2012 Miami Football Preview: The Perched Hammer

July 23, 2012; Greensboro, NC, USA; Head coach Al Golden of the Miami Hurricanes football team talks to reporters during the ACC media day at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro NC. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE

Al Golden was a brave man to keep the Miami football job after Nevin Shapiro became a household name. But as he and his Hurricanes await the NCAA's hammer, he should put a young, entertaining and flawed team on the field in 2012. Related: Miami's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Hurricanes football, visit Miami blog The 7th Floor.

In 2006, Al Golden inherited a Temple program that had gone 3-31 in the previous three seasons. He stripped the team down, went 1-11 in 2006, then the Owls took off. In 2007, Golden's Owls won four games for the first time since 2002. In 2008, they won five for the first time since 1990. In 2009, they won nine games and went to a bowl for the first time since 1979. Not only did he take a job that few would have accepted, but he thrived in it.

In 2011, Golden moved to Miami. And just a few months after Golden took the job, Nevin Shapiro became a household name. Golden, surprised by the level of Shapiro-related allegations, could have walked away immediately, and nobody would have blamed him. But he stuck around. His first team of Hurricanes dealt with not only the change to Golden's system, but also a rotating cast of suspended characters. They played reasonably well, all things considered; they ranked 32nd in the F/+ ratings but struggled to close games against a tough schedule -- they went 2-6 in one-possession games and went just 6-6 overall.

Despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the program, Golden's 2012 recruiting class was solid and exciting. He enters Year Two in Miami with questionable depth in certain areas, but with a team that should be young and interesting.


The ACC Episode by Shutdown Fullback

He also enters Year Two in Miami a) having been sucked into the Shapiro/Charles Robinson vortex himself, and b) still awaiting (and awaiting, and awaiting) word of NCAA sanctions related to Shapiro. The hammer has been cocked for nearly a year now, and it could come down at any moment. But camp is about to begin, and Golden has a team to coach one way or another.

When you write about every college football team, you begin to admire certain coaches or players even though you have no rooting interest in their success. For instance, I have an unhealthy attachment to Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry, a folksy master of underdog tactics who really has yet to actually win anything in his head coaching career.

But for obvious reasons, I admire Golden quite a bit, too. I have no idea whether he will succeed at The U, just as I have no idea whether any coach would be able to succeed with what might be serious sanctions coming down the pike. I hope he didn't get his hands too dirty in the Shapiro mess (and if he did, shame on him), but I simply admire coaches who take on really, really difficult projects.

Golden inherited the worst FBS program in the country and turned it into a program good enough to get promoted back to the Big East after he left. And he is now steering a ship in Miami that has been difficult to guide and could soon become almost impossible. Bravery is close to stupidity, but there is still something admirable in taking what you know to be a difficult path.

In a vacuum, Golden's 2012 squad is both flawed and intriguing, capable of either sinking into a rebuilding project or winning a Coastal Division that doesn't have a clear favorite (depending on how you feel about Virginia Tech's losses on offense, anyway). I have quite a bit of curiosity about how Miami will fare this fall, but obviously there is just as much curiosity about the hammer that is still perched above the Hurricanes' collective head.


Related: Check out Miami's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Miami last July, before we all got to know Nevin Shapiro:

With football booming in the state of Florida and charismatic recruiters Howard Schnellenberger and Bobby Bowden in place, the 'Canes and 'Noles assumed a seat at the big boys' table for a number of years. But while Florida State remains one of the perceived elites, they have the alumni and administrative support to back it up. Support and facilities at Miami are not what you typically see within the ruling class, and without a stable infrastructure, Miami is not guaranteed success in the future. Members of the ruling class are typically just one hire away from returning to greatness; in 2011's college football world, Miami might need more than that. […]

There has been a decent amount of negativity surrounding the Miami program recently, from the disappointing 2010 season, to a coaching hire that failed to generate buzz, to arrests and transfers. The vaunted 2008 recruiting class did not bring 12-win seasons to Coral Gables, the depth isn't where it is supposed to be, and financial support appears lacking. This program is not where it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and looking at the program, and college football's power structure, it is difficult to imagine the 'Canes returning to those loftiest of lofty heights anytime soon. However...

