At the start of last November, the U was flying high with an undefeated record and a #7 national ranking. The entire nation looked on as the Miami Hurricanes traveled to second-ranked Florida State in the latest chapter of the classic rivalry. Or so it seemed. When Florida State was finished thrashing the 'Canes 41-14, Miami was exposed as being not quite ready for top ten status. Even worse, star running back Duke Johnson left the game with a broken ankle that ended his season. Miami would lose three more games to finish the season 9-4: definitely disappointing considering the season's prospects at the start of November.
Johnson's ankle is fully healed, though he was held out of Miami's spring game as a precaution. The 5'9" 206 pound junior still earned first team all-ACC honors in 2013 despite missing the last four games of the season. As a sophomore, Johnson rushed for 920 yards (averaging 6.3 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in eight games. As a true freshman in 2012, he rushed for 947 yards and ten touchdowns, earning second team all-ACC honors. Johnson does it all: he returns kicks and runs with power and speed. The only question about Johnson is whether he'll be healthy all season long because Miami is going to lean on him heavily in 2014. After Johnson, sophomore Gus Edwards (6'2" 235 pounds) is a power back who rushed for 338 yards and five touchdowns last season. Incoming freshman Joseph Yearby (5'9" 180 pounds) is a highly touted recruit who'll certainly see some playing time this season.
Questions at quarterback abound at the U as senior Ryan Williams (6'6" 225 pounds), the expected starter, tore his ACL in spring practice. His recovery is proceeding well, and the Miami Herald reported that Williams is hoping to be ready to play in the season opener. Williams appeared in nine games during the last two seasons, mostly in mopup duty. He did see significant action in games against North Carolina (completing 9 of 13 passes for 80 yards in 2012), Savannah State (11 of 13 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns), and South Florida (8 of 14 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown). Before the injury, Williams was no threat to run last season, losing 16 yards on three sacks. As a true freshman at Memphis in 2010, Williams started ten games, completing 165 of 290 passes for 2,075 yards and 13 touchdowns. If Williams isn't ready in September, Miami will choose between redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen and former Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps. Olsen didn't impress in the Miami spring game, and maturity issues led to him being left home for the bowl game last season. Heaps left Kansas with his degree, making him immediately eligible as a serviceable game manager. Last season in Lawrence, Heaps completed 49% of his passes for 1,414 yards, eight touchdowns, and ten interceptions. He's no threat to run the ball either, as he lost 162 yards on the ground last season.
Whomever ends up being the 'Canes quarterback, he'll have a good group of receivers to throw to. Last year's leading receiver, Allen Hurns, departs, but six of Miami's top seven receivers from last year are back. Sophomore Stacy Coley (6'1" 185 pounds) caught 33 passes for 591 yards and seven touchdowns. He's explosive when you get the ball in his hands; last season, he had an 81 yard catch, a 79 yard punt return, and an 88 yard kickoff return. Look for those numbers to increase dramatically this season. Senior tight end Clive Walford came on strong at the end of 2013 as a big (6'4" 263 pounds) target in the passing game. He caught 34 passes for 454 yards and two touchdowns last season. When he makes the catch, he's tough to bring down....but sometimes that first part is a problem. Senior Phillip Dorsett (5'10" 185 pounds) missed half of 2013 with a partially torn MCL, which limited him to 13 catches for 272 yards and two touchdowns. A better gauge of Dorsett's ability are his sophomore numbers (58 catches for 842 yards). Worry too much about Williams pounding the ball at you, and you just might find Dorsett burning you deep with his 4.29 speed.
With uncertainty at quarterback, it'll be important for the offensive line to be dominant, and Miami's line has that potential. Senior center Shane McDermott (6'4" 296 pounds) fought through a foot injury last season that sidelined him for spring practice, yet still earned honorable mention all-ACC honors. Senior left guard Jon Feliciano (6'5" 320 pounds) is probably Miami's best run blocker, and junior left tackle Erick Flowers (6'6" 322 pounds) is a two year starter that the NFL will be watching very carefully. This should be the best offensive line Nebraska will see until November.
While the offense gave Miami fans cause for optimism, the defense was a splash of ice cold water to the face. After October, things took a definite turn for the worse as opponents scored 41, 42, 48, 26, 31, and 36 in the final six games. For the season, Miami finished 66th in scoring defense, 89th in total defense, 77th in rush defense, and 90th in pass defense. With only four of the top eight tacklers returning, Miami is hoping that Al Golden's recruiting classes will start contributing. One question is whether Miami is ready to make the switch from a 4-3 defense to a Golden's preferred 3-4 scheme.
Up front, senior defensive end Anthony Chickillo (6'4" 277 pounds) is the second leading returning tackler on the defense with 46 tackles last season, 4 for a loss. Senior defensive tackle Olsen Pierre (6'5" 305 pounds) also returns , though his play has been spotty thus far in his career. Miami has been heavily recruiting defensive linemen with four freshmen and two jucos, so this is a position that's sure to evolve as the season approaches.
The star of the Miami defense is senior linebacker Denzel Perryman, who's beefed up to 242 pounds on his 6'0" frame to move inside. His 108 tackles last season earned him first team all-ACC honors last season as well as being named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. He could have gone pro, but he's back and a probable first-round pick next spring in the 2015 NFL Draft. If the 'Canes switch to a 3-4 lineup, expect sophomore Al-Quadin Muhammad to slide back from defensive end to one of the outside linebacker positions. Sophomore linebacker Alex Figueroa was expected to make a strong bid to start this season until his arrest for sexual battery last week. After Figueroa and Jawand Blue admitted drugging and assaulting a 17 year old female on campus, both were immediately dismissed from the football program
The secondary should improve in 2014 with three returning starters in the secondary. Junior cornerback Tracy Howard (5'11" 184 pounds) was an honorable mention all-ACC last season after racking up 35 tackles and four interceptions. On the other side, senior Ladarius Gunter (6'2" 198 pounds) was solid as well with 46 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and three interceptions. Keep an eye on junior safety Deon Bush (6'1" 203 pounds) if he's healthy; he's been hampered by injuries thus far in his career, but has shown signs of being a hard-hitting playmaker.
After playing Miami five times in bowl games (four on the 'Canes home field), it's finally time for Miami to play in Lincoln. It's unrealistic to expect that we'd see snow, let alone chilly weather in Lincoln in mid-September. After all, it's still summertime. Unless, of course, a real hurricane were to roll into south Florida and keep the U from being able to travel. As luck would have it, both teams have bye weeks on November 8, if the game were to need to be rescheduled. (Just sayin'!) Even though a national title isn't on the line for this matchup for the first time since 1976, it's still a matchup between solid programs with the winner being ready to make a little more noise nationally.