Hurricanes roster loses program greats, returns young talent

Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya threw for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns as a freshman.

Nelson Chenault/Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

2014 marked another year of unhappy University of Miami football fans.

After the bowl loss to South Carolina, the Hurricanes (6-7) finished below .500 for the first time since 2007 — Randy Shannon’s first year as coach. Things unraveled following a heartbreaking defeat at home to then-undefeated Florida State when a double-digit lead disappeared in the fourth quarter. It quickly turned into a four-game skid to end the season.

Gone are program greats Denzel Perryman, Duke Johnson and Clive Walford. They each left their marks on the record books during a time of uncertainty and NCAA sanctions. Phillip Dorsett will no longer breeze past the opposition for a deep ball thrown by Brad Kaaya. Junior left tackle Ereck Flowers is leaving early for the NFL Draft.

Still, the young talent that returns in 2015 offers reason to be optimistic. Kaaya set UM freshman records. He impressed his coaches, teammates and fans with his poise. Less than a year removed from a surgery that prematurely ended his high school football career, Joe Yearby ran 86 times for 520 yards (5.9 yards). He learned the ins and outs from Johnson. Sophomore linebacker Jermaine Grace finally showed flashes of the scary threat he can be on defense. When healthy, junior safety Deon Bush becomes a takeaway machine the defense sorely needs.

Now that we know who is leaving Coral Gables, let’s check out Miami’s returning roster for 2015:

QUARTERBACK

Returning leader: Brad Kaaya (221-for-378, 3,198 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs)

Analysis: The Hurricanes found their quarterback by the end of camp when the freshman beat out graduate transfer Jake Heaps for the job. Kaaya finished first in the conference in touchdowns and second in yards and rating. It became not just one of the top freshman performances in program history but overall by a UM player. He cracked the top 10 in various statistics, including single-season passing yards, attempts and touchdowns. With Heaps and Ryan Williams gone, that leaves freshman Malik Rosier, who redshirted in 2014, and rising junior Gray Crow, as the backups. Rosier also plays for the baseball team, while Crow has eight career passing attempts — all in 2013.

Kaaya’s season offers incoming freshmen proof that they can play immediately if they have the skillset despite their lack of experience. At the same time, it also pushes away possible recruits at his position. There are no quarterbacks on Miami’s Class of 2015 radar because of it. Still, Kaaya also serves as a nice recruiting tool for offensive players wanting to be his target or lineman. Bar Milo, a former high school teammate of his from Chaminade College Prep in California, is a four-star prospect. Most importantly, UM believes it has a premier talent at the vital position.

RUNNING BACK

Returning leader: Joe Yearby (520 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 1 TD)

Analysis: How does one fill the void of losing the program’s all-time leading rusher (3,519) and all-purpose yards (5,526) playmaker? Duke Johnson finished his Hurricanes career with better numbers than guys like Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Edgerrin James in 33 games. That leaves Yearby, a rising sophomore, and rising junior Gus Edwards, as his heirs. Yearby, a top recruit from Miami Central High, tallied the second-most rushing yards on the team. He and Johnson each posted a 100-yard game against North Carolina, becoming the first UM duo to do so since 2003. Edwards, who was limited by an ankle injury later in the season, added 349 yards and six touchdowns. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Edwards complements Yearby (5-foot-9, 192 pounds). Trayone Gray, who joined the program late in the summer as a true freshman, ran the ball six times for 24 yards and a score. He can be used at back or wideout.

Unlike the quarterback position, there is some depth here. And more may be on the way. Two recruits — Jordan Scarlett of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and Mark Walton of Miami Booker T. Washington — remain committed to the Hurricanes. Both are top-10 recruits at their position in the state.

Quarterfinals

WIDE RECEIVER

Returning leader: Malcolm Lewis (25 catches, 248 yards, 1 TD)

Analysis: Kaaya loses his top three targets to the NFL, leaving a mix of guys that will need to step up. Tight end Clive Walford, Johnson and Phillip Dorsett combined for 52 percent of Kaaya’s completions and 77 percent of his touchdowns. Seven players tallied 15 or more catches, so the ball was spread around — just not evenly. Lewis, set to be a redshirt junior, isn’t a first-option threat. Rising junior Stacy Coley, who struggled during his sophomore campaign with just 23 receptions, 184 yards and no touchdowns, must return to form if the receivers are to help Kaaya. His speed and playmaking ability went to waste in 2014 after a stellar season as a freshman (22 catches, 591 yards, seven touchdowns). He must become "the" guy.