...look at that 2008 class again. It still produced Marcus Forston, Sean Spence, Travis Benjamin, Ramon Buchanan, Vaughn Telemaque, Micanor Regis, Brandon Washington and, of course, Jacory Harris. Within the framework of the ACC, Miami is still at the top end in terms of athleticism and potential. Al Golden may be seen by some as a conservative hire, but if he manages to wring out more of the potential in some of these players than they have as yet uncovered, Miami is still a potential ACC champion and Top 10 program. […]

I've talked myself into this team to a certain degree, and I see them winning at least eight games when all is said and done, but 'potential' is the watchword. If we're still talking about potential, and not production, in November, then something went awry.

All things considered, the 2011 Miami team performed about how we should have expected once all of the suspensions came down: struggle early with uncertain lineups, thrive late. Close losses prevented quite as much demonstrable growth, but on paper the improvement was clear.

First Six Games: Miami 31.2 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 30.1 (plus-1.1)
Last Six Games: Miami 30.0 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.8 (plus-4.2)

Uncertainty at quarterback prevented any serious offensive growth as the season progressed. Jacory Harris was both banged up and, though a senior, capable of both extreme efficiency and boneheaded mistakes. But the defense came together nicely after a rough start and was capable of carrying the Hurricanes for drives at a time. Still, glitches held Miami back: the Hurricanes lost by three points at Virginia Tech in one of the season's most exciting games, by four points at Florida State and to Kansas State at home, and by a touchdown to Maryland, Virginia and Boston College. Miami came close to a fantastic season; instead, it was incredibly mediocre.

Offense

To an extent, the 2012 Miami offense will be built around the age-old form-versus-function debate. Golden and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will choose their Jacory Harris replacement among two primary candidates: junior Stephen Morris and Memphis transfer Ryan Williams. By most accounts, Williams is more ready-built for the pro-style offense Fisch prefers and has a strong grasp of the offense. The problem is that Williams isn't incredibly gifted from a physical standpoint.

Morris, on the other hand, has both accuracy and athleticism that Williams does not; but he isn't necessarily built for an offense that does not include as much quarterback mobility. While Morris missed much of the spring with a back injury, however, Williams did not exactly seize the opportunity. He was mostly mediocre in the spring game (his passing line: 15-for-27 for 169 yards and two picks), and most Miami fans at this point are assuming Morris is the man, fit or no fit, until they hear otherwise.

Morris (or Williams) should have a good run game in his corner. Mike James and Eduardo Clements each showed potential in backing up the since-departed Lamar Miller last season; James was a solid short-yardage threat last year (he scored almost as many touchdowns as Miller despite 155 fewer carries). They will be running behind a line that has all of the potential in the world and little experience. Four linemen who had combined for 98 career starts (including second-team all-conference center Tyler Horn) are gone, leaving behind former all-world recruit (now a junior with more suspension rumors) Seantrel Henderson and a host of former four-star signees. Henderson (11 career starts), guards Brandon Linder (14) and Jon Feliciano (eight) and sophomore tackle Malcolm Bunche (one) all have starting experience, but minimally so. If Henderson suddenly becomes the player he was always supposed to be (and he does appear to have gotten both his weight and strength under control to a degree), then he could anchor a strong line. But we're still in the "if" stage here.

By the way, while both James and Clements are former four-star recruits in the backfield, the real treat could come when blue-chipper Randy "Duke" Johnson, joins the fray in August. Johnson is blazing fast -- his highlight film is almost Noel Devine-esque -- and though he won't be counted on to become an immediate workhorse back (which is good because he isn't very big), he could become a perfect complement to James and a threat to catch passes out of the backfield.

Hey speaking of catching passes, do you want to try out for the Miami receiving corps? It might not be too late. While a good run game could take pressure off of a new starting quarterback, the receiving corps is terribly green. Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin combined for 41 percent of Miami's targets last year, catching 87 passes for 1,420 yards, and both are gone. The running backs should provide a decent receiving threat out of the backfield, and tight ends Clive Walford and Asante Cleveland could each provide solid efficiency options; but when it comes to actual wideouts, the pickings are slim if you like actual experience.

