Miami Football: Al Golden's Offseason Checklist
Year three is in the books, the NCAA has moved on, national signing day is in the rearview, Penn State rumors have been buried and as a result, it's now full speed ahead for Al Golden and the Miami Hurricanes.
UM's quest to reclaim its place as a national power won't be easy. The mess in Coral Gables has been long-running, multilayered and resulted in a full-blown rebuilding project.
Golden's recent signing day haul-in welcomed 26 new players to the Miami program, helping lay a proper foundation that should revive the Hurricanes over the coming years.
While talent is certainly part of the overall equation, wise coaching decisions must also be made. Golden and staff have just under seven months to get game-ready, building on last year's 9-4 campaign.
Here are seven suggestions for Miami's coaches regarding how to best utilize the offseason, in order to help the Hurricanes take a necessary step forward come fall.
Solve Current Quarterback Dilemma
While some will welcome the departure of up-and-down, two-year starter Stephen Morris, the fact remains there's tremendous instability at quarterback for the Hurricanes this coming season, which is worrisome.
Does Miami go short term and rely on one-year option Ryan Williams—a former 2-star product and Memphis transfer? Or will coaches think long term and invest in a youth movement, knowing there will be setbacks?
Kevin Olsen redshirted for Miami last fall, but he found himself suspended for the bowl game, having broken team rules. The New Jersey product also found some trouble back home before his arrival in Coral Gables a year ago.
Brad Kaaya and Malik Rosier were two great pickups on national signing day and could compete immediately. Still, both are early enrollees and will arrive on campus very green in the coming months, neither having competed in spring football.
Miami hasn't had true stability at quarterback since Ken Dorsey graduated over a decade ago. For the Hurricanes to continue taking steps forward, issues under center must be worked out effective immediately.
Williams is obviously the safest choice, but coaches must do all they can to give Olsen, Kaaya and Rosier a viable chance at proving they can win the starting gig.
If none of the underclassmen rise to the occasion, Miami could be looking at back-to-back seasons of breaking in new quarterbacks, which the program can ill afford to.
Build a Competitive Defensive Front Seven
Miami's maligned defense has been blamed on coaching and scheme—which has some merit—but a lack of talent and depth up front remains the program's biggest culprit.
The Hurricanes' defensive line and linebacking corps have been a weak link for the past several years. Until that changes, "The U" simply will not take that much-needed giant step forward.
Miami lost eight veteran defenders after the 2011 season and lacked the depth to reload in 2012. Last year, three linebackers were asked to leave the program in the spring, while two Division I transfers were brought in to add bodies to a struggling defensive line.
Eight new defensive linemen will be in the fold this fall, including a few JUCO transfers and early enrollees. At linebacker, senior Denzel Perryman returns, while the Hurricanes have a few sophomore breakout stars in Jermaine Grace and Alex Figueroa ready to take a step forward.
Building a solid front seven is job No. 1 for Al Golden and his defensive coaches as fall approaches—as proven by the emphasis put on defensive linemen in the 2014 recruiting class.
Much of Miami's defensive talent will be young and inexperienced, but this group will have to learn on the fly if the Hurricanes are going to start reversing their recent defensive curse.
A Renewed Emphasis on Special Teams
Solid special teams was a staple of the Butch Davis era. Speedy returners, hard-nosed hitting, solid tackling and both kickers and punters who seemed automatic.
Miami loses one-year option Pat O'Donnell at punter—the Cincinnati transfer with the golden leg who was a huge asset last season—while returning kicker Matt Goudis, who had his share of struggles in 2013.
Regarding the returners, Stacy Coley and Artie Burns are back, though both are works in progress. Coley had some breakout moments, but both underclassmen had key fumbles in an eventual loss to Virginia Tech last November and are still learning the art of the return game.
Phillip Dorsett was a speedy returner for Miami pre-MCL tear last October, so the senior will be worked back into the equation this season. True freshman running back Joseph Yearby could also see special teams action, a la Duke Johnson as a newbie in 2012.
All of it must come together for Miami in 2014, with special teams a legitimate asset, not a liability.
Head coach Al Golden is directly responsible for this unit. What will he do this offseason to help his special teams unit take a giant leap forward come fall?
Keep Team on the Straight and Narrow
Knock on wood, serious off-the-field trouble has seemed to escape the Miami program for the past several years. Three linebackers were asked to move on last spring—Eddie Johnson, Gionni Paul and Gabe Terry—most likely in an effort to draw a line in the dirt, setting a tone regarding what will and won't be tolerated.
Days back an out-of-control party in Knoxville resulted in two current Tennessee football players being arrested. The messy event was a distraction for the Volunteers program and serves as a reminder that things can spiral out of control quickly when athletes have too much free time during the offseason.
