Season Preview: Receivers & Tight Ends

Since the graduation of Phillip Dorsett and his 24.2 yards per catch in 2014, the Canes have been sorely lacking a game-changing receiver that strikes the fear of God into defensive coordinators. As a matter of fact, the last Miami wide out to post a 1,000-yard season was Allen Hurns in 2013 (62 catches, 1,162, 6 TD).

The tight end position, on the other hand, has remained constant since the days of Bubba Franks and continued recently through Clive Walford and David Njoku. But when will the playmakers return on the outside? Is sophomore Ahmmon Richards the answer to that question?

During Hurns’ senior season in 2013, a freshman by the name of Stacy Coley was expected to be the next great receiver at The U, averaging 18 YPC and tallying 7 scores through the air. He even showed off his versatility with a 73-yard TD run at Pitt, an 88-yard kickoff return TD vs FCS Savannah State, and a 79-yard punt return for a score vs Duke. As a true freshman, Coley was the only FBS player in 2013 to take it to the house via receiving, rushing, kickoff return, and punt return.

However, as a sophomore, injuries limited Coley to just 8 YPC with no TDs. His final two seasons at Miami saw three different head coaches, and while he led the team with 63 catches and 9 TDs as a senior, fans were never treated to the same explosiveness that No. 3 exhibited as a freshman.

In 2015, his numbers were more than solid, 47 grabs for 689 yards and his 14.7 YPC was third on the team behind Njoku and Herb Waters. In 2016, his YPC dipped to 12.0 behind Richards (19.1), Njoku (16.2), Braxton Berrios (14.8), and Malcolm Lewis (12.4).

One area Coley will be missed will be in red zone situations – that sometimes hurt his yards per catch average. His 9 TDs were the most by a Miami wide out since Dorsett in 2014, and to be fair, his YPC numbers took a hit due to his reliability near the goal line. During a 51-28 win over Pitt, he finished with two touchdown grabs of 1 and 3 yards, trimming his YPC average to 6.6 for the day, despite snagging a career-high 9 receptions.

Something I’ve noticed after looking up recent statistics for Miami receivers: many of them, not just Coley, saw a significant drop in year two. Which begs the question: will Richards suffer the same fate in 2017?

Berrios, as a freshman slot receiver in 2014, caught 21 passes for 232 yards and 3 scores. In the two years since, he’s combined for 24 grabs, 264 yards, and 2 TDs while battling concussions.

Even the first rounders weren’t immune to the sophomore (or “second year”) slump. After a breakout sophomore season where he posted a career best 58 catches, Dorsett was limited to just seven games and 13 catches as a junior before putting up career-highs in receiving yards, yards per catch, and touchdowns as a senior.

Hurns’ numbers also took a dip. As a freshman in 2010, Hurns didn’t catch a pass but he burst onto the scene with two TDs during the win over Ohio State in early 2011. He ended his sophomore campaign with 31 catches for 415 yards, and 4 scores on 13.4 YPC. During his junior season, he sustained a concussion at Kansas State and gradually worked his way back into the lineup. Then in November, he broke his thumb while blocking on special teams at Virginia but finished the game and wound up with 2 TDs. Unfortunately, the injury wound up costing him Miami’s final home game vs USF a week later.

Most of the year two struggles can be chalked up to injuries, some were even freak injuries – like Hurns at Virginia. But under Al Golden, it seemed as if bad luck was a big black tomcat and the Canes were continuously in heat.

One of the most notable changes Mark Richt made at Miami was the dismissal of strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey and replacing him with Gus Felder. While Swasey may have been popular among the players and many fans, it was also clear to many that the Canes were having issues closing out games, physically and mentally.

Will Felder’s strength and conditioning program result in fewer injuries than the previous staff? Were the injuries even Swasey, Golden, or the previous staff’s fault to begin with? One season under Felder doesn’t provide enough evidence pointing one way or the other. Hopefully, Richards doesn’t experience a sophomore slump due to something like a broken thumb from blocking on a kickoff return.

Then again, if he remains healthy, how much can we judge from his statistics? Last year Brad Kaaya was the man at QB and Richards knew that the second he arrived in Coral Gables. How much chemistry can any of the pass catchers develop with the quarterback when it could be one of three or four guys?

