ACC Preview: Can Mark Richt fix Miami’s ground game?
Following 145 wins, two Southeastern Conference titles and seven top-10 finishes at Georgia, Mark Richt landed the perfect fresh start. Miami moved on from the Al Golden era at the opportune moment, and now both parties stand to benefit longterm — perhaps as early as this season.
The Hurricanes return talent across the board, particularly on offense, as they continue their search for the first ACC Coastal division title in school history. The sleeping giant is banking on Richt putting the snooze button out of reach.
"You can say all the things you want about Miami and all the championships we’ve won getting back to years past. One thing we’ve never done is won an ACC championship and a Coastal championship," quarterback Brad Kaaya said. "That’s our goal for the season."
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
1. Can Mark Richt and his coordinators solve Miami’s ground game problems in Year 1?
Richt’s Georgia teams rarely encountered problems running the ball. The Bulldogs recruited and deployed top-of-the-line running backs in Todd Gurley, Knowshon Moreno and Nick Chubb — Richt even brought along one of his former running backs in young offensive coordinator Thomas Brown — behind consistently strong offensive lines. Though Richt was not calling plays, as he will in Coral Gables, it might as well have been his offensive signature in Athens.
"We’ll do a lot of one-back runs, but there will be two-back runs as well," Richt said at ACC Kickoff. "You have to develop a fullback or two. Tight end has to block. Wide receiver has to block. You have practice in such a way to develop a physical attitude.
" … We like to have two and maybe three guys that can carry the load, which I think we do at this point. It’s a mentality. It’s a scheme. It’s ability."
That was only half the problem for Miami last season. As quiet as the run game could be for Miami’s offense, opposing offenses rarely found the same problem. The Hurricanes’ front seven was far from disruptive, finishing 103rd nationally at stopping the run. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz inherits ample talent up front — barring ongoing investigations/pending suspensions — but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
2. Will Brad Kaaya stake his claim as the top overall draft prospect … and lift the Hurricanes to their first ACC Coastal title?
There are four new ACC coaches, but only one inherits Brad Kaaya. A frontrunner for the NFL draft’s No. 1 overall pick next spring, the rising junior signal-caller will be placed in complete control of Richt’s offense. Kaaya enters the 2016 season coming off back-to-back 3,000-yard campaigns, rocketing up the school’s all-time leaderboards in the process.
Last season, he cut his interceptions from 12 to five and elevated his completion percentage to 61.2 despite losing his top three receivers (Phillip Dorsett, Clive Walford, Duke Johnson) … and now Kaaya loses his top two receivers yet again. Outside of slot receiver Stacy Coley (689 yards) it’s an inexperienced group of pass-catchers, so not only will Kaaya need another standout season but this doubles down on the importance of improving the running game.
3. Where will the Hurricanes’ pass rush come from?
Pressure came sporadically in 2015. Out of 128 FBS teams, Miami finished 64th in sacks and 96th in tackles for loss, but a significant portion of that productivity came in the season opener against FCS Bethune-Cookman (five sacks, 10 tackles for loss). The Hurricanes managed just three sacks combined against Clemson, Florida State, Duke and Georgia Tech and six contributors in the front seven are gone.
The loss of linebacker Juwon Young, who transferred to Marshall after being suspended indefinitely, will hurt. The potential loss of starters Jermaine Grace and Al-Quadin Muhammad — both players, along with Coley, are caught up in the same investigation — would all but wipe out the unit’s best returners. The Hurricanes feature young and unproven four-star talent down the depth chart, but one week before the campaign kicks off only one player (end Trent Harris) who logged two or more sacks last season is guaranted to play. Add pressure to the long list of Year 1 challenges for Manny Diaz.