Canes Camp 101: A Primer as Miami Returns to Greentree
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – This time around, the optimism outweighs the uncertainty.
When the Hurricanes – and college football teams across the country – opened preseason camp last August, they did so not knowing whether they’d even make it to their respective openers.
As a global pandemic cast doubt about the fate of the season, Miami’s players and coaches pushed forward as they best they could, adjusting how they met, how they practiced and how they prepared in an effort to keep players and coaches as safe as possible.
A year later, things feel markedly different, even as the global fight against COVID-19 continues.
When the Hurricanes return to Greentree on Friday night for their first practice of the 2021 season, they’ll do so having completed their full spring schedule, a luxury they didn’t have last year. They’ve also had the opportunity to go through the entirety of their offseason program together, another change from 2020 when players trained at home, on their own.
The start of this season looks more like what they’ve been used to in the past – and none of the Hurricanes take that for granted.
“You want to have a purpose in everything you do and this time a year ago, when we started practice, there was still no guarantee that we were going to have a season,” Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz said. “What we have now is a very determined football team. A lot of the guys made an intentional choice to be a part of this team, whether you’re talking about the true freshmen who chose to come or the seniors who chose to come back for another year.
“People are here for a very intentional reason and there’s a lot of excitement for the fact that it’s finally here and we’re about four weeks from kickoff. We’re getting a chance to work on why we’re actually here.”
With less than 24 hours before the start of their first practice, here’s a look at some of the major storylines surrounding Miami’s preseason camp.
1. The Canes have continuity – and experience – on their side
As if the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t challenging enough last year, the Hurricanes entered the 2020 season with a new offensive coordinator in Rhett Lashlee, a new quarterback in D’Eriq King and no real in-person offseason opportunity for the two of them to get to know the rest of Miami’s offensive playmakers.
But after playing 11 games last fall and going through an entire spring together, the Hurricanes have a much better understanding of Lashlee’s offensive system – and what King can do.
In 2020, Miami averaged 439.8 yards and 34 points per game while posting an 8-3 record. All were improvements from a season earlier.
King, meanwhile, emerged as one of the Hurricanes’ unquestioned leaders, on and off the field.
The quarterback completed 64 percent of his passes, threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns while finishing as Miami’s second leading rusher with another 538 yards and four scores.
Meanwhile, veteran receiver Mike Harley emerged as one of King’s more reliable targets, tight end Will Mallory averaged 15 yards per catch and backs Cam’Ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney proved a solid trio of running options.
All of those players are back, with Miami’s offense returning 10 of its 11 starters from last year’s Cheez-It Bowl finale.
Now, Lashlee says, it’s time for the offense to build on everything it has learned.
“I think last year, offensively speaking, we learned how to compete. We learned how to not quit and we were in a lot close games. I feel like we learned how to win a lot of them,” Lashlee said. “Then we also had a few moments where we didn’t play very well and it didn’t go our way. But we did learn some valuable things on how to win, how to compete, how to battle through adversity…Now we’ve got to just kind of figure out how to take that next step to continue to battle and grind because every game is hard to win. We just have to try to be at our best every week. It’s hard to do that. That’s why there’s not a lot of people at the end of the year who can say they’re the champion, but that’s our goal and having that leadership nucleus will make that easier for us.”
2. King’s return a major key
Ahead of the Cheez-It Bowl, the Hurricanes got a major boost when King – a senior – announced he was returning to Miami for an additional season, an opportunity given to student-athletes across the nation because of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the excitement surrounding King’s announcement was dampened days later when the quarterback tore his ACL in the bowl game.
After surgery in January, King threw himself into the recovery and rehabilitation process, vowing to be back on the field in time for the start of preseason camp and Miami’s Sept. 4 opener against Alabama.
In mid-June, when doctors and athletic trainers gave him the clearance to begin cutting during workouts, King knew he’d hit one of the more significant benchmarks he had to clear to get back on the field – something he’ll be able to do Friday.
Though he’ll continue receiving treatment on his knee and he’ll be closely monitored throughout camp and beyond, King says he’s ready to compete again.
That, of course, is good news for the Hurricanes.
“A lot of people don’t understand – the rehab process isn’t going to end before camp starts. It’s literally going to be all year,” King said. “I’m going to be practicing, then doing rehab after practice. Or doing rehab during our breaks. It’s a long process, still. But I feel awesome right now and I’m ready to go.”