Braxton Berrios proved to be a reliable option for fellow freshman Kaaya during the first half of the season, often being the man on third downs. He finished with 21 catches, 232 yards and three touchdowns, but his dropped score against Florida State likely stands out to fans. Herb Waters and Rashawn Scott will be the seniors of the group. Waters caught 20 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown in 2014. Scott, who missed the season with an injury, has 39 receptiomns for 552 yards and three touchdowns over 19 games. Both David Njoku and Darrell Langham redshirted and will get their first taste of collegiate ball in 2015.

Three recruits could join the crop come Feb. 4. Miami Central’s Terrell Chatman (four star), Calvert Hall College High’s Lawrence Cager (three star out of Baltimore) and Fort Lauderdale Blanche Ely’s Therrell Gosier are all commits.

TIGHT END

Returning leader: Standish Dobard (seven catches, 147 yards, 0 TD)

Analysis: Walford leaves Miami as the program’s most prolific tight end with 121 receptions and 14 touchdowns. Think about that for a second — better than Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr., Bubba Franks and co. Kaaya especially relied on Walford during his breakout senior year as he caught a team-leading 44 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. As a result, he finished as the runner-up for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. After sustaining a knee injury in the season finale, his absence was felt during the bowl loss to South Carolina.

That leaves inexperience — but potential — at the position. Dobard, a rising junior, had just one catch for 15 yards prior to the 2014 season. In a start against Pittsburgh, he recorded career highs of three catches for 44 yards. Against Florida State, he made a big catch but the play ended in a fumble. In the Duck Commander Independence Bowl, he connected with Kaaya for 32 yards. But that was the only time they did. True freshman Christopher Herndon IV appeared in three games but didn’t record any stats, while sophomore Jake O’Donnell caught his only pass against North Carolina.

Jerome Washington, who signed a Letter of Intent last month, is an interesting prospect and story. He stands at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. Washington attended Mercer County Community College after beginning his post-high school career at the Gunnery, a prep school in Connecticut. He played for a football club where he caught 24 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. Not heavily recruited out of high school, Washington will have four years of eligibility.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Returning leader: Danny Isidora

Analysis: There will be much turnover for this unit in 2015. Jon Feliciano and Shane McDermott graduate with 82 starts between them. Ereck Flowers, Kaaya’s left tackle, is leaving early for April’s NFL Draft. Injuries plagued the line in 2014, with freshman Kc McDermott and sophomore Taylor Gadbois sustaining season-ending surgeries. Rising junior Alex Gall was on the injury report on and off with various ailments. Redshirt freshman Hunter Knighton received a health scare in the summer, but by season’s end had returned to the team. True freshmen Trevor Darling and Nick Linder, brother of former Hurricane and current Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Brandon, filled in. Despite all of this, the unit allowed just 21 sacks, good for 29th in the country. Isidora started all 13 games in 2014 after missing 10 games with a foot injury as a freshman.

Undivided attention

Six of Miami’s 20 commits are offensive linemen, including the previously mentioned Milo and junior college transfer Jahair Jones. Depth was an issue for the unit in 2014 because of the injuries. Now, experience may be one, though the injuries forced younger guys to play and helped in that respect.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Returning leader: Ufomba Kamalu (34 tackles, four TFLs, 3.5 sacks)

Analysis: Third-generation Cane and former five-star recruit Anthony Chickillo graduates with an underwhelming collegiate career (167 tackles, 14.5 sacks). So does Olsen Pierre. While the unit recorded 27 sacks, only seven came from the line. At times, it struggled to apply pressure on the quarterback, which in turn hurt the linebackers and secondary. It will greatly welcome the return of Al-Quadin Muhammad, who was suspended from the team in 2014. A former four-star prospect, he had eight tackles and two sacks as a freshman.

