The warning to Miami Hurricanes’ second-year players eager to climb the depth chart

Barry Jackson
·6 min read

A six-pack of Miami Hurricanes notes on a Thursday:

The weeks following spring practice give UM coaches and players a chance to size up where they stand in the program and whether they have a realistic chance to play this fall.

Among veterans with reason to wonder if they will ever play meaningful snaps as a Cane, there are fewer who fall into that category now than past years. Two who would be on that list: Zalon’tae Hillery and Kai-Leon Herbert, who both opted out of the 2020 season.

At the very least, neither stands among UM’s top eight offensive linemen. So both face decisions whether to stick around. We should emphasize that there is no reason to believe either is considering leaving. But either could certainly make a case to depart if playing time is critically important to them.

Then there’s the matter of young players still waiting for their chance.

The issue of first- or second-year players wanting instant gratification (translation: playing time) is more of an issue in college football today, and the Canes have lost several blue-chip recruits because of it.

Players can get impatient sometimes if they’re not in the two- or three-deep by the start of their second season, and hopefully that won’t be case for a handful of UM’s 2020 freshmen who are still looking to break through.

Though Daz Worsham appears to stand behind fellow 2020 receiver additions Xavier Restrepo, Keyshawn Smith and Michael Redding, he made a nice catch in the spring game, and the hope is he bulks up and sticks around.

Besides Worsham, the hope is that three Class of 2020 freshmen linemen are patient and wait their turn as they develop: left tackle Issiah Walker, guard Chris Washington and defensive lineman Quentin Williams.

Walker and Washington aren’t as far along as second-year guard Jalen Rivers, but there will be 2022 opportunities for both if they stay patient.

Williams wasn’t mentioned much — if at all — by coaches during Zoom sessions, and fellow 2020 freshman defensive lineman Chantz Williams appears closer to getting playing time of the two. Jalen Harrell, who played safety as a freshman, likely stands sixth or seventh at cornerback if everyone is healthy.

Several times in recent years, top recruits have left UM early in their careers after growing frustrated.

Receiver Marquez Ezzard played sparingly as a freshman and bolted for Georgia Tech; he caught only nine passes for 124 yards last season.

Five-star running back Lorenzo Lingard ran 17 times for 136 yards as a freshman. But he sustained a knee injury midway through his freshman season and UM didn’t use him when he returned midway through 2019 because coaches felt he wasn’t completely ready physically. He bolted, but ran only five times for 32 yards as a Gator last season.

Receiver Brian Hightower left after two seasons at UM, eager for a bigger role, and caught only 11 passes for Illinois in six games last season (albeit for 209 yards and three touchdowns). He could have done at least that much, if not more, at UM had he stuck around.

Four-star cornerback Christian Williams left after one season and one game, apparently unhappy that several corners were ahead of him. In December, he announced plans to enroll at USF.

I don’t blame UM in any of these cases, though I do wonder why the Canes staff couldn’t appease Hightower, who seemed to warrant a larger role than he received. (And I say this while acknowledging coaches know more than journalists or fans.)

Bottom line: The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.

And that’s an important point to keep in mind for 2020 freshmen who haven’t cracked the two- or three-deep.

So the message to Walker and Washington and Harrell and the young safeties playing behind three veterans and Worsham is simple: Give it time. You will get your chance by 2022, if not sooner. And don’t be a prisoner of the moment, not now and not if things don’t break your way in August.

Receiver Jeremiah Payton continues to have something of a luckless career at UM. A standout during practices as a freshman, he dealt with COVID-19 protocols last season and then missed the spring with a torn meniscus. He will enter the summer no higher than ninth on the depth chart and with much to prove.

On Saturday, we saw visual evidence of why players have been raving about cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, the transfer from Georgia. His knockdown of a pass to Keyshawn Smith on a third-down play was textbook cornerback play.

“Tyrique is a dog, big-bodied guy, really physical, great coverage skills,” receiver MIke Harley said.

Striker Gilbert Frierson said Stevenson has been “a leader coming into the program. Aggressive and [has] physicality.”

The negatives with Stevenson on Saturday: On the first drive, he was offside on one play and drew a pass interference on another.

For what it’s worth, Stevenson was the first to field a punt in the spring game, and Harley and Restrepo were the first ones back for a kickoff return.

There’s always a question about whether to risk starters as returners (unless they’re particularly unique talents), and I worry about that with Stevenson because he’s essential to UM’s secondary.

Others working on punt returns this spring: Charleston Rambo, Restrepo and Harley. And Jaylon Knighton and Stevenson have joined Harley and Restrepo in the kickoff return derby.

It’s difficult to overestimate what a good hire that strength and conditioning coach David Feeley was for this program. (That was among Manny Diaz’s first hires.) “He’s like a second dad to me,” running back Don Chaney Jr. said.

UM has lost five basketball players to the transfer portal while adding two starters (George Mason’s Jordan Miller and DePaul’s Charlie Moore), and athletic director Blake James makes clear this is not a UM issue.

“That’s one of the unfortunate realities of this situation” of the new rule allowing college basketball players to transfer once without needing to sit out a year, James told WQAM’s Joe Zagacki and Don Bailey Jr. “There are 1,283 guys in Division I [in the transfer portal]. You are going to have guys from Division II to Division I. You add in that, you have well over 2000 players.

“If you say 1,200 players with 350 Division I institutions, that’s just under four per team that are in the transfer portal. When you have 13 scholarships and kids are coming in the transfer portal, I am concerned. There are going to be some kids who are going to be left standing without any scholarship opportunities at least for a year. And anytime something like that happens, where something is opened up the way the transfer opportunity is now, everybody jumps at it.”

But James said that “I think there will be a market correction in the years to come. There’s so much pressure on these kids to make it to the professional level that they look at it as grass sometimes being greener and that’s not always the case.”