The Miami Hurricanes, coming off an 8-3 campaign and finishing 22nd in the final AP Poll, begin fall practices on Friday night with the defending champs looming in the opener on Sept. 4.
Miami will face Alabama, which has won six titles in the last 12 years, in Atlanta, Ga. to begin the season. It will be the first time the two schools since the Sugar Bowl to decide the 1992 national championship won by Alabama.
The Hurricanes feature a number of returners on both sides of the ball including quarterback D’Eriq King, who is expected to be ready for the opener after tearing his ACL in the Cheez-It-Bowl against Oklahoma State. King, who will be 24 years old when the season begins, was fourth in the ACC in passing yards (2,686) and third in touchdown passes (23) last season.
"It's a big responsibility being the starting quarterback at the University of Miami," King said. "I'm trying to do everything right--be the guy who teammates can lean on, try to be that leader. The main goal is to win as many games as possible here."
If King is unable to play, the Hurricanes will turn towards second-year freshman Tyler Van Dyke or true freshman Jake Garcia, who threw for 247 yards and two scores in the spring game.
"What's been great for Miami's standout is having such an experienced team is the offseason," head coach Manny Diaz said. "How do we go through spring practices and the workouts? Guys who are experienced came back for the right reasons. They want to see Miami win and they want to set an example for the younger guys coming into our program, which to me at Miami we've not always had."
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is back for his second season in Coral Gables and he is looking to identify a lead tailback amongst a trio who split carries a year ago in what looks to be one of the most competitive battles in the fall. Cam’Ron Harris led the team with 643 yards and 10 touchdowns, but will need to hold off strong pushes from Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton as they look to breakout in their second seasons after being highly-touted recruits from South Florida.
Charleston Rambo showed his worth in the spring game with seven catches after transferring from Oklahoma and figures to be in the top group of wide receivers led by Mike Harley, who has 125 catches in four seasons. Former Southridge standouts Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins return and looking to show improvements while Keyshawn Smith aims to break out as Jeremiah Payton, Michael Redding III, Xavier Restrepo, Romello Brinson, Brashard Smith and Jacolby George look for roles.
Will Mallory takes over as the full-time tight end with Brevin Jordan off to the NFL. Mallory was productive in spots last year with 22 catches for 329 yards and four touchdowns and with a full season of being in the top role, he should be one of the best in the ACC.
Another competitive battle to watch for in the fall is on the offensive line with seven players who have started games in their careers led by Navaughn Donaldson’s 34. Zion Nelson, Jakai Clark, Corey Gaynor, DJ Scaife, Jarrid Williams, John Campbell, Ousman Traore and Justice Oluwaseun have all started games while Jalen Rivers is a talented player looking to break through.
“We have to give up less negative plays in the run game and that has been a big point of emphasis in our offseason study going into training camp and then be more explosive going down the field,” Diaz said.
Nesta Jade Silvera, an All-ACC honorable mention performer at defensive tackle last season, headlines the defensive line, which looks to replace NFL departures Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche. Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson and Jahfari Harvey are looking to replace the aforementioned defensive ends while Zach McCloud made a position change from linebacker and hopes to be in the mix too. Jared Harrison-Hunte and Leonard Taylor are two athletic defensive tackles who should make impacts inside.
The linebacker position is the biggest question mark for the Hurricanes heading into the 2021 season even with returning players. Bradley Jennings Jr. led the group in tackles last year, but could lose his starting job to Corey Flagg, who has impressed the coaching staff. Waynmon Steed, Sam Brooks, Avery Huff and Keontra Smith are also looking to emerge.
Safety Bubba Bolden returns after leading the team in tackles and was a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist. Gurvan Hall also returns at safety with a quartet of cornerbacks who have plenty of experience led by Georgia transfer and former Southridge standout Tyrique Stevenson along with DJ Ivey, Al Blades Jr. and Te’Cory Couch.
“Coach Diaz being the defensive coordinator now gives us a lot of confidence in our defense,” Bolden said. “The chip is on our shoulders no matter what and I feel like that’s just a Miami thing.”
Punter Lou Hedley was a Ray Guy Award finalist last year and freshman kicker Andres Borregales steps in for his brother, Jose, who won the Lou Groza Award last year.
“We feel we have the best group of specialists in America,” Diaz said.