Even legendary Miami Hurricane and Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed was once a freshman.
All great college football players had to grow up in one way or another, but a bunch of the current Hurricanes have had to do it in warp speed.
On Saturday at 17th-ranked Pittsburgh (6-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), the Hurricanes (3-4, 1-2) will have a pair of true freshmen safeties — Kamren Kinchens out of Miami Northwestern and James Williams out of Plantation American Heritage — in the defensive backfield starting against the nation’s No. 4 scoring offense (45.3 points a game). And that offense is led by Heisman candidate and fifth-year senior Kenny Pickett (168 of 244 for 2,236 yards and 23 touchdowns, with one interception).
They’ll have second-year freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke starting against Pitt’s 20th-ranked defense (318.7 yards allowed a game).
They’ll have second-year freshman running back Jaylan Knighton starting against the 21st-ranked rushing defense (109.3 yards allowed).
And they’ll have true freshman cornerback Marcus Clarke, out of Winter Park, trying to defend a Panthers receiving corps with the most prolific touchdown-catcher in the country — that is, if receiver Jordan Addison (10 scores), who is “questionable” for the UM game after he went into concussion protocol last week against Clemson, plays.
Between season-ending injuries to Canes starters and other integral players, either true freshmen or second-year freshmen have been thrust into leading roles for the Canes, and the team appears to be better for it after defeating then-No. 18 North Carolina State 31-30 last week.
UM true freshman Cody Brown has three touchdowns. Knighton has two rushing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns and team-leading 126 all-purpose yards a game. True freshman kicker Andy Borregales is 8 of 11 in field goals and 24 of 24 in extra points. Van Dyke is 70 of 119 for 1,062 yards and nine touchdowns, with three interceptions. On defense, true freshman tackle Leonard Taylor, another former five-star recruit, has a team-leading 4 1/2 tackles for loss and half a sack and pass breakup in only four games.
Without question, however, the biggest mystery this week will be how Williams and Kinchens fare together after veteran starter Bubba Bolden was announced Monday as out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Both have played in every game, with the 6-4, 224-pound Williams having started the past four in tallying 18 tackles and one interception. The 5-11, 200-pound Kinchens has 20 tackles, a pass breakup, forced fumble — and the game-saving, fourth-quarter, open-field tackle against NC State.
Second-year freshman safety Avantae Williams, a former No. 1 prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, made his UM debut last week and will gradually see the field more as he gets more comfortable and experienced.
“I don’t think it’s just one guy that replaces someone like Bubba,’’ UM coach Manny Diaz said this week. “We feel good about the depth we have and the way we’ve been developing. It’s hard to play two true freshmen at safety. We did it with three linebackers here back in 2016 but to do it with two safeties, that doesn’t happen very often.
“They’re not perfect, and they know there are places they need to improve, but to go out there and function and for us to cut guys loose has been impressive to see.
“By the way we grade, we had eight missed tackles Saturday. That number had been in the 20 region. It’s not complicated. We play better, we tackle better. ... The point of emphasis we put on that during the week, and some of the depth-chart changes matter.”
UM defensive quality control analyst and longtime, highly regarded college coach Bob Shoop said this week that he’d grade Williams and Kinchens the “highest grades with regard to football IQ — Kam maybe even more so than James.’’
What they don’t have, however, is the experience.
“Playing defense today in college football, with all the different personnel groupings, all the different formations, all the different things you have to defend, communication is the first step in a successful snap,’’ Shoops said.
Whether Pittsburgh’s offense could find a way to fluster the young safeties would have a bearing on Saturday.
Ed Reed’s take
Reed, now the UM chief of staff who “serves in an advisory role to Diaz in all aspects of the football program, including strategic planning, quality control, operations, player evaluation and player development,” according to former UM statement, was asked by the Miami Herald this week how he envisions Williams and Kinchens will do in their first game starting together.
“They’ll be all right,’’ Reed said. “But they have a lot to learn still. They’ve got to work. They’re still learning.’’
Can the young safeties handle the Panthers’ offense?
“That question doesn’t really got too much to do with Pittsburgh,’’ Reed said. “It’s just about them coming into their own and getting reps. That’s what you get when you’re playing freshmen. You don’t know what you’re going to get.
“They’ve got to become students of the game. That’s what I’m trying to teach all of them.’’
Kinchens said this week that “one thing great” about Reed “is he always makes sure we’re taking notes. Anytime he pops his head in [it’s] ‘Make sure you have your notes out.’
“Most of the time I remember it off the top of my head. There will be some days the little things you don’t remember, like, ‘OK, if he’s just an inch inside, he’s going to run the slant’ — little things like that I may not remember or see on the field and writing it down will help.’’
Williams said he’s “focused and ready.”
“The leadership role on the defense changed,’’ he said. “I’m willing to take control, do whatever it takes for this defense to be successful.’’
Knighton was asked about the importance of getting the youngest Hurricanes more playing time.
“The athletic ability is there,’’ he said. “It’s just, execute. I believe in my brothers. We know what we can do. We know what we came here for.”