Fifteen notes and thoughts off the Miami Hurricanes’ spring game on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium:
▪ For the second offseason in a row, UM maximized the transfer portal, adding three solid starters with Deandre Johnson, Charleston Rambo and Tyrique Stevenson. But more help is needed, especially at linebacker.
Rambo has shot past veterans Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins at receiver. Rambo, the Oklahoma transfer, was very good in the spring game and the final two weeks of spring practices and is well suited for this offense with his speed and his ability to turn short passes into sizable gains.
“You get the ball to him and let him go,” quarterback Jake Garcia said of Rambo. “It’s going to be a lot of fun [to watch].”
Stevenson had two pass breakups Saturday -- including one in the red zone and another against Keyshawn Smith on a third-down play -- and looks like UM’s best cornerback. He also might be UM’s top punt returner, and there is some injury risk there if he plays special teams.
Meanwhile, Johnson has flashed at defensive end since coming back from COVID protocols; on Saturday, he had a sack for a safety and another tackle for loss in the red zone.
Johnson -- who had 4.5 sacks in eight games for Tennessee last season -- also combined with Jon Ford to stop Cam’Ron Harris for a short gain.
“I was focusing on getting off the ball; that’s the strength of my game,” Johnson said Saturday. “I missed half of spring. When I first came back, I had to get back in shape. Now I feel great.”
If there were a top 25 ranking for the transfer portal, UM would be ranked every year.
“They’ve been really consistently good players all spring,” Manny Diaz said of Johnson, Rambo and Stevenson. “Deandre we’ve had on the field the least of the three. Rambo hit some dog days, fought his way out of it, has had a great last two weeks of practice. Tyrique, from the moment he came in, you feel like you feel his presence in the secondary.”
▪ The bad news: UM’s defense wasn’t great on Saturday - especially in the passing game in the middle of the field - and linebacker remains the position where the Canes likely stand farthest away from fielding the type of personnel needed to compete for national titles.
Diaz described the defense as “OK,” noting UM’s defense was intentionally vanilla and missing several key players in the secondary (Bubba Bolden, Al Blades, Te’Cory Couch).
The potential starters at middle linebacker (Corey Flagg or Bradley Jennings Jr.) and at weakside linebacker (Waymon Steed, perpetually injured Sam Brooks, Keontra Smith or Avery Huff) likely wouldn’t start at a strong SEC program.
But credit Flagg for losing 12 pounds to improve his strength; he’s a worker, has a good motor and has a nose for the football.
Diaz has said the UM defense has played well against the run this spring, but the Alabama game obviously will be a better gauge.
▪ With Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins remaining inconsistent - each had a drop and long reception on Saturday - there is every opportunity for Xavier Restrepo (who was excellent Saturday, including a TD catch in the corner of the end zone), Keyshawn Smith or Mike Redding to seize the No. 3 or 4 receiver jobs behind Mike Harley and Rambo.
On Saturday, Smith eluded two defenders after a fourth-down catch to score an 11-yard touchdown and later scored on a 35-yard TD reception. Smith missed much of the spring but was among UM’s 10 most impressive players on Saturday.
Wiggins dropped a 50-yard pass from Garcia but caught a long pass from Peyton Matocha, with Isaiah Dunson in coverage, to close Saturday’s game.
Pope had a wide-open drop but later caught a 53-yard pass from Garcia.
▪ UM radio analyst Don Bailey noted Pope has now been working mostly in the slot, and I wonder how offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and receivers coach Rob Likens will carve out playing time for him there behind Harley and Restrepo, who both need to play.
Pope could go back to the boundary, but would need to beat out Wiggins, Smith and Redding to play a lot opposite Rambo. Smith started Saturday’s game and offers the most upside of that group competing to start alongside Rambo and Harley.
To his credit, Pope rebounded from Saturday’s drop to close with six catches for 115 yards.
▪ Disappointing to see Cameron Williams leave the game on crutches; UM people said he had really impressed this spring as a pass-rusher. The defensive end rotation this fall should feature Johnson, Jahfari Harvey, Cam Williams, Chantz Williams (had some good moments as a pass rusher this spring) and Zach McCloud, who exceeded the staff’s expectations in his move from linebacker. McCloud and Johnson started on Saturday.
That group should be adequate to very good as pass rushers, but setting the edge in the run game remains a question.
▪ Also disappointing to see cornerback D.J. Ivey limp off with an apparent foot injury. Ivey has had a good spring and defensive backs Travaris Robinson has compared his skills to South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, a likely top-15 pick in this month’s draft.
