open the season with a Labor Day night game at Maryland, then they get a week off before playing host to Ohio State and Kansas State in back-to-back weeks. Miami's first three conference games are away from home. The Hurricanes should know early whether they have a realistic shot at the ACC title, as they travel to Coastal Division rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina in back-to-back weeks Oct. 8-15. Miami also faces preseason ACC favorite Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 12 and has a non-conference road game with USF the following week. Miami will be facing arguably its four toughest ACC opponents (Maryland, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State) away from home.
In retrospect, the expectations for Miami last season probably were a little too high. This Miami team isn't getting nearly as much preseason acclaim, yet it should outperform the 2010 model. Golden's emphasis on discipline suggests the Hurricanes won't commit as many penalties this season, and it's hard to imagine them turning the ball over as often as they did a year ago. Miami should run the ball effectively, and the Hurricanes have enough talent and experience on the defensive line to stop the run much better than they did last season. But this schedule doesn't help. Miami has to face its toughest division rivals - Virginia Tech and North Carolina - away from home in consecutive weeks. The Hurricanes also play preseason conference favorite Florida State on the road. Miami should win eight or nine games, but this team may be a year or two away from making a serious run at a BCS bid.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.