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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Miami RedHawks

Miami returns to defend its MAC crown in 2020.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

After what can only be described as a tumultuous offseason for the MAC in general, the Miami RedHawks are set to repeat as MAC champions in this abbreviated college football season. Although the team does have some question marks, Miami will certainly be a player down the stretch as it returns most of its starters from the 2019 campaign.

Offense

On the offensive side of the ball, the unit that won the 2019 MAC Championship is largely intact, with only Maurice Thomas (graduation) leaving the offense in 2020. The focus of the offense last season was on the run game, as they rushed for over 100 yards against six MAC opponents. With runners like Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton, it seems like this will more or less continue to be the case, as Bester had 800 yards from scrimmage and 14 rushing touchdowns while Shelton had 665 yards from scrimmage and two scores on the ground last season to help with pacing the offense. However, Bester is injured at this moment in time so expect to see a combination of Shelton and Davion Johnson to start the season.

As far as the passing game is concerned, Brett Gabbert, brother of former Missouri great and current NFL’er Blaine Gabbert, had a historic debut at QB as the first true freshman to start the season for Miami, and was effective in the role, as he posted a QB rating of over 100 in seven of the nine MAC contests he started in.

If there’s a flaw in the younger Gabbert’s game, it’s that he needs to be more efficient with his passes. For as high of QB ratings as he had in last year’s action, Gabbert mustered a completion percentage of under 60% in 10 of 14 games last season, with half of his intereptions coming in MAC play. He has a high ceiling, and 2020 could be the season where he emerges as one of the MAC’s best QBs.

Gabbert has no shortage of weapons to throw the ball to, as his top receiver and top tight end return in Jack Sorenson and Andrew Homer, respectively. James Burns and Jalen Walker emerged as big-play targets in 2019 with eight receptions of 35 yards or more (tops in the country among freshmen WRs) and 24 receptions for 418 yards and two scores respectively.

The offensive line is arguably the best unit on the RedHawks offense—and perhaps one of the best overall position units in the conference. The unit is full of experience and talent that will make them a problem to contend with in the MAC. The group is led by Danny Godlevske (who is returning to the roster after previously opting-out of the spring season) and Tommy Doyle, who were both named to the preseason All-MAC First Team by Phil Steele. Pete Nank, Rusty Feth, Caleb Shaffer, David Redding, and Donovan White all bring some experience to the table at guard, which will be valuable going down the stretch.

Defense

The RedHawk defense will look to maintain its stellar play of last season in the shortened 2020 season, and will have to do so without defensive line stalwart Doug Costin, who took his talents to the Jacksonville Jaguars as a UDFA this offseason.

Even without Costin, the defensive line group should have the talent to continue to be disruptive. Kameron Butler, another preseason All-MAC First Teamer, led the ‘Hawks last season with 13.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks. Complementing Butler are Andrew Sharp (8.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks), Ben Kimpler (five TFLs, sack), and Lonnie Phelps (five TFLs, four sacks). The ‘Hawks have an interesting asset on the DL in Dominique Robinson, who converted from WR and has the frame and the athleticism to be productive as an edge defender.

Ryan McWood is a legit playmaker at linebacker, leading the team with 99 tackles, and posting 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in 2019. The other LB spot in the defense will be an interesting battle to watch as Myles Reid filled that spot well in the past, and Ivan Pace Jr. would be an intriguing option there as he had 7.5 TFLs and seven sacks last season. This unit should be considered a work-in-progress as the season moves forward.

The defensive backfield has had strong play over the past few seasons for the RedHawks, and replacing Bart Baratti and Trayvion Banks poses a unique challenge for the Red and White. However, there is no shortage of playmakers as Emmanuel Rugamba (returning to the roster after previously opting-out of the spring season,) Sterling Weatherford, and Mike Brown all made the preseason All-MAC team. Rugamba had a career-high eight pass-breakups in 2019, while Weatherford was everywhere with 98 tackles, and Brown hauled in three interceptions.

Special Teams

One of the best special teams units to possibly grace the field in MAC colors has largely moved on to their next steps in life, with Sam Sloman, Kyle Kramer, and Thomas all graduating in 2019. However, Jacob Swartz and Henry Beckett both saw action in 2019 as a punter and kicker, respectively. Swartz is an interesting case as he both kicked (went 2-2 on PATs) and punted (one for 39 yards) against Tennessee Tech, but Beckett has a big leg has he had a career-long 52-yard field goal in high school ball.

As far as the return game is concerned, I’d expect Jalen Walker to be the primary returner as he returned both kickoffs and punts multiple times last season, but Tyre Shelton might be an appealing option on kickoff as he had a 30-yard return against CMU in the MAC Championship game.

Regardless, Miami expects to be the best special teams unit year in and year out, so the transition in personnel will be fascinating to watch in 2020.

Prediction

In what is highly unusual for programs that win conference championships, Miami returned all of its coaches from last season, which is a big deal in terms of having continuity when the season was still up in the air.

I feel like having a shortened, division-only season is a huge advantage for the RedHawks because the offensive line gets to enter MAC play healthy, which wasn’t the case last season. The only things that can keep the ‘Hawks from repeating as MAC Champions are if Gabbert doesn’t progress like he should, or the new players on special teams can’t help win the field-position battle in games.