And welcome back, folks, to another edition of ask a beat writer of the team that’s playing against North Carolina this week. This week, that team is Miami. And that beat writer is Matt Porter, who covers the Hurricanes for The Palm Beach Post.
This is an important game for the Tar Heels, who are seeking the kind of victory that can turn around their season. A victory on Thursday night against Miami, which is off to a 5-0 start, would go a long way toward rejuvenating UNC’s season.
Let’s get to it …
A contender needs talent every year. Right now, Miami’s lineup is an ideal blend of experience (a senior quarterback, three seniors on the offensive line, a senior-heavy defensive line rotation) and youth (sophomores Duke Johnson, Tracy Howard, Deon Bush, Rayshawn Jenkins, Herb Waters; freshmen Stacy Coley, Artie Burns, Alex Figueroa). Since he took over in Dec. 2010), Al Golden has done a strong job in plucking four- and five-stars from South Florida, even with the NCAA cloud hanging over everything. This upcoming class, the fourth affected by the pending sanctions, is ranked No. 5 in the country by 247Sports and Rivals.
So many recruits here are already in love with the ‘Canes, so there’s no reason to think Golden won’t keep reeling ‘em in. Postseason success this year will only help.
Best-case scenario, which I believe unlikely, is the NCAA lets Miami off on good behavior. Two self-imposed bowl sanctions and the NCAA’s issues are enough. Miami has already tried this route, though the motion to dismiss it filed in March was swiftly thrown out by the NCAA.
Worst-case: the NCAA straightens its collective ties, forgets its own errors and focuses on the significant problems at Miami from 2002-2010: the cash, goodies and nightlife opportunities ex-booster Nevin Shapiro provided players, the fact he was allowed around the program though, according to the Yahoo! Sports investigation, it was clear Miami knew what he was up to. In other words, the NCAA gets back on its horse. If that happens, cue the pitchforks and torches, and not just from South Florida.
I expect some regression in numbers as Miami moves through its ACC schedule. But that is not to say this isn’t an excellent unit. D’Onofrio just didn’t have much to work with last year. Miami played 21 freshmen in total, so the defense was both light and inexperienced. The Hurricanes are in better condition now and much bulkier, with 260 to 280-pound defensive ends, 300 to 320-pound defensive tackles and 230 to 240-pound linebackers. The difference? Players are in better position because they’re a year smarter, and less likely to be trucked at the point of impact.
The major change from last year’s offense: Johnson is the featured back. He no longer has James to pound the rock in front of him. His coaches entered the season wanting him to get 20-25 touches per game; he’s been around that mark, and last game carried a career-high 22 times, including a pair of stretches where he took five carries in a row. But as a guy who’s listed at 5-9, 194 carrying the full load for the first time, his durability is a concern to me. Georgia Tech was the first game this season he did not sit a few plays after taking a big pop. I still want to see how he looks at the end of the season. What should help: backup Dallas Crawford has been excellent lately. If this were the NFL, Crawford would be the bane of Johnson fantasy owners; he has just 25 carries, but leads Miami with seven touchdowns, mostly set up by Johnson. Among those with 25 or fewer carries, no one besides Crawford has more than 4 TDs.
A final thought on Johnson, though: he is a sublime talent. He has superb vision, agility and speed, a 50-yard gain waiting to happen. He’s also an excellent receiver and willing blocker. Often forget he has just 17 games under his belt. Miami fans better enjoy watching him this year and next.
So there you have it, folks. Thanks to Matt for his time.