Michael Wyche, Calvin Heurtelou and Kamalu will be the seniors present in 2015. As a trio, there were 68 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and five sacks to go around. True freshmen Anthony Moten, Chad Thomas and Courtel Jenkins combined for 34 appearances, 23 tackles and one sack. Demetrius Jackson, Earl Moore and Mike Smith were redshirted and can now contribute. Miami currently has four defensive linemen committed, including a pair of three-star recruits out of IMG Academy — Scott Patchan and Ryan Fines.

LINEBACKERS

Returning leader: Jermaine Grace (60 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks)

Analysis: Like the running back and tight end positions, the Hurricanes lose a program great in Denzel Perryman. He finishes ninth in all-time tackles (351), earned an All-American accolade and became a finalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker. Joining him in graduation is Thurston Armbrister, the defense’s third-leading tackler with 56. He also compiled 8.0 tackles for loss and a team-high five sacks.

Though Grace didn’t start a game, he appeared in all 13 and was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Perryman. After admitting to relying too much on his raw talent rather than studying as a freshman in 2013, he took the next step and followed Perryman’s lead in 2014. Grace wants to be a playmaker and continue the assembly line of top UM linebackers. Raphael Kirby, who made 54 tackles, will take over Perryman’s slot in the middle. Rising senior Tyriq McCord finished seventh with 48 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

After two players were kicked off the team for sexual assault over the summer, there wasn’t much depth at the position. Terry McCray was the lone redshirted player, while true freshman Darrion Owens saw action in 12 games (23 tackles). There is one commit from the Class of 2015 — three-star Charles Perry of Royal Palm Beach High, ranked second in the state at that position. Head coach Al Golden needs to search for reinforcements.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Returning leader: Deon Bush (53 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 5 FF)

Analysis: The secondary loses just two members – Nantambu-Akil Fentress and Ladarius Gunter — of an already deep unit led by Bush. Thanks to it, Ryan Mayes was redshirted. When Bush missed a game after sustaining an injury, it was no coincidence the defense struggled. Him coming back rather than foregoing his senior year for the NFL is a huge lift. As a group, however, four defensive backs managed just six of the team’s 10 interceptions. The defense faced trouble when it couldn’t force takeaways. More will need to be created in order for there to be improvement that will appease the fans.

Along the same lines, former five-star recruit Tracy Howard has one more year to live up to the expectations. As a junior, he mustered just 20 tackles and one interception. He also started just two of 13 games. Corn Elder, who sustained a season-ending injury as a freshman, is focusing solely on football. He also played basketball. Artie Burns enters his third year at UM. Rayshawn Jenkins returns after missing 2014 with a preseason surgery. He has 73 tackles and three picks over two years. As for the incoming recruiting class, Miami Killian four-star Jaquan Johnson represents a crucial get for the program. Miami Edison’s Robert Knowles and Spain Park (Alabama)’s Michael Jackson appear poised to join him in Coral Gables.

SPECIALISTS

Returning leader: Punter Justin Vogel (42.8 average)

Analysis: With Pat O’Donnell’s departure for the NFL, Miami had to replace one of the country’s top punters. In came Vogel, a walk-on formerly with the Florida Gators. Not only did he average 42.8 yards per punt, but the sophomore also collected 20 fair catches, 21 inside the 20-yard line and 12 over 50 yards. For his efforts, he was named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter.

A battle will likely develop at the kicker position over the spring and summer. When Matt Goudis went down with an injury after just six kicks, freshman Michael Badgley took over. He finished 14-for-18 with a long of 48, including a 100 percent conversion rate from 40-to-49 yards (5 of 5). Oddly enough, extra points proved to be troublesome. Miami missed four.

The return game showed no signs of vintage Miami. Coley could never get it going like he did as a freshman with both a kickoff and punt return touchdown. On punts, he averaged seven yards on 15 tries. Berrios got four shots at it, and he averaged five yards. As a team, the Hurricanes’ longest return was 29 yards. Kickoffs were even more futile and alarming. Miami averaged just 20.1 yards compared to 24.6 for its opponents. The long, which came from Coley, went only 41 yards. Even Dorsett, a speedster, managed 14.5 yards on eight returns. The blocking must improve. From the onset of the season it seemed the unit was always out of sync.

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.