In 2017, Mark Richt’s second season at Miami, the Hurricanes began 10-0 before skill position injuries and regressing quarterback play led to a collapse. The U was upset by bowl-less Pitt, got destroyed by Clemson, and couldn’t keep up with a top-10 Wisconsin.
Still, the 10-3 finish was a step forward. The Canes hadn’t won double-digit games in 14 years and hadn’t finished in the AP top 15 in 13. Heading into 2018, it was clear that if the Canes could check two boxes, they’d be the class of the ACC Coastal.
Box No. 1: Hope receiver Ahmmon Richards stays healthy.
Though he’s barely been healthy for a season and a half, Richards has caught 76 passes for 1,399 yards and six touchdowns in his career. Over a three-game span late in 2016, he caught 20 passes for 361 yards, and after missing the first two games of 2017, he caught seven balls for 174 yards against Duke and FSU, then went back to fading in and out of the lineup.
If Richards can stay on the field, and quarterback Malik Rosier has a true No. 1 target, he won’t have to rely on a thrilling but all-or-nothing set of other receivers.
Box No. 2: Take a step forward at quarterback.
Again from the preview:
Rosier was so bad at the end that it was easy to both forget how resilient he was earlier in the year and ignore just how many pieces of his supporting cast had gone down to injury. When he had a full battery of weapons, he was pretty awesome.
Rosier will have an excellent (if healthy) receiving corps and a decent line. That should mean we find out exactly what Rosier is capable of, considering a pair of solid redshirt freshmen (N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon) and a blue-chip freshman (Jarren Williams) will be nipping at his heels. Rosier doesn’t have to be excellent for Miami to score a lot, but he has to be solid.
Nine games into 2018, both boxes remain very, very much unchecked.
After a 33-17 loss to LSU to start the season, the Canes won five in a row. The cracks were already showing, though. Richards caught just one pass before his season and then career came to an end because of injuries.
Plus, the QB situation was shaky enough that Perry usurped Rosier in September ... right up until he bombed in a loss to Virginia (3-for-6 for 20 yards and two interceptions). Richt went back to Rosier, who bombed in a loss to Boston College (19-for-36 for 150 yards, two interceptions, and three sacks). So he went back to Perry, who bombed in a loss to Duke (5-for-16 for 35 yards and two sacks).
With road trips ahead against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, Miami is 5-7 going back to the last three games of 2017.
The defense has been dynamite (ninth in S&P+, up from 22nd in 2017), creating more havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) and run stuffs than anyone in FBS. It deserves better.
The run game has been inconsistent but was outstanding against Duke in a monsoon, getting a combined 257 yards in 30 carries from Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas. But the Hurricanes have no identity to lean on when they need points.
Development at the QB position has been extraordinarily lacking, and heading into the last three games Richt doesn’t know if he’s going to play Rosier, Perry, another redshirt freshman (Cade Weldon), or a true freshman (Jarren Williams).
These are awkward issues, since the people in charge of both the play-calling and the quarterbacks coaching share the head coach’s last name.
Around the 6:30 mark of Sunday’s episode of Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, my co-host Steven Godfrey and I:
Me: His quarterbacks coach and son Jon Richt, and his play-caller, Mark Richt, are the two biggest issues on this team. Defense is awesome — I’m a Manny Diaz homer, and the defense is even better than I would’ve thought — and the run game has been kind of all-or-nothing, but it was great yesterday. But they can’t pass, they’ve got no quarterbacks, and the quarterbacks are getting worse. And the way he calls plays, there’s no, like, “Hmm, maybe we can sneak our way out of this situation tactically.” It’s like, “I don’t trust these quarterbacks to do anything, so I’m just gonna have them throw these two passes over and over again, and maybe it’ll work.”
He needs a Joe Moorhead at this point. He’s really close to Bowdening himself out of college football ...
Godfrey: Yeah, big time.
Me: ... but he’s also a Joe Moorhead away from having a top-10 team, and it’s really interesting.
Godfrey: But he’s gotta create that space where if they go in and shop for an OC this offseason, the OC has to be knowledgeable that there’s room to do your thing.
Two terms that I should probably explain there:
- “He needs a Joe Moorhead.” In 2016, Penn State head coach James Franklin, a former OC himself, brought in Moorhead to engineer an overhaul. Franklin and some longtime assistants had overseen an offense that averaged a No. 87 ranking in Off. S&P+ in their first two years in Happy Valley. With innovation and a good, old-fashioned boost of positive energy, the Nittany Lions surged to 16th and 10th, respectively, in Moorhead’s two years before he took the Mississippi State head job.
- “Bowdening himself.” Bobby Bowden, Richt’s former mentor at Florida State, became the standard bearer for consistently elite play when he took the Noles to 14 consecutive top-five finishes. But there was clear regression over his last nine seasons, caused in part by an over-reliance on son Jeff Bowden, who spent six years as FSU offensive coordinator after Richt himself took the Georgia job in 2001. Years later, Richt brought son Jon in as QBs coach despite Jon’s inexperience (he was 25 when he was hired and is 28 now).
Loyalty and a struggle to innovate held Bowden back dramatically. He remained at FSU for nearly a decade after the top-five streak ended, in part because of the legacy he had created.
Richt doesn’t have nearly that much of a leash.
He probably isn’t on the hot seat (nor does he deserve to be), but If Miami’s collapse continues — the Canes are 73rd in Off. S&P+ and 103rd in marginal efficiency and are trending downward — he might be next year.
This past summer, I visited Miami for a feature on The U and the weight of history. I asked Richt about retaining play-calling responsibilities, and here was his response:
I was calling plays the first six-seven years at Georgia, and I eventually gave it over to Mike Bobo, who’s now the head coach at Colorado State. And he was just ready for the opportunity, and I thought he deserved it, and I did that, and maybe some day I’ll do that again here at Miami.
But right now, I enjoy doing it, and it keeps my blood pumpin’, and I think it’s good for coaches to see my competitive spirit, I think it’s good for our players to see it, probably good for our fan base to see it, too. There’s no way better to show that than to be right in the heart of the planning and calling of the plays.
Keeping the blood pumping is great, but so is scoring points, and if you can’t do both, choose the latter. If he doesn’t feel coordinator Thomas Brown is ready for play-calling duties, or if Brown’s philosophy is identical to Richt’s, then Richt needs to replace himself with someone else as play-caller. And that change should probably expand to include the QBs coach.
With this defense, The U will remain close to a breakthrough. But with this offense, it’s not far from further collapse.