In the latest State of the Program feature, we’ll take a look at the trajectory of the football program of the Miami RedHawks. In 2018, the ‘Hawks had some good preseason buzz as they had returned most of their starters in a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2017 that saw five losses by one possession and expectations were high.
Last season, the team went 0-4 with close losses to good Marshall and Army squads. In MAC play, Miami went 6-2 with the losses coming against the eventual MAC East champion in Buffalo and a bowl-eligible team in Western Michigan. The highlight of the season was the victory over Ohio, which was the RedHawks’ first win over the Bobcats since 2012. The end result of not making a bowl game was disappointing, but Miami has an infrastructure in place to reload in 2019 and beyond.
Acquisitions and Talent Development
Recruiting has been a clear strength for Chuck Martin during his tenure at Miami as the staff has brought in a top three recruiting class in the MAC three times over the past five years and reeled in the top class in the MAC in 2015. Currently, the ‘Hawks boast the fourth-best class in 2020 with 17 commits and nine three-star athletes. Martin is also not afraid to bring in players from the junior college ranks as there are five JUCO players in Miami’s projected two-deep roster for this season, with three starters in Jarrett LaRubbio, Jahmal Wynter, and Manny Rugamba.
The staff has done a pretty good job of developing the players that they bring in. The most notable examples are Brad Koenig going from walk-on to one of the best LBs in the league and two-star quarterback Gus Ragland earning All-MAC Third Team honors in his only full season in 2018. There are other examples: Kenny Young going from two-star to impact player on offense, James Gardner getting First-Team All-MAC, DeAndre Montgomery going from two-star to defensive force, Andrew Homer emerging as a target at tight end last season, etc. This is an area of strength for the program.
Offensively speaking, Miami has transitioned into the “smash-spread” offense that is really popular right now in college football and it has turned out to be a pretty good fit for their personnel. The way that Miami has built its roster lends itself to more of a gap running scheme with physical OL play and explosive RBs on top of the threat of the QB run.
What makes Miami’s version of the smash-spread stand out is the emphasis on having a bunch of possession receivers; Miami under Martin has never really had your prototypical stretch-the-field receiver and, as a result, the RedHawks usually have a balanced distribution of passes to backs, tight ends, and receivers. We’ll see how that style adapts this season with an inexperienced QB, but I would expect Miami to throw in some RPO wrinkles to have some easy reads for the QB.
Defensively, the RedHawks have improved in their execution of their 4-2-5 defense, which is generally considered to be the best look against all the different varieties of spread offense (especially the ones in the MAC). Generally speaking, teams prefer to run match quarters in response to the different route combinations that a team will throw at a defense, as well as to create better numbers against the QB run. For the 2019 RedHawks, the biggest challenge will be for the LBs as they try to replace the production against the run of Koenig. Since they will be using backer that don’t have a whole lot of experience, I’d expect Miami to take more gambles with run blitzes to create the havoc that they need out of the position.
The quarterback question is a big concern heading into the season (especially with the way that the schedule is set up). There’s a lot of different ways that Miami can go: it can lean on Jackson Williamson’s experience in the program since he would potentially have less growing pains to work through than the other QBs, it can go with AJ Mayer and his winning pedigree at the high school level, or it can even go with the high ceiling of true freshman Brett Gabbert. Neither is really a bad option, but you have to be careful in how you go about this QB battle because there is always the opportunity for discontent when someone isn’t getting snaps.
The loss of Koenig on the other side of the ball is just as big as losing Ragland on offense because Koenig just did so much on defense. With 101 tackles, 12 TFLs, five sacks, four forced fumbles, and three interceptions, Koenig made the defense right a lot last season, and those kinds of players don’t come around very often.
The good news is that the LBs coming back have a good bit of experience with Myles Reid (six starts last season) and Ryan McWood (ten games played in 2018), so the dropoff shouldn’t be steep. If Miami is able to resolve these questions before they get out of non-conference play, it’ll be a very hard team to beat in the MAC.
It’s not really fair to compare where Miami was at when Martin got hired to where it is now to where the program is now since that was such a low bar to clear, so we’ll take a look at some of the trends over the past three seasons. The most obvious trend is the RedHawks winning six games in two of the last three seasons, but were 4-12 in one-possession games in that span. MU finished in the top six of the recruiting rankings in two of the last three years as well. Miami was in the top three in the MAC in total defense in 2016-17 and fell to fifth last season, while MU has been in the bottom half of the league in total offense in the last three seasons.
It seems that Martin’s Miami teams have taken on the identity of being stingy on defense while focusing on imposing their will in the running game and having the offense flow from that. While some may clamor for a more aggressive approach to offense, the formula has been successful for Miami to a degree and we’ll have to see whether a highly-touted quarterback will be enough to change that philosophy or not.