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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Miami RedHawks

Will the RedHawks finally take flight in 2016?

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Ohio Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a long, hard road for Miami football since it won the MAC title in 2010 and completely bottomed out in a 0-12 2013 campaign. Chuck Martin has had his hands full in making the RedHawks competitive when he took over in 2014, and now they are in position to have their best season in years, depending on how the young talent develops. Let’s take a look at the 2016 edition of the ‘Hawks and see how high they can soar this season.

Five Players to Know:

Billy Bahl: The true sophomore QB made some strides at the end of last season as he went for seven touchdowns and four interceptions over the last six games after starting his Miami career with a 1:9 ratio. Bahl took 20 sacks a season ago as a result of both shaky line play and not trusting what he sees out of the defense. With another year of experience, the passing game of the ‘Hawks should be in good hands in 2016 with Bahl and his big arm.

Alonzo Smith: The Miami offense needs to more balanced than it was last season in order to be successful, and the RedHawks need more out of their leading rusher from 2015. Behind an offensive line that was stuffed on over a quarter of its runs plays, the then-freshman running back led the position group in rushes (124), total yards (567), and touchdowns (5) in a rather large RB stable with Kenny Young, Spencer McInnis, and Maurice Thomas in addition to Smith. Smith could be a difference maker in 2016 with the development of Bahl and the experience of the offensive line.

JT Jones: The defensive line’s returning sack leader with nine and tackles for loss with 14.5, Jones can expect to have an even bigger year with all the experience returning on the DL with juniors Ikeem Allen, AJ Burdine, and Zach Smierciak bringing back 17.5 sacks between them. Jones is rated as the 43rd best end in the 2017 class per NFLDraftScout.com, and he’ll have a chance to improve his stock if he gets a lot of one-on-one pass rush opportunities this season.

Junior McMullen: One of Miami’s big steals of the 2016 class, McMullen is slated to fill the void left by Kent Kern in the middle of the defense and the sophomore linebacker looked more than up to the challenge in spring ball, where he showcased his athleticism and made plays in space, two thing that the position has lacked in recent years. Joining him at the position will be Paul Moses and TJ Williams, potentially giving the RedHawks a lot of speed at linebacker.

Heath Harding: After missing nine games last season due to injury, the senior corner should have a strong season in what looks to be a strong secondary with Buchi Okafor and Tony Reid bring experience and athleticism at safety, while an intriguing battle for the other corner spot is brewing with Bert Birdsall and Allan Koikoi returning. Harding has five interceptions in his career, and the defense will need his ball skills and his leadership in 2016.

Four Games Not to Miss:

Sept. 24 at Cincinnati: The Battle for the Victory Bell has been a can’t-miss contest in recent years, with Miami coming close to ending the 10-game losing streak against the Bearcats the last two seasons. With Bahl getting his first crack at UC and Gunner Kiel wrapping up his Cincinnati career, expect a lot of fireworks when the two teams meet in the recently renovated Nippert Stadium.

Oct. 1 vs. Ohio: Miami would like to redeem itself for last season’s 34-3 shellacking in Athens as the Battle of the Bricks in Oxford kicks off MAC play for the RedHawks. Both teams should be improved from a year ago despite J.D. Sprague departing from the Bobcats, so expect a highly competitive game that comes down to a handful of plays, like the 24-21 loss in Yager Stadium in 2014.

Oct. 8 at Akron: The ‘Hawks had Akron on the ropes the past two seasons before turnovers did them in, and this year’s meeting might be a must-win if Miami wants serious consideration for a bowl bid. After back-to-back rivalry games, Martin needs to get his guys up for the Zips, because Terry Bowden’s crew has proven to be a tough out in the MAC.

Oct. 22 at Bowling Green: 2016 will mark the first time that the RedHawks and Falcons meet since 2013 (thanks UMass!) and what a match-up this will be for the Red and White. The opportunity to take on the defending MAC champions at their place will give a pretty good idea where the program is at, and should Miami pull off the upset, it will be huge for momentum for 2016 and beyond.

Three Ways the Season is a Success:

Miami gets a win in either or both rivalry games. Miami hasn’t consistently won in the Battle of the Bricks or the Battle for the Victory Bell in a long time, and Martin picking up that elusive signature win early in the season would provide a huge boost for the program, even if the team only wins four or five games in 2016.

The RedHawks finish .500 or better in MAC play. Having a winning record in conference action is definitely on the table this season with Ball State, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan as the crossover games while Akron and Bowling Green are expected to regress a bit. The Ohio game will be huge in this, because if they lose at home in an emotional game, it’ll be hard for them to mentally regroup with as much youth as they have.

The ‘Hawks get a bowl bid. This goal is made harder with their non-conference slate (at Iowa, vs. Western Kentucky, at UC), but getting bowl-eligible is certainly doable in 2016. If they’re able to get wins over WKU and UC, they can definitely go 4-4 in the MAC with their schedule as they don’t really play any world-beaters this year with BG transitioning, so a bowl game is very realistic.

Two Things to Watch Out For:

Turnovers. The RedHawks were -14 in turnover margin last season, which is what happens when you play freshmen at quarterback and running back for a considerable amount of the season. As Bahl improves at managing the offense and the backs get used to handling the ball, look for the turnover differential to improve drastically in 2016.

Offensive line play. The offensive line had a rough 2015 in which it gave up 26 sacks and only generated 3.6 yards per rush with seven rushing touchdowns. However, the unit will be returning five multi-game starters from last season, and that’s not including graduate transfer Jordan Diamond from Auburn. The line will have to play at a high level to give the young skill players a chance to be successful in 2016.

One Bold Prediction:

Billy Bahl will be the best MAC quarterback entering the 2017 season. With all the talent that Martin has accumulated at Miami, Bahl has a lot of weapons at his disposal as well as an improved offensive line. If he can cut down on the interceptions and sacks while giving the offense the ability to hit big plays in the passing game, we’ll be talking a lot about Bahl and an even more-improved Miami team next season.