Uncovering the Miami Hurricanes Offense Under New Coordinator James Coley
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The Miami Hurricanes are 2-0 and can finally exhale.
The season-opening "scrimmage" against Florida Atlantic went as planned, followed by a win over the hated Florida Gators. Up next, a bye week and then another tune-up against Savannah State. From there, Miami will welcome Georgia Tech to the 305 on October 5 to kick off ACC season.
Another known fact; Miami's defense unexpectedly stole the show against Florida. The Hurricanes forced two interceptions, three fumbles and had a monster red-zone stop on 4th-and-1 late in the second quarter. The defense won the game, whereas the offense hasn't yet found its groove.
James Coley left his post at Florida State last January to take over as UM's offensive coordinator. Feeling handcuffed by Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher, the Miami native was involved with FSU's game-week planning, but on Saturdays in fall, it was Fisher's show.
A beast of a recruiter, Coley was a huge pickup for Miami head coach Al Golden after two-year coordinator Jedd Fisch took the same job with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fisch left the cupboard full regarding talent, as well as a blueprint for Coley to follow, and as the season rolls on, so will the Hurricanes' offense.
Miami seemed to score at will last season. Quarterback Stephen Morris threw for 3,345 and 21 touchdowns, while Duke Johnson had 139 carries and rushed for a UM freshman-record 947 yards, with 10 scores.
A stable of receivers, some late-season production at tight end and an offensive line made up of grizzly veterans under the tutelage of the fiery Art Kehoe, Coley walked into a tailor-made situation. Insert the key, start the engine and floor it. Or so it would seem.
Two games in, Coley's Canes aren't necessarily blowing things up stats-wise. Miami's 55 points ranks 62nd, and the Hurricanes are 73rd in yardage with 715 total.
Morris has passed for 322 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Against Florida, he went 8-of-11 for 101 yards and two touchdowns on three possessions.
Out the gate, Morris was 4-of-5 for 28 yards, with a perfectly placed strike to Herb Waters for the game's first score. When called on to answer Florida's touchdown, Morris was 4-of-4 for 73 yards, including the 52-yard hook-up with Phillip Dorsett.
Early on, Coley seemed to be all about tempo. Miami went no-huddle and moved the ball effectively with some well-timed runs by Johnson. This opened up the passing game, as Morris quickly found Waters, Allen Hurns and tight end Clive Walford for some big gains. Morris dumped a couple passes to Johnson and Walford in the flats, as well, catching the Gators' defense off guard.
Tempo was the key early. Surprise Florida, punch the Gators in the snout, get them on their heels and score, which worked well in the first quarter.
Coley ran Johnson on first down the first four possessions of the game, putting Morris in situations ranging from 2nd-and-8 to 2nd-and-3. When Miami was forced to punt on the second possession, it was the result of Morris' timing being off.
A 2nd-and-8 pass was too high for Dorsett to pull down at the sticks, and a play later, Morris couldn't exploit man coverage as Coley called for a deep ball down the sideline, again to Dorsett.
When Miami needed to answer on the next possession after Florida's blocked punt and Jeff Driskel touchdown, Coley again went high-octane. A Johnson run netted five yards on first down, and on second, Morris rolled left and hit Walford in the flat for the first down.
More Johnson on first down, an incomplete second-down pass and a third-down conversion from Morris to Hurns set up the 52-yard first-down strike to Dorsett for the score.
The game plan was flawless early on. What changed as the game continued was threefold: Florida's ability to adjust, Miami's inability to remain effective and the fact that the Hurricanes found themselves in a game of cat and mouse, protecting a lead and putting the game in the hands of a defense that was causing turnovers and making plays, seemingly out of nowhere.
Coley stuck with his formula early in the second half, relying on Johnson to put Miami in "and-short" situations on second and third down. The Hurricanes went run-run-pass on the first two possessions of the second half, which seemed conservative but ultimately proved wise.
Johnson is Coley's biggest home run threat, so giving the running back a chance to follow a block and break off a long run was always the ultimate goal. Secondary to that was letting the gritty sophomore pick up little chunks on the first two downs, giving Miami a variety of third-down options.
Credit the Gators' defensive adjustments as Johnson was held to negative-three yards on his first four second-half carries. Miami then faced a 3rd-and-14 and 3rd-and-9, with Florida blitzing in both cases and getting to Morris, bringing on the punting unit, which wasn't detrimental with Cincinnati transfer Pat O'Donnell booming the ball deep.