3. The offensive line has grown up
Two years ago, the offensive line that started Miami’s season opener against Florida had a combined 22 starts between them. That unit featured a true freshman at left tackle, a sophomore at right guard and redshirt freshmen at both center and right tackle.
Understandably, that group endured some challenges. But it has since, grown into one of the more experienced units in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This season, Miami’s offensive line returns a veteran group in sophomore Zion Nelson, redshirt senior Jarrid Williams, junior DJ Scaife, senior Navaughn Donaldson, redshirt junior Corey Gaynor and second-year freshman Jalen Rivers, among others.
Between them, that group has a combined 110 starts at Miami and Lashlee is eager to see how not only they come together during camp, but how they set the tone for some of the younger players in the unit.
“We have some returning experience now and that never hurts. That’s a positive. But we don’t have a lot of experience as a unit. We feel like we still have areas where we can improve,” Lashlee said. “We have great competition at the tackle spot and the guard spot and I think there’s a chance we have more depth there, too…I think the biggest thing is that they have confidence, they’re really eager to take the next step and be a more consistent unit and that’s what I want to see in fall camp – that continuity, that chemistry of five guys working together. That’s what we’ve got to get before we play game one.”
4. Who will emerge as the lead back?
Though Harris, Knighton and Chaney all showed last season they could effectively move the ball, Lashlee indicated during the spring that he’d like to see one emerge as Miami’s lead back and have the Hurricanes move away from a running-back-by-committee approach.
Harris, a junior, led the Hurricanes with 126 carries for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Chaney had 68 carries for 322 yards and three touchdowns and Knighton had 52 carries for 209 yards with a touchdown.
Each averaged more than four yards per touch and the potential exists for this to be one of the most watched position battles in camp.
Still, Lashlee said he expects all three of Miami’s veteran backs to make an impact this year.
“We want to have a guy that he’s the starter and he goes out there to start the game and he starts most drives when he’s fresh,” Lashlee said. “But you’ve got to have a capable No. 2 and a No. 3 and I envision all those guys playing…Those guys are in great competition. I think Cam’s had a good offseason and it’s his chance to put his best foot forward as an older guy and we’re really counting on him to do that. I think Don was having a great spring…and he’ll get a lot of opportunities, same with Jaylan. Those two guys were true freshmen last year. A lot was thrown at them. They got enough experience where they’re not freshmen anymore…They’re in a position to feel comfortable taking that next step and we’re optimistic that’s where they are.”
5. Time for new faces to step up at defensive end (again)
Since Diaz arrived at Miami as defensive coordinator in 2016, the Hurricanes have been incredibly productive at the defensive end position.
Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Trent Harris, Jonathan Garvin, Greg Rousseau, Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche are among the players who have starred at the position in recent seasons, each stepping up when veterans have departed.
Now that Phillips and Roche – who combined for 12.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss last season – are in NFL training camps, once again, younger ends will be called on to continue Miami’s pass rush success.
Diaz is confident that will happen and he expects redshirt freshman Jahfari Harvey, Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson, freshman Chantz Williams and redshirt senior Zach McCloud – who moved to end from linebacker this offseason – to be in the mix on that front.
“Guys have made strides and they all have pride. They all came to Miami for this reason,” Diaz said. “That’s what you want, that’s what good football teams do. They have great players replace great players. Those guys all feel challenged and they’re up for it.”
6. Keeping tabs on the linebackers
One position group Diaz – and Miami’s fans – will be watching closely throughout camp will be the linebackers, a unit that has dealt with youth and injuries since the departures of constants Shaquille Quarterman and Mike Pinckney after the 2019 season.
The coach said this week he’d like to see what Avery Huff, Sam Brooks, Corey Flagg, Bradley Jennings Jr., Waynmon Steed, Keontra Smith and others can do over the course of the next month.
“There’s going to be a high, high level of competition for those spots. You have a lot of guys that are capable,” Diaz said. “It’s very exciting having Keontra Smith go to WILL linebacker. He was there for a short time in the spring and did not look out of place. He really added a speed factor there that we haven’t really had since I’ve been here. But you you’ve also got Avery Huff, who runs great. He just has to learn to be more consistent. Corey Flagg, I think his instincts and quickness inside the box is what we’re looking for out of our MIKE linebacker position. Waynmon Steed has had a phenomenal summer. I think people forget what Waynmon can do athletically and how catastrophic an injury he was coming back from…Even Jennings, what he came back from and how he’s been able to improve from his injury, which was rather serious.