Last season, Richards led the team with 934 yards while averaging 19.1 YPC, meanwhile, he was second behind Coley with 49 catches, and third (behind Coley and Njoku) with 3 TDs. Considering that Richards was relatively quiet over the first two games with 5 grabs for 61 yards and a score (vs lowly Florida A&M) before running wild at Appalachian State with a 142-yard performance.

Over the next five games, his numbers were solid for a second or third option WR, but nothing spectacular: 43 yards at Georgia Tech, 58 vs FSU, 55 vs UNC, 78 at Virginia Tech, and 51 at Notre Dame. It wasn’t until his three game stretch in November that he began to gain recognition outside of South Florida. An 8-catch, 144-yard outing vs Pitt had him approaching Michael Irvin’s 31-year old Miami freshman records. He followed that up with three grabs for 100 yards – highlighted by a 77-yard TD reception – at Virginia before reeling in nine catches for 117 yards at NC State to pass Irvin.

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A subpar outing on Senior Day vs Duke brought the freshman back down to earth but in the bowl game he reminded us why the Wellington native was so high on Nick Saban’s board. With Miami down 7-0 and struggling on offense, Richards used his 4.3 speed to blow past the entire West Virginia defense and turn a screen pass into a momentum shifting, 51-yard house call.

Richards finished the Russell Athletic Bowl with a respectable 68 yards on 3 catches but his TD catch sparked a 31-0 Miami onslaught after Kaaya and the offense failed to convert a single first down during the first 20+ minutes of the contest. When the dust settled on 2016, one thing was clear: when Richards dominated, the Canes were dominant. When Richards scored or went over 100 yards, Miami was 6-0. And not only did they win, they won big – by an average of 43-14 in games where Richards scored and/or went over 100 yards.

Due to Richards’ play down the stretch last year, 1,000 yards was a possibility entering the bowl game and some in the media are expecting Richards to reach 1,200+ yards this season. That’s definitely in reach but I don’t believe he needs to topple 1,000 yards for 2017 season to be a success. Breaking in a new QB, it could be difficult to surpass last season’s total of 934, even without splitting catches with Coley and Njoku. Although a few areas where I would like to see his numbers increase are: his reception total and TDs (particularly inside the red zone – only one of his three TDs were less than 20 yards).

If Richards catches 60+ passes and has at least 8-10 TDs while keeping his YPC hovering around 15, he can have a very successful season with a yardage total in the 900-1,000 range.

Meanwhile, with limited depth at tight end due to the transfer of Jovani Haskins, it’s imperative that senior Chris Herndon remains healthy. Sophomore Michael Irvin Jr is untested and unproven, RS-sophomore Malik Curry was listed as a linebacker last season, and true freshman Brian Polendy was likely headed for a redshirt year in 2017. That could change, however.

In an August 2016 Miami Herald interview, Herndon praised Irvin Jr. as having some of the “best hands on the team” but needed time for his “body to mature.” With the early departure of Njoku combined with Haskins’ transfer, we might get a look at the development of Irvin Jr. a little quicker than anticipated.

After both Irvin Jr. and Haskins were suspended for last year’s bowl game for a violation of team rules, let’s hope that Irvin has matured in other ways as well. Although, the reports out of spring practice were positive and Tight Ends Coach Todd Hartley praised the development of both Irvin and the departed Haskins.

An early enrollee known primarily for his blocking prowess, Polendy surprised the coaching staff with his hands, but the Denton, Texas product remains very green at this point.

Joining Herndon as the only senior pass catcher is Berrios, who also returned kicks in 2016. Earlier in this piece, we discussed how concussions limited Berrios (5-9, 185) after a promising freshman season. Should the Raleigh, NC native slip up at either receiver or returner, newcomer Jeff Thomas (5-10, 175) will be chomping at the bits to prove what he’s capable of.

Arguably the fastest player in the Class of 2017, Thomas, who will wear No. 4 and was the MVP at the Under Armour All America Game, has already drawn comparisons to another No. 4, Devin Hester.