Head coach Al Golden and staff started the 16-player "Unity Council" last season, in an effort to promote accountability and leadership. While that in itself won't ensure players stay out of trouble, it's a step in the right direction.
The role of the Hurricanes' "Unity Council" is to act as a liaison between players and coaches, with weekly meetings held to determine whether certain events require intervention or attention.
Between this player-led organization, last year's dismissals and the fact that this program has entered year four of the Golden era, players should have a clear understanding as to what is expected from them both on and off the field.
Send James Coley on the Road for Some Innovation
While James Coley certainly deserves an asterisk courtesy of the rash of injuries suffered on his side of the ball last season, the fact remains Miami took a step back under the first-year offensive coordinator.
Jedd Fisch brought innovation to the Hurricanes offense in two seasons at "The U"—shootouts, trick plays, balance and overall improvement. Stephen Morris looked like a surefire NFL pick in 2012 when Fisch was calling the plays. Last year under Coley? Not so much.
Morris was handcuffed in a win over Florida; he almost single-handedly gave away a game at North Carolina with four interceptions and struggled mightily in the red zone at Duke.
After the season wrapped, Morris gushed about his former coordinator and current Jacksonville play-caller at the Senior Bowl.
“I love Coach Fisch and the offense he’s in,” Morris said, per Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union. “He helped me grow as a quarterback. It’s a wonderful offense.”
While it's way too early to write Coley off, based on how 2013 measured up to 2012, there is pressure on Golden to promote offensive growth between now and September.
Before Alabama hired Lane Kiffin as its offensive coordinator last month, head coach Nick Saban welcomed the former USC leader to Tuscaloosa to share some wisdom. Saban quantified the decision to have Kiffin drop by.
"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said last December. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit just some professional ideas with our guys, I think, is a real positive thing. And I don't know why there's any reaction to it. I'm really quite surprised."
Saban has also welcomed Oklahoma and Boise State coaches in the past, regarding what he calls "professional development-type things," where ideas are exchanged and coaching growth is promoted.
If a four-time national champion like Saban is welcoming offseason consulting, Golden and Miami might want to think about doing the same for Coley between now and that Labor Day kickoff at Louisville.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
Going into last season there was tremendous hype around Miami's offense. Coming off a banner 2012 campaign where Morris, Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett all had breakout years, the Hurricanes were expected to take a step forward in 2013.
Instead, all three aforementioned players suffered season-defining injuries. Morris tweaked an ankle late September against Savannah State, deep threat Dorsett tore his MCL mid-October at North Carolina and Johnson was lost for the year with a broken ankle early November at Florida State.
Unfortunately Miami had no answers as the season unfolded. From the time Johnson went down against the Seminoles, the Hurricanes put together a 2-4 run to close the season, losing must-win conference games against Virginia Tech and Duke.
Before disaster hits, Hurricanes coaches must start thinking about Plan B. Backup quarterbacks, receivers and running backs all need extra reps, allowing them to be game-ready if called upon. Same to be said for special packages with said players and some innovation to help pick up the slack.
Crisis seems to strike all teams in one form or another throughout the course of a season. After paying a steep price for a few key injuries last year, what will Miami do to ensure this year's backups are ready for the spotlight if called upon?
The Hurricanes' program simply can't afford to drop four of six games late in the year, killing all and any momentum gained in September and October.
Continue Recruiting Hard for 2015 and Beyond
The best way to end the arguments regarding coaching and scheming? Continue working to reel in the nation's best talent, as those programs with the best players seem to find a way to prevail.
The art of recruiting has changed drastically over the years, and the Miami Hurricanes have been at a disservice prior to Golden's arrival in December 2010, when then-head coach Randy Shannon only had four verbal commits on board two months leading up to national signing day.
College coaches begin recruiting top prospects when said kids are in junior high. That's when inroads are made, and without that, coaches spend the next several years playing catch-up regarding schools who got on board early.
Golden and Miami have been recruiting with an arm tied behind the program's back due to a two-plus year NCAA investigation. During that time rivals whispered "death penalty," and the Hurricanes lost out on countless top prospects.
While the investigation ended last October, it was still too late to turn the tide with some players in the 2014 class. That said, the days in "recruiting purgatory" appear over for the Hurricanes.
Miami already has a handful of verbal commitments for 2015 and 2016—kids who were in junior high when Golden and staff took over and started working to right the ship, mending fences with local coaches.
The combination of no NCAA cloud, four years worth of inroads and a strong recruiting work ethic regarding Miami coaches—it should pay dividends this offseason for the Hurricanes.
That's especially true this summer when more Golden football camps get underway.