Once everyone in the secondary is healthy, this should be a top four cornerback group of Stevenson, Couch, Blades and Ivey, with Dunson, Marcus Clarke (out Saturday), Jalen Harrell and Malik Curtis competing for the No. 5 job.
Diaz said he had no health update on Cameron Williams or Ivey.
▪ Really liked how the young safeties looked on Saturday. Kamren Kinchens, an early enrollee, had a bunch of tackles - including one real impressive one to limit Pope to a short gain - and an interception off a Peyton Matocha pass but also allowed the well-thrown TD catch to Restrepo in the corner of the end zone. (Not sure how much Kinchens could have done to stop that play.)
“Very special talent,” Bailey said of Kinchens.
Avantae Williams had two pass breakups, including one on Restrepo on the goal line. Keshawn Washington forced a fumble.
“They flash; they make a lot of plays, but they’re also a little bit wild,” Diaz said of those three young safeties. “Because you can drive the car 120 miles per hour doesn’t mean you always have to drive it 120. Those guys are learning. This spring, with the number of guys we have out, has been great for them.”
Brian Balom, the most advanced of the young safeties last season, has been out while healing a neck injury from an earlier car accident.
And five-star safety James Williams arrives this summer.
My suspicion is UM will opt to go with the veterans - Bubba Bolden, Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall - for the majority of the Alabama opener. Diaz has been working to get those three players on the field at the same time, though Bolden was sidelined Saturday.
Hall was victimized on Garcia’s 53-yard pass to Pope on Saturday.
▪ Keontra Smith - who has been playing some weakside linebacker - had a nice open field tackle on Jaylon Knighton, a week after pushing Cam’Ron Harris back for a loss in the second spring scrimmage.
UM has interesting options at striker with Smith, Gil Frierson, early enrollee Chase Smith (who had some very good moments in Saturday’s game) and now Carter, who’s playing both safety and striker.
Frierson had a would-be sack of Garcia on Saturday.
UM must decide whether to move Smith permanently to weakside linebacker or have him compete to start at striker.
▪ DJ Scaife opened ahead of Jarrid Williams at right tackle, and Jakai Clark started ahead of Jalen Rivers at left guard. Both battles are very competitive. The staff has liked how Scaife has made the transition back from guard to tackle.
▪ There were still far too penalties on Saturday, including a costly Jon Ford offsides that negated a Gurvan Hall interception. UM must become more disciplined. The Canes committed 7.8 penalties per game last season, tied for 15th most in the country.
▪ There was a lot to like about Tyler Van Dyke and Garcia -- Susan Miller Degnan will have a lot more about them in her story. Among them: their arm strength, their presence in the pocket and generally, their accuracy (Garcia was off on the first series but excellent after that point.)
Garcia can hold onto the ball too long at times but is very advanced for an early enrollee. “I’ve got to get through that quicker,” Garcia said of Lashlee imploring him to get the ball out more quickly in two-minute drills.
Van Dyke has such confidence in his arm that he threw across the field - horizontally - for one completion to Harley.
Garcia closed 19 for 25 for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Van Dyke was 12 for 17 for 102 yards and a touchdown.
▪ For what it’s worth, Ford and Jordan Miller started at defensive tackle on Saturday, with Miller surprisingly ahead of Jared Harrison-Hunte.
Five-star summer arrival Leonard Taylor, Jalar Holley and Elijah Roberts will try to push Nesta Silvera - who missed the spring after a shoulder procedure - and Ford, Harrison-Hunte and Miller for a rotation spot this fall.
I’m eager to see what new defensive line coach Jess Simpson can do with this group.
▪ With Don Chaney (shoulder procedure) iffy for the opener against Alabama, the three-way competition for the starting running back job is down to Cam’Ron Harris and Jaylon Knighton.
Harris gives UM a more physical, bruising back, but Knighton has more elusiveness and offers more in the passing game and perhaps more big play potential (though Harris had several big plays early last season).
Knighton had a 27-yard run on Saturday.
Though Lashlee wants to play his starter the majority of the time, he assuredly will maximize the skills of both Harris and Knighton and eventually, Chaney.
▪ Daz Worsham made a diving catch in the second half but clearly trails Smith and Restrepo -- and likely Redding -- in the battle of the second-year receivers. Bailey mentioned how Worsham must “understand how to read routes and do what’s necessary to get open.”
▪ UM athletic director Blake James told WQAM that UM expects to play in front of capacity crowds at home and on the road this upcoming season, with COVID protocols potentially in place. Atlanta organizers of the UM-Alabama opener want that game to be played in front of a full house.