You know the Canes will be a step closer to being where they want to be as a program when pretty good, but not great, players are seriously challenged for starting jobs.
And that’s happening everywhere during coach Mario Cristobal’s first training camp.
Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney can’t get comfortable because Henry Parrish was summoned from Mississippi to try to beat them out.
Jahfari Harvey and Chantz Williams — who had good springs — aren’t being handed the starting defensive end jobs because Akheem Mesidor and Mitchell Agude were flown in from West Virginia and UCLA. (All four should play a lot, with Cyrus Moss, Nyjalik Kelly and Thomas Davis pushing them.)
Leonard Taylor, Jared Harrison Hunte and Jordan Miller can’t just show up and expect to start, because Jacob Lichtenstein and Antonio Moultrie and Darrell Jackson were brought in via the portal.
And Corey Flagg Jr. can’t assume he will be given another year as the starting middle linebacker, because former UCLA starter Caleb Johnson was welcomed to the program.
The newcomers are making an impression early in camp.
Johnson already has caught Knighton’s eye. He’s “fast sideline to sideline, really physical guy.”
Center Jakai Clark said Moultrie “can do a little bit of everything. He has speed. He has power. He has a very high motor. He’s always going. That’s a good thing for a defensive lineman.”
And Jackson, who had 22 tackles as a freshman at Maryland and tops 300 pounds, “is huge,” Clark said. “He’s strong, long arms. It’s hard to block a guy like that when he’s naturally big and working with coach Joe [Salave’a], he’s going to get better in his time.”
Overall, “that’s a strong front seven,” Clark said. “They push us to our best.”
Was Flagg motivated when the Canes signed Johnson to compete with him and others?
“That was great they brought Caleb in,” said Flagg, who is productive and high effort but limited somewhat physically. “I was glad they brought him in. We needed more depth in the room. We needed the help. I had no [negative] feelings toward it. I was excited he came in. Let’s get at it. I always take competition face on. I was raised that way.”
For now, the players brought in by Manny Diaz are being given every opportunity to hold off the veteran offseason pickups that were targeted by Cristobal and his staff. First-team reps are being split.
“We got Jahfari and Mitch rotating, me and [Waymon] Steed,” Johnson said. “It’s like one big group. Everybody is getting love.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Gilbert Frierson, a former safety and striker, is now playing the star position, which is what coordinator Kevin Steele calls the pseudo linebacker/safety position that former coach Manny Diaz referred to as a striker.
▪ John Campbell is positioned to start at left tackle if Zion Nelson isn’t ready to start the season off knee surgery. But Jalen Rivers also is getting some first-team left tackle snaps.
Rivers figures to start at left guard, but that’s not certain.
“Those two have something different from a size standpoint,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Monday of Campbell and Rivers. “ Jalen came back a little earlier than John did [from 2021 knee surgeries]. Jalen’s flexibility, he can really play all five positions, is really that Swiss Army knife up front. With the depth we have, we’re asking guys to be unselfish and play multiple positions.
“John has been playing left tackle, and now it’s getting him caught up with the speed of the game. Hopefully these first two weeks of camp we get it solidified, the best five, because then we want to move forward from a chemistry standpoint.”
▪ Impressive freshman tight end Jaleel Skinner has bulked up from 220 to 225 — while cutting body fat and adding muscle - to take on the rigors of blocking, something that is expected of tight ends in Gattis’ offense. He said he wants to be in the 240 range when he eventually matriculates to the NFL.
“Jaleel is a young guy, one semester on campus,” Gattis said. “The game is still coming at him. He’s got to continue to develop his body from a physical standpoint, and taking the steps learning the offense.”
Skinner said Cristobal “understands I wasn’t the biggest blocker in high school. That’s something I need to improve on fast.”
Among the reasons Skinner picked UM over a list of suitors that included Alabama: “It’s better for the player I am. I’m more of an athletic tight end and that’s something Miami has been breeding. Everyone knows Miami is Tight End U. This is a place I feel I can grow for the next couple of years.”
Asked if Nick Saban was angry with him for spurning Alabama, Skinner shook his head no but declined to say what Saban told him.
Skinner has approached several former Canes greats at the position:
“I talked to Jeremy Shockey. I talked to Greg Olsen; I’m trying to build a relationship with Olsen. I built a good relationship with Jimmy Graham. If I need anything, I can text or call them anytime of day.”
Olsen, incidentally, on Monday was named Fox’s new lead NFL analyst, replacing ESPN-bound Troy Aikman. Olsen and Kevin Burnhardt will call the Super Bowl this season. But Olsen will move down the Fox depth chart when Tom Brady retires and joins Fox’s lead NFL team.
As for Elijah Arroyo, he’s competing with Skinner for snaps alongside starter Will Mallory.
Gattis said Arroyo “started off camp good but we need to continue pushing. There’s more left in the tank.”
▪ Gattis said former junior college receiver Colbie Young, who was added this summer, “is getting adjusted to the way we do things. Colbie had to come the furthest, showed up in the middle of the summer. He’s got a lot of work to make up.”