O'Donnell recovered from the early block and punted eight times for 392 yards—an average of 49.0 yards per punt and proving his immediate value.
Coley stuck with Johnson on first and second down much of the second half, but Miami couldn't score. Even when Johnson netted positive yardage early in a series, the Hurricanes seemed to self-implode.
Early in the fourth quarter, Johnson picked up nine yards on first down, and fullback Maurice Hagens got seven the following play, his lone carry of the afternoon. Set up midfield with a fresh set of downs, offensive lineman Ereck Flowers was hit with a hold. Facing 1st-and-20, Coley's strategy changed. Johnson was out of the mix, Miami was forced to throw deep, and on 3rd-and-25, Morris was picked off.
Miami had three more offensive possessions in the fourth, and Coley ran Johnson on first down every time.
The second-to-last possession had Miami starting on the 4-yard line after a Tyriq McCord sack and fumble recovery. Johnson was stopped for no gain, but a pass interference in the end zone set Miami up at the 2-yard line, and a play later, Johnson punched in what proved to be the game-winner.
Because this was Florida, because Miami opened with Florida Atlantic at home and because Coley is two games into his tenure at Miami, his offense deserves to be considered "in progress" until further notice.
Week 1 was a akin to a preseason game. Four quarters to shake off the cobwebs and get game-ready without showing the Week 2 opponent anything fancy. In this case, the Florida Gators were the squad second up on the schedule, boasting one of the best defenses and biggest front sevens in the nation. Because of that, Coley had every reason to hold back.
Miami attacked Florida early, fast and furious, knowing the adjustments were coming. From there, it became about endurance and turned into a game of chess— a battle for field possession as an underdog defense manufactured ways to keep the enemy out of the end zone.
An offensive coordinator's job isn't to simply rack up yards and score points. It's about game-planning and doing the right things against a specific opponent's defense.
Fans tend to want to treat football like a video game, throwing on every down always going for the big play. Against a defense like Florida's, that would have been suicide, as the game rolled on and the Gators tightened things up.
Protecting the football was key, as evidenced by the Hurricanes winning the turnover battle, 6-1, including the fourth-down stop.
Miami's strategy was obvious. Punch itself out early, land some big blows and spend the rest of the afternoon bobbing, weaving, ducking and covering up. In this case, it worked, so overcritiquing Coley is pointless. Especially only two games in.
Miami has a "bye" this week, which Golden referred to as a "process week" on his weekly ACC teleconference, via CaneInsider.com:
It's about our process. This week is us versus complacency. We're not calling it a bye-week, we're calling it a process week. We're trying to get better and we're trying to compete every day and we're trying to see if we can find some guys that can stand up and compete for jobs.
Another way to look at it is as a "reset," as the first two games of the season aren't indicative of what's to come.
Coley has this week to work on timing issues between Morris and his receivers, and next week, Miami welcomes Savannah State, a squad that has been outscored 143-13 by the likes of Georgia Southern and Troy. From there, the season's first road trip to take on a currently winless South Florida and and then the home ACC opener against Georgia Tech.
Any worries about the Miami offense are premature as the first two weeks of this season were unique. Same players, new coordinator and an unfamiliar opponent set a different tone—as did the overall magnitude of the Florida game and a must-win attitude due to recent main-stage failures.
Who will become quarterback Stephen Morris' go-to receiver as the season rolls on?
Miami is 2-0, but the season is truly just beginning. Coley will stick to Fisch's blueprint while adding his own personal touches, and success will follow. This isn't the year to reinvent the wheel. Not with the depth, talent and experience the Hurricanes offense boasts.
Johnson will remain the workhorse, and everything will continue going through the highly touted back. A power running game will open things up for Morris to spread it around, which he will once miscommunication with receivers is corrected.
The Hurricanes will also soon benefit from the addition of two key freshmen—wide receiver Stacy Coley and running back Gus Edwards. Both are expected to make an immediate impact but were too green for the game plan against Florida.
Look for Miami to find a nice groove early against Savannah State and to head into South Florida with the type of offense fans were expecting out the gate.
The first few weeks were about survival and getting a huge monkey off the program's back, which the Hurricanes did.
Now that Miami is 2-0, Coley will put his foot on the gas and the real fun will begin.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog
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