Junior Allen Hurns (415 yards, 8.1 per target, 61 percent catch rate) was a solid No. 3 last year, but he will face pressure to lead. The three other receivers with experience -- sophomores Phillip Dorsett, Kendal Thompkins and Rashawn Scott -- combined for just 24 targets and 18 catches last year. Dorsett and Scott both played well this spring, however, and the unit could get a boost from incoming four-star freshmen Robert Lockhart, Jr., and Malcolm Lewis. Streeter and Benjamin combined to average 16.3 yards per catch in 2011, however, and there is no indication that this unit will have the same level of field-stretching ability. (And let's just say that when fans and the coaching staff are talking up a walk-on -- in this case, Garrett Kidd -- that usually doesn't end up being a good thing.)

Defense

It has been rather difficult to find any consistency in the Miami program recently. The offense ranked 20th in Off. F/+ in 2009, 72nd in 2010 and 15th in 2011. The defense, meanwhile, went from a strength (22nd in Def. F/+ in 2009, 10th in 2010) to an extreme weakness (87th in 2011). Hell, even special teams has been bipolar (28th in Special Teams F/+ in 2009, 68th in 2010, 29th in 2011), but that is not uncommon.

Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, Golden's D.C. at Temple, did not prove himself last fall at Miami, but with all of the obstacles he faced regarding suspensions, he really didn't have a chance. In 2012, he might actually have a stable lineup with which to work. Of course, following offseason defections, he still doesn't have a lot of depth.

It is yet to be seen whether he has a pass defense, either. Miami ranked 109th in Passing S&P+ last year -- this is quite a bit lower than the No. 29 ranking in passing yards per game because many of their opponents leaned on the run and weren't amazingly effective through the air -- and will be missing one of its most high-ceiling defenders: safety Ray-Ray Armstrong was dismissed from the team last week. As a result, the depth chart at safety is currently filled by Vaughn Telemaque, former quarterback A.J. Highsmith and former cornerback Kacy Rodgers. This puts pressure on corners like senior Brandon McGee and junior Ladarius Gunter to thrive with less depth. It also opens up the opportunity for an incoming blue-chip freshman like Tracy Howard or Deon Bush to quickly see the field.

An improved secondary is a must because the front seven got thinned out quite a bit. There is young talent galore, but experience could be a clear issue. We start up front: gone are tackles Micanor Regis and Adewale Ojomo (combined: 10.0 tackles for loss, five passes broken up) and ends Andrew Smith and Olivier Vernon (5.5 tackles for loss). Sophomore Anthony Chickillo could be a fantastic weapon, however -- he matched the sack total of the four departed players (5.0) by himself in his first season. But he needs a dance partner in the pass rush, and it is unclear who that might be.

Junior Shayon Green is currently labeled as a starter, but he did not exactly prove much last year. Chickillo could get serious assistance if one of a pair of four-star freshmen -- 262-pound Jelani Hamilton and 215-pound Tyriq McCord -- could provide at least some early capability. At tackle, enormous senior Darius Smith (6'2, 335 pounds) and slightly less-enormous junior Curtis Porter (6'1, 300 pounds) are tapped as starters but have proven little to date.

The linebacker position is both exciting and terrifying. The unit's two best playmakers, Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson (combined: 21.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, three passes broken up, three forced fumbles), are both gone, as is backup Jordan Futch. But in sophomore Denzel Perryman (6.5 tackels for loss, two forced fumbles) the Hurricanes have a potential star. Perryman takes over in the middle, while strongside linebacker Ramon Buchanan returns from a knee injury. Buchanan had 8.0 tackles for loss in 2010. Depth here could be a concern, though; Perryman and junior James Gaines are the only returnees who managed more than 14.5 tackles last year. Four-star freshman Raphael Kirby: there is plenty of playing time available if you are ready.

Defining Success

It is difficult to define goals for the 2012 Miami squad since we don't know if they will be eligible for the postseason or not thanks to the any-day-now possibility of NCAA sanctions. But even if they are a true Top 30 team, the schedule could prevent them from piling up a large win total. Miami plays six teams projected 33rd or better this fall, though four do have to visit Miami. Plus, they will probably be underdogs in trips to Kansas State and Virginia as well. If Miami wins half of those games and gets to 7-5 or 8-4, Golden will have once again done one hell of a job. We'll set the bar at seven wins.

Prognosis

Golden and company truly are in an odd position right now. They are building for the future, but they have no idea what the future is going to look like, or how hard the road will be. I still think Golden was the right man for the Miami job at this point in time, but that might not matter. His 2012 will be talented, athletic and flawed. We'll see what they have to play for come November.

For more on Hurricanes football, visit Miami blog The 7th Floor.

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