Pardon me if you’ve heard this before, but the U is back. Back in town at least, and ranked #7 in the country in the increasingly funny AP poll. Go ahead and look at how many teams that haven’t played a snap of football are ranked ahead of undefeated teams. I think it broke the Shutdown Fullcast’s brain a few weeks ago.
Fresh off a 6-7 campaign during which his Hurricanes couldn’t break 24 points in three straight losses to FIU, Duke, and Louisiana Tech, head coach Manny Diaz fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Enos ran a pro-style scheme which didn’t take full advantage of Miami’s talented skill players, and asked too much of one of the worst offensive lines in the country.
New coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s scheme couldn’t be more different. As he describes it,
“It’s probably more of a Power Spread offense...” “But I’ve been blessed to take pieces of the Gus Malzahn system that I grew up in, systems of some things with the coaches I’ve worked with over the last three years to have a little more Air Raid principles to them”
Lashlee began his career as a Malzahn protege (even playing for him in high school), before incorporating more air raid into his scheme over the last few years. Both schemes share an emphasis on executing a few plays well over executing a wide variety of plays poorly. This should work well in Miami, which can always find talented skill players but has struggled with getting them to cohere. Listen to transfer QB D’Eriq King talk about the offense,
“I feel the offense is simple, and it allows us to play free...” “We know the whole offense right now in and out. He can call anything, and we can execute it to the best of our ability. This is a great offense. Not a lot of thinking, a lot of running fast and making plays.”
About D’Eriq King, he’s the other major change between the 2019 offense and 2020’s. He’s got the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Dabo was effusive praising him at media availability,
He can do it all. There’s really nothing he can’t do. He can make all the throws, and when he runs it he’s a running back. He’s got that mindset of a running back, too. He’s averaging 5.4 yards after contact, so this a very physical player. He’s averaging 15 yards a scramble. Has made some huge plays in the passing game.
King has managed to rack up seven touchdowns (six passing, one rushing) without a turnover while putting up almost 900 yards of total offense the last three games (736 passing, 157 rushing).
It all starts on the ground for Miami, where the Canes feature a trio of talented ball carriers along with their QB. Cam’ron Harris is the bell cow. He’s a tough and versatile back averaging over 8 YPC. Backing him up are true freshmen speedsters Jaylan Knighton and Donald Chaney, Jr. Lashlee will target all three (and the tight ends) in the passing game to test whether Clemson’s linebackers can keep up.
The Hurricanes run a mix of inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and draw plays. While King primarily looks to throw, he demands defense’s attention both as a direct snap runner and in the option game. Being able to run play-action with your QB is dangerous. Look at how open Knighton’s wheel route is after King faked QB power.
Lashlee’s SMU offense liked to run the ball outside, and this year’s Miami team is no different. All three backs are looking to bounce the ball to the sideline for big plays if possible. The offensive line, for their part, often do a good job blocking the second level. Like Malzahn, Lashlee is a fan of using tempo, unbalanced formations and other “gadgetry” to get defenses out of alignment.
Miami is more explosive than they’ve been on the ground in some time, particularly when you account for how much the Hurricanes run RPO’s.
I’ve got worries about Clemson’s safeties’ ability to tackle in open space and make the right reads consistently against this offense. The RPO above, for instance, targets the free safety.
Fortunately, Miami hasn’t totally escaped last year’s offensive line issues.
Another thing Lashlee picked up from Auburn was creative use of tight ends. UM likes to run a mix of 11, 12, 21, and 10 personnel formations, but it’s rare for them to not have at least one of their tight ends on the field.
Miami has a pair of NFL caliber tight ends in Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory. Jordan was a finalist for the Mackey award in an injury shortened 2019, and may be the Hurricanes’ best overall player. The 6’3” 245 lb. Junior moves like a wide receiver and is a competent blocker. He’s the Hurricanes’ leading receiver and a walking matchup problem.
Mallory, while less talented as a receiver, is plenty athletic in his own right, and the better blocker. Lashlee will move both all over the field. According to Jordan, “We’re outside, we’re in the slot, we’re in the backfield, we’re lined up on the line.”
Here Mallory blocks for inside zone while Jordan (#9) serves as a blocker on the perimeter. Lashlee has also proven adept over the years at scheming tight ends open near the goal line, something Clemson gave a touchdown up on last week. Two missteps by the linebacker is all it takes to get Mallory open on this RPO.
No Miami receiver has stood out as a star yet. The offense runs through the tight ends, QB, and RB. The top three wideouts have combined for just one touchdown this year. With that said, Mark Pope, Mike Harley, and (totally not Tee Higgins in a mustache) Dee Wiggins can all make plays with the ball in their hands. Lashlee looks to feed Pope the ball on bubble screens or crossing routes, but he’s struggled some with fumbles.
In addition to the running, RPO, and play-action game King can use his legs and strong arm to push the ball downfield on sprint out passes. A combination of quick passes, RPO’s, and moving King around has helped cover for the Hurricanes offensive line, which remains a team weakness. It’s still entirely possible to get pressure on the Hurricanes despite them max protecting.
When the blocking is there, you can see what the Hurricanes want to do in their drop-back passing game. The Hurricanes drop-back game is based around running standard air raid concepts to space the field vertically and horizontally. Defending four verts is hard enough, defending four verts when the seam routes are run by 6’3”+ tight ends has to suck.
King is an accurate passer (66%+ completion percentage) who uses his strong arm and ability to read Lashlee’s offense to make big plays downfield. The Hurricanes passing game (and King’s scrambling brilliance) has helped Miami, which winds up in third down more often than they would like, remain on schedule.
UM mirrors Clemson here almost uncannily, with UM winding up in 15.3 3rd downs per game to Clemson’s 15. Both teams convert 3rd downs at an over 50% clip, placing them in the top 10 in the country. Also much like Clemson, Miami is one of the better teams in the country in the red zone.
Third down is a game within the game, with each team having a separate game plan for these situations. Which offense is able to outperform the other on third down will go a long way towards deciding this game. The Tigers are fresh off beating UVA because of great third down performances.
The Tigers are favored by SP+ by 11.4 points this week, and by Vegas by 14.5. I think this is going to be a difficult game for Clemson. The Miami offense is the not the team’s strength, but does match up well. I expect the Tigers’ linebackers and safeties to be tested by tempo, aligning to unbalanced formations, RPO’s, and to see if they can keep up with the Hurricanes TE/RB’s in pass coverage.
Brent Venables is going to need to find a way to contain King on the ground, and I’m not certain Venables has a player athletic enough to spy him. Both King and Cam’ron Harris are elite runners after contact, so any tackling issues are going to be punished. Venables is going to need a better showing than last week’s from the defensive line, where the defense should be getting healthier. Miami’s offense, while explosive, has yet to become reliably efficient. Tackles for loss and sacks can kill a drive quickly in college football. Any mistake against this offense could lead to a Hurricanes touchdown.
I do expect Clemson to win, but the path for an upset is a lot easier to see this week than it usually is. I don’t look forward to dealing with this scheme in the future either. Miami finally got an offensive coordinator who won’t overthink things, and the Hurricanes’ athletes are much more dangerous unleashed.