Most of the talk in the ACC this preseason has been focused on the consensus top two teams in the conference: Clemson and Florida State. With that said, there has not been much national hype regarding Miami in 2013 and for head coach Al Golden that could be a good thing.
When taking a glance at the Hurricanes it’s hard not to see them contending for the top spot in the Coastal division and a chance at an ACC Championship. They return a conference-high 19 starters (10 on offense, 9 on defense) and they have two of the top playmakers in the conference on offense. The only question mark that the Hurricanes have to quickly answer is whether or not their porous defense made any progress in the offseason.
The Canes have a new offensive coordinator, James Coley, who comes over from ACC rival Florida State and he has plenty of talent to work with. Quarterback Stephen Morris quietly had one of the best finishes to the 2012 season that any other QB had in the country. In his final four games he had a 60 percent completion rate while throwing for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Overall, Morris had one of the greatest statistical seasons that a QB has ever had at Miami. His 3,345 passing yards were fifth-best in school history while his 245 completions were the second-most in program history. This season can be an even better one for Morris because he has all the physical tools while also boasting plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Perhaps the best running back in the country dons the Miami U on his helmet. Duke Johnson didn’t even start on a full time basis last season, yet he was still one of the best players in the ACC. In 2012 Johnson broke Clinton Portis’ freshman rushing record while winning the ACC Rookie of the Year award. Johnson will be competing for much more prestigious hardware in 2013, and with an increased workload, it’s easy to see him in the conversation at years end.
The two leading receivers from a season ago return in Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott. A solid compliment to the top two guys is senior Allen Hurns who is a big target that can go up and catch the ball. At tight end the Canes finally have a solid guy returning as Clive Walford will try to one-up his 2012, team high, four touchdown receptions.
With all of the talent at the playmaking positions it would be easy to overlook Miami’s best overall unit on either side of the ball. The offensive line returns all five starters (three seniors and two juniors) with each one of them weighing in over 315 pounds. They are big, they are strong and most importantly they are experienced. Morris will have plenty of time to throw the ball while Johnson will be able to pick and choose which opening to exploit each and every play.
As far as the defensive side of the ball goes, things can only go up in 2013. The Canes had one of the nation’s worst defenses a season ago allowing a school-record 366 points, including giving up 40-plus points twice in their final three games. Miami’s hopes at contending for the Coastal Division title will be predicated on how much the defense can improve, specifically up front where they were awful in 2012. The defensive line couldn’t rush the pass or stop the run, which is obviously a terrible trait to have as a unit. However, they do have three of the four starters returning led by Anthony Chickillo, who led the team last year with four sacks.
The Canes will be pretty young in the middle of their 4-3 defense as freshman Alex Figueroa and sophomore Raphael Kirby are projected to start alongside junior Denzel Perryman. The lone upperclassman, Perryman, was second in tackles last season, and while not being particularly big, he is perhaps the hardest hitting member of the defense and can change games with a single blow.
In the secondary there is plenty of potential to emerge as one of their best defensive units. Cornerback Ladarius Gunter is the veteran leader of the group that can play the pass and the run equally well. The Canes are still waiting for their top 2012 recruit, Tracy Howard, to come into his own but until then he will play backup to fellow sophomore Antonio Crawford. At safety, Miami has two aggressive, ball-hawking playmakers in Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins.
Miami has a much softer schedule in 2013 and that only increases their chances of coming out on top in the Coastal Division. They have to travel to Florida State but on a more positive note they avoid playing ACC favorite Clemson. Perhaps their greatest divisional threat, Virginia Tech, has to come to south Florida, a place where the Canes went 4-2 a season ago. They swap out road games against Notre Dame and Kansas State with home contests against Florida Atlantic and Savannah State, which only boosts their chances at a winning season. If the defense can even improve a little bit watch for the Canes to be ACC contenders all year long.