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I see Thomas making an immediate impact on special teams but he remains a little raw in his route running so Berrios will likely remain the No. 1 option at slot receiver, at least early in the season. In fact, I could see Berrios having a career year in 2017 because of the speed surrounding him – drawing safeties and linebackers into coverage more often. Also, if Thomas or Mike Harley take over the punt return duties, that will take some of the burden off of Berrios and allow him to focus on catching passes and being the senior leader for a young receiving corps. As for Thomas, his combination of hands, speed, and agility is too elite to keep off the field in 2017. And when he’s on the field, you can bet Coach Richt will be looking for ways to get the ball into his hands.

Speaking of Harley, he is another burner that joined Thomas at The U on National Signing Day 2017. At 5-9, 165 Harley isn’t your prototypical outside (X or Z) receiver, but with a speed advantage that pronounced, you take advantage of the mismatches. Besides, what could be scarier than the thought of having to cover Richards, Harley, Thomas, and whoever else you want to throw out there at WR. 

As for the larger targets, RS-sophomore Lawrence Cager (6-5, 220) returns from a knee injury that cost him all of 2016 but has the tools to be a Kelvin Benjamin-type talent if 100-percent. He started one game as a freshman and finished the season with 8 grabs, 70 yards and a score. After spending last season studying film and mentoring Richards, there may not be another Hurricane hungrier for fall camp than No. 18.

Junior Darrell Langham (6-4, 220) stood out in the final spring scrimmage with a game-high 8 catches for 57 yards and 2 TDs. According to Richards, Langham is one of the most improved receivers on the team will turn a lot of heads this season, especially with his ability to come down with “50-50” balls.

Another junior, Dayall Harris (6-3, 195) showed glimpses last season, catching nine passes for 90 yards in his first season after transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. A 4-star prospect out of high school, Harris signed with Ole Miss but was redshirted as a freshman in 2014 before getting suspended late in the year and ending up at a junior college. Harris is another physical receiver who prefers to out-jump (than out-run) defensive backs – according to an interview with the Palm Beach Post in May 2016. Harris backed up his words with a red zone TD during the one-minute drill segment of the spring scrimmage.

Others to watch are sophomore Dionte Mullins, who was a late arrival in 2016 and didn’t see much action as a result. At 5-11, 200 pounds, Mullins has added 20 pounds since last season but hasn’t recorded a catch since his junior year of high school. However, none of that mattered in the spring when Mullins “caught the eye” of Coach Richt. “He’s much more sure of what he’s doing. He’s in good condition. He made some nice catches. He did a nice job,” Richt told the Palm Beach Post in March.

Freshman Demetrius “DeeJay” Dallas played quarterback in high school and many expected the 5-10, 200-pound early enrollee to play DB in college. But that was until he demonstrated his pass catching skills in the spring and was quickly transitioned to offensive side of the ball. In the scrimmage, Dallas hauled in a 65-yard TD from Vincent Testaverde.

Like Polendy at tight end, Dallas has impressed but is still a bit raw. Recently, stories began to circulate that Dallas could see action as an emergency running back due to the lack of depth at that position. Look for Dallas to see the field somewhere in 2017, he’s too versatile not to. I just don’t expect him to put up any significant receiving numbers as a true freshman. As a kick/punt returner? That’s a different story.

Another true freshman, Evidence Njoku (6-6, 195) is the brother of David, but like his big bro, he will probably receive a redshirt in year one. Evidence didn’t enroll until July so he’s a bit behind the other freshman receivers at this point, but his upside remains off the charts. I could see Evidence Njoku as another Tommy Streeter type receiver. He could take a few years to develop, but with that size (rumors are he’s still growing) and 4.4 speed, his best-case-scenario could fall somewhere between a Streeter and a Jimmy Graham – if he fills out his 6-6 / 6-7 frame.

Other players on the roster at receiver are junior Malik Mayweather (6-0, 190), sophomores O’Juan Carney (5-10, 180) and Chad Allen (5-10, 175), freshmen Elias Lugo-Fagundo (6-0, 190) and Marshall Few (5-11, 185).

Next up is the offensive line – the final preview for the offense. With senior Michael Badgley a lock at placekicker, the only question mark on special teams is the punter. For a look at the two players vying for that job, check out the earlier blog entry Punter U.  

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