Miami Football: Al Golden's 5 Biggest Challenges for Hurricanes in 2014

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2014

Miami Football: Al Golden's 5 Biggest Challenges for Hurricanes in 2014

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Head coach Al Golden and his Miami Hurricanes will face many challenges during the 2014 season on both sides of the football.

    Breaking in a new quarterback while awaiting a senior's return, the 'Canes offense will be reliant on a pair of playmakers throughout the early games.

    Meanwhile, Golden is expecting the Miami defense to be a consistent threat and not suffer from the same issues seen in previous years.

    On paper, the Hurricanes look prepared for the challenges, but they need results. Their final conference record will show if they overcame those hardships or not.

Relying on Duke Johnson Without Overuse

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Hurricanes must reduce the amount of pressure on their young quarterback, and Duke Johnson will be the player who shoulders the load.

    Even after a horrific ankle injury sidelined him late in 2013, the success of Miami's running game tended to reflect the final result. During nine wins last season, the team tallied 5.44 yards per attempt, whereas the Hurricanes' backfield averaged 2.82 yards per carry over its four losses.

    Beyond missing Duke's elite skills, Dallas Crawford was forced to be the featured back with no true backup.

    In 2014, Gus Edwards has already proved he is physically capable of occupying the second-string spot, and Joseph Yearby's high-school accolades suggest he is ready for the same position.

    Led by Johnson, the rushing attack will carry Miami again this year, and Golden must find a balance between not giving Duke enough touches and overworking him.

    Considering Edwards and Yearby are available, the latter would be discouraging. 

Avoiding Major Injuries

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The impact of Johnson missing five games was discussed on the previous slide, but he was not the only player whose absence impacted Miami.

    Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett took a helmet to his knee and was unavailable for the most important games of the Hurricanes' season. In his absence, former Miami QB Stephen Morris discovered Stacy Coley's undeniable talent, but he certainly missed Dorsett's elite speed.

    After an outstanding freshman campaign, Deon Bush started just three games at safety because of lingering injuries. Kacy Rodgers II and A.J. Highsmith were not adequate replacements, and the Miami secondary suffered opposite Rayshawn Jenkins.

    Injuries aren't the main reason the 'Canes lost four of their final six games, but missing key players on both sides of the ball was a contributing factor.

    If Miami can avoid losing two of its top offensive weapons and have a top defensive threat at full strength, the team's chances at winning certainly improve considerably. 

Sustaining Defensive Improvement

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    The Hurricanes dominated the early season before faltering in conference play.
    The Hurricanes dominated the early season before faltering in conference play.USA TODAY Sports

    It's been discussed before, but the 2013 Miami defense went from overachieving to awful.

    Golden's squad jumped out to a 7-0 record, limiting the opposition to 342.3 yards per contest, tallying 22 sacks and ceding 18 total touchdowns.

    However, starting with the beatdown at Florida State, the Hurricanes were shredded for 524.5 yards and 28 touchdowns while accounting for just seven total sacks over six games.

    Highlighted by Denzel Perryman, Tracy Howard and Jenkins, the handful of starters who return this year are poised to make a significant difference.

    Miami should see somewhat similar results through seven games in 2014, but then—as will be discussed later—the competition level rises significantly. The 'Canes cannot afford another staggering defensive letdown against their best opponents. 

Deciding What Happens When Ryan Williams Returns

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    Ryan Williams
    Ryan WilliamsCredit: 247Sports

    Ryan Williams suffered an ACL injury during a spring scrimmage, leaving responsibilities under center to redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen. Brad Kaaya, Gray Crow and Malik Rosier are each in the mix as well, so the quarterback competition will be closely watched throughout fall camp.

    Golden told's Andrea Adelson that Williams applying for a medical hardship waiver "doesn't appear to be the route right now based on how well he is recovering. We know he'll be back. It's just a question of how early because his recovery right now is phenomenal."

    The senior is set to return at some point, but that creates even more uncertainty at the position.

    Does Golden simply hand the starting job back to him if Williams is available before the bulk of ACC play begins in late September? Or would the fourth-year coach leave the team on Olsen's arm or Kaaya's arm until they falter?

    Unfortunately, those questions cannot be answered until there is a more definitive idea of Williams' return date. 

Winning 6 Conference Games

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    In each of the last two years, the Coastal Division champion had no more than six conference victories.

    Given the overall mediocrity expected this season, that six-win mark should be the Hurricanes' goal.

    After Miami opens the 2014 campaign on the road at ACC opponent Louisville, the 'Canes face three nonconference foes before hosting Duke and traveling to Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks.

    At this point, Golden's team can be no worse than 2-1 if it wants to win the Coastal Division because the schedule only gets harder.

    Starting with Virginia Tech on Thursday, Oct. 23 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), The U enters a treacherous three-game stretch. North Carolina and Florida State head south to Sun Life Stadium, and Miami must emerge from the Nov. 15 tilt versus FSU—at worst4-2 in the ACC.

    The Hurricanes finish the season at Virginia and home against Pittsburgh, which are definitely must-win games if Golden and company want a Coastal Division title.

    This challenge will easily be the most difficult the program encounters.