The Miami Hurricanes are a ways from back—that much is a given. Their 13-11 record in the first two years under Al Golden was a big reason the 9-4 campaign in 2013 was celebrated. Prior to the fourth-year coach's arrival, a 28-23 run for "The U" under then-leader Randy Shannon fueled the decline.
While the reasons for Miami's downfall are many, one glaring area of weakness has been special teams play—something that is easily correctable if young talent is properly utilized and coached up moving forward. As special teams coordinator, Golden has assumed responsibility for this aspect of his Hurricanes and while things have been pretty good, there's certainly room for improvement.
Miami hasn't fielded an utterly solid special teams unit since Butch Davis was at the helm—something that carried on for years upon his departure for the NFL, due to the blueprint laid and level of talent amassed.
Return men like Santana Moss, Daryl Jones, Philip Buchanon, Devin Hester and Roscoe Parrish were next-level punt returners, while future NFL greats like Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee and Sean Taylor made their mark as kickoff return specialists.
Aside from the abundance of talent that actually matriculated the ball down the field, under Davis a badge of honor was earned courtesy of fundamental blocking and laying down monster hits.
In a word, special teams was where tomorrow's Hurricanes had a chance to cut their teeth today.
As Miami worked its way to a national championship in 2001, true freshmen like Antrel Rolle, Kellen Winslow II and the late Taylor got their feet wet, delivering those big-time hits while getting acclimated to the overall speed of the college game.
Golden spent the past three years in charge of special teams at Miami and in his defense, the talent level overall couldn't hold a candle to what Davis set the stage with well over a decade ago. There have been occasional superstars here and there, but the collective body of work wasn't even close.
Duke Johnson amassed 892 yards on on 27 kickoff returns, with two touchdowns as a freshman, but that number was cut to 14 attempts in 2013 when the sophomore took over top running back duties, limiting his special teams touches.
As a result, wide receiver Stacy Coley became a go-to option, as did cornerback Artie Burns—a pair of true freshmen who had some standout moments, both good and bad.
Burns averaged 26.1 yards on 10 kicks returns, while Coley showed new levels of explosiveness—aside from being the lone FBS player to score touchdowns via rushing, receiving and on both punt and kick returns.
Coley finished the season with 790 total yards on special teams and two touchdowns—though still falling short of the records set by Hester and Moss, who each ran back four punts for scores in 2004 and 2000, respectively.
Unfortunately, Coley—and especially Burns—are still working to live down a nightmare evening last November where special teams gaffes cost Miami a must-win ACC showdown.
Up 7-0 early against Virginia Tech—after Coley took a bubble screen 81 yards for a touchdown—the Hurricanes unraveled.
In a matter of minutes, the freshman receiver coughed up a punt return midfield after a 23-yard gain. The Hokies quickly scored, tied the game and snatched momentum on the kickoff when Burns also fumbled midfield, on the heels of a nifty 43-yard run-back.
Insult to injury came when Miami was down 14-7 early in the second quarter as usually steady punter Pat O'Donnell grazed his knee on the ground when fielding a snap on 4th-and-11. The play resulted in a turnover, with Virginia Tech taking over on the Miami 17-yard line and punching in another score two plays later.
Down 21-7 in a torrential downpour, the Hurricanes never recovered, eventually falling 42-24.
O'Donnell's flub was a rarity for the Cincinnati graduate and transfer. Outside of that, he had a brilliant one-year career at Miami that will be hard to replace this season.
O'Donnell set a single-season record with a 47.1 yard-per-punt average, booting 53 punts for a total of 2,498 yards. He also averaged 63.1 yards on 79 kickoff attempt and understandably earned Special Teams MVP honors at an end-of-season team banquet.
Kicker Matt Goudis also proved to be solid, going 57-of-57 on PATs, but 13 of 17 on field-goal attempts—including an early 44-yard attempt at Florida State when Miami was trailing 7-0.
As crucial as it is to find a way to replace O'Donnell and to keep Goudis on the straight and narrow, Miami needs to help both Coley and Burns with some fresh legs and alternate options.
Senior wide receiver Phillip Dorsett—one of the fastest Hurricanes on the roster—returns from an MCL injury that hobbled him last season, while true freshman running back Joseph Yearby will hope to make his mark as a freshman, a la Johnson two years back.
Miami added 26 new players to the roster with its recent signing day haul-in and somewhere in there is this season's Rolle, Winslow or Taylor—guys ready to fly around with reckless abandon, shedding blocks and laying out returners. Golden and his staff better hope so, at least.
Until the Hurricanes solve their issues at quarterback and rebuild the defensive front seven, a rejuvenated special teams effort might be Miami's path of least resistance in regards to getting back on a winning track.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.com.
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