“I think all of those guys are exciting. We’ve got some young ones, too. But guys are going to have to play hard every day because the competition is going to be fierce.”
7. A veteran secondary could make a difference
Diaz also expects to see an intense competition in the defensive backfield where safeties Bubba Bolden and Gurvan Hall, along with cornerbacks Te’Cory Couch, Al Blades, DJ Ivey and Tyrique Stevenson, a Georgia transfer, are expected to help set the tone – while still being pushed by some of their younger teammates.
“When you have so many guys who have been in games and made plays and can make plays in games, they’re all going to want to play and the byproduct of that is that they’re going to be able to push each other harder and harder every day in practice,” Diaz said. “That’s going to make everybody better and that, to me is the next step for our program.
“We’ve had years where we’ve been so thin in the secondary that I think having depth and experience is a place where we haven’t been very often in the time that I’ve been here.”
At safety in particular, Diaz said he’s excited to see how Brian Balom, Kamren Kinchens and James Williams develop and he’s confident that “those guys all have a chance to play for us this year.”
8. The kicking game should (still) be in good hands
Last year, Miami achieved a program milestone when kicker Jose Borregales became the first Hurricane to win the Lou Groza Award.
Borregales is in training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his younger brother Andy Borregales looks poised to give the Hurricanes another talented option at kicker.
Andy Borregales participated in spring drills earlier this year and the freshman didn’t miss on any of the kicks he took in Hard Rock Stadium, including a 52-yarder in one scrimmage and three field goals in the spring game.
And back for the Hurricanes this year is punter Lou Hedley, a preseason All-ACC pick and Ray Guy Award finalist last season who averaged 47.3 yards per punt in 2020, a number that ranked second in the FBS. He also helped the Hurricanes set the FBS record for highest net punting average at 44.96 yards.
Borregales and Hedley, together with long snapper Clay James, have the potential to give the Hurricanes more solid special teams production.
That, too, is good news for Miami.
9. Which newcomers will make their presence felt?
In his first year as Miami’s defensive coordinator, Diaz had no qualms about starting three true freshmen – Quarterman, Pinckney and McCloud – at linebacker. Since, he’s continued to find ways to get talented young players on the field.
That trend should continue this fall.
Miami fans will undoubtedly be eager to see how former five-star prospects Williams and Leonard Taylor, a defensive tackle, handle their first weeks of camp. Borregales has the potential to make a difference. And youngsters Jake Garcia and Tyler Van Dyke will be pushing each other for the No. 2 quarterback job.
Transfers have also found success at Miami and Stevenson, Johnson and receiver Charleston Rambo all have the potential to make an impact this fall.
Understandably, both Diaz and Lashlee are excited to see what some of the newest Hurricanes can do.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s going to be young guys contributing for us this year, whether they’re true freshmen or whether they’re redshirt freshmen or freshmen that didn’t play as much last year,” Lashlee said. “Those are a lot of those new faces that I think are going to be in that mix of older guys and younger guys for us…I think at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver, tight end, maybe even at running back, I think you’ve got some opportunities for guys to not only play, but make some impacts. We feel like those guys have come in eager to work. They’re learning and playing at The U is a big deal to them. They know it’s a privilege, not a right and they act that way and work that way.”
10. A big test looms early
Every opener every year is significant. It’s a team’s first real test and the first chance for them to see just how well things have come together during camp.
But the Hurricanes know they face a bigger test than usual this year, with a Sept. 4 matchup against defending national champion Alabama in Atlanta looming on the horizon.
Both Diaz and Lashlee stressed that one of the keys for the Hurricanes throughout this month of preparation is that they focus on themselves. But they know an opponent like Alabama will definitely be a significant test.
“You’re getting a chance to challenge yourself against a program that has had unmatched success over the last few years,” Diaz said. “But I think it also helps to refocus the offseason and refocus our training camp about being the best version of ourselves that we can be. Good teams punish mistakes, but mistakes are oftentimes, avoidable. I think that’s what our players have learned through the years. You know you’re playing a team that yes, if you make mistakes, they’re going to have the ability to punish you. But we can control some of that ourselves and I think everyone in the program respects what they’ve done, but I think everyone is also focused on ourselves and getting ourselves ready to compete at the highest level we can.”