UNC vs. Miami: Ask a Hurricanes beat writer

North Carolina’s defense has struggled all season, and it will face its most difficult test to date on Thursday night against Miami.
North Carolina’s defense has struggled all season, and it will face its most difficult test to date on Thursday night against Miami. ROBERT WILLETT - rwillett@newsobserver.com

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.

You can follow Matt on Twitter right here. And read a lot of his work right here on his Hurricanes blog. And you can read a Q-and-A I did with him, offering some UNC insights, right here.

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 …

Andrew Carter: After covering Florida State for four years – Bobby Bowden’s final three and Jimbo Fisher’s first as a head coach – I know what it’s like to hear questions about “being back.” As in – when will this program be back? Is it closer to being back? On the right track to being back? Clearly, the Hurricanes are having their best season in a while. What’s your read on how close Miami is to becoming a year-in, year-out national contender again?

Matt Porter: It’s on the right track. Before thinking about a return to the glory days of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, Miami has to win the ACC (hasn’t done it since joining in 2004) or win a bowl game (hasn’t done that since 2006, when it won something called the MPC Computers Bowl to finish 7-6). The Hurricanes had a chance at doing both last season, but self-imposed a postseason ban. So, Phase I of the rebuild is almost complete.

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.

AC: That said, how much concern is there over the looming NCAA sanctions – whatever they might be. ACC Commissioner John Swofford said he’d be disappointed if this case wasn’t wrapped up by the start of the season and, here we are – still waiting. Why is this taking so long and what’s the best-case, worst-case scenario down there?

MP: When will we know? Let me shake my magic 8-ball again. No one at UM I’ve spoken with – publicly or privately – has a clue when this is going down, or what’s taking so long. Golden was asked about it more in the start of the season than now, but each time he’s talked about his frustration and disappointment – he’s coached each of his 29 games at UM in front of a mess he didn’t create.

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.

AC: Miami’s defense wasn’t that much unlike UNC’s a season ago. In fact, the Hurricanes were worse. They ranked 116th nationally in total defense. Right now Miami is 12th nationally in total defense. What are the biggest factors in the defensive turnaround and, after five games, is it safe to say this defense is as good as its stats suggest?

MP: Miami is drastically better, but is it the nation’s No. 1 pass defense? The 12th-best defense in the country? I have my doubts. Aside from Georgia Tech, which ran all over the Hurricanes until defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio could make halftime adjustments, Miami hasn’t faced a capable offense. Florida’s run game was stout, but the Gators turned the ball over five times, three in the red zone. FAU and USF were miserable offenses. For some reason, Miami was given credit for its win over Savannah State, one of the worst teams in FCS.

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.

AC: James Coley created a bit of a stir in the offseason when he left his position at Florida State to become the offensive coordinator at Miami. Under him, how has the offense changed from a season ago? And what has made Duke Johnson, the sophomore running back, so successful aside from the fact that he’s just really good?

MP: Coley didn’t really need to change a lot. It’s the same the same talent, minus graduated running back Mike James, but a year older. He has quarterback Stephen Morris and Johnson, the tailback, operating behind a big, experienced line; he has a solid tight end and a fleet of dangerous receivers. So, generally speaking, Miami’s 2013 offense under Coley looks the same as it did in 2012 under Jedd Fisch: an even mix of the run and pass, spreading the ball around and taking deep shots, all at a quick pace. The Hurricanes are ninth in scoring offense but 107th in time of possession. Effective.

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.

AC: Miami is off to such a good start – ranked among the top 25 nationally in total offense and total defense – and the victory against Florida was perhaps the most important in several seasons. Even so, what concerns does Al Golden have about this team at this point? What are some areas you wouldn’t be surprised to see UNC try to test on Thursday night?

MP: As good as Miami’s defense has looked, Bryn Renner is by far the most talented passer it has faced. Every passing attack UM has faced has been below-average (or much, much worse). Eric Ebron and Quinshad Davis may be the two best pass-catchers Miami has seen (Ebron is without a doubt the best). If Renner has time to throw, I expect him to give the linebackers and secondary some trouble.

So there you have it, folks. Thanks to Matt for his time.