The Miami RedHawks never earned a fair turn at showcasing the 2020 team. Coming off an inspiring MAC championship run in 2019, the team witnessed half of its games canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Injuries and opt-outs held some of Miami (OH)’s key skill position players out of the 3-game trial run, but the RedHawks are set on running it back with a similar cast from the 2019 conference title team. Led by an experienced quarterback, a versatile group of seasoned receivers, and a familiar running back duo from the 2019 season, the RedHawks aim to improve their offensive output after ranking 91st in production in 2020. Once again, they’ll be supported by a tenured coaching staff led by eighth-year head coach Chuck Martin and offensive coordinator Eric Koehler.
It was evident from the time Brett Gabbert stepped onto the gridiron at Kinnick Stadium as a true freshman that he’d be a special part of this program one day. Gabbert was an undeveloped product at the time with plenty of unleashed potential. With each passing week of the 2019 season, he improved, culminating in a poised showing in the season finale LendingTree Bowl.
An injury in the opener and a limited schedule prevented Gabbert from asserting his development in 2020, but in his brief playing time, it was clear to see how far he’d come. His completion percentage jumped more than 10 percentage points to 65.7, and he set career-highs in passing yards (308) and touchdowns (4) in the season finale against Akron. Gabbert now rides a 5-game streak without throwing an interception, dating back to a showdown against Ball State in November 2019.
With the injury behind him and an expected return to normal scheduling, Gabbert is on track to be one of the premier quarterbacks in this conference. He already has a MAC championship victory under his belt, and the RedHawks benefit from his presence, faring 10-6 when he starts under center. Gabbert also considerably improved as a rusher last season, attaining 58 yards on seven carries, and only one of those attempts was classified as a sack.
In terms of second string quarterbacks, Miami is set up as well as any MAC program in this department. A.J. Mayer checked in for Gabbert in the opener against Ball State and won the game for the RedHawks by completing 16 of 24 attempts for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Armed with two games of considerable experience and flashes of success, Mayer presents a solid second option behind Gabbert at quarterback.
The RedHawks’ rushing game was forgettable in the limited 2020 schedule. They ranked 101st in rushing yards per game, registering 127 per contest. There wasn’t a clearly established starter and four running backs rotated in the backfield for carries.
But the lack of a featured back was more of a result of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton opting out of the season. Both halfbacks that were significant pieces of the offense in 2019 return for 2021 after taking off the pandemic season, and that should provide an immediate boost to the running game. Bester was sensational by the goal line in 2019, punching in 14 touchdowns to complement his team-high 741 rushing yards. Shelton served as a reliable sidekick with 587 yards on a team-best 5.4 yards per carry that year.
Two of Ball State’s running backs from the 4-man rotation last fall are back on the roster for 2021. Kevin Davis led the team in rushing attempts but also served as a threat in the receiving game with 57 yards on five receptions. Davion Johnson played a similar role to Davis and recorded 104 all-purpose yards on 19 touches. They’ll likely take a backseat to the more established duo of Bester and Shelton, but the valuable experienced gained from 2020 should allow them to be reliable options should their numbers be called.
Miami is headlined by Second Team All-MAC wide receiver Jack Sorenson, who would have definitely landed First Team honors if not for a 3-game schedule. Sorenson did everything for this offense in 2020, registering 49.5 percent of all receiving production. He finished the 3-game schedule with 354 yards and four touchdowns on nearly 20 yards per reception. Three FBS teams actually averaged fewer receiving yards per game than Sorenson did as an individual last fall.
Sorenson has potential to climb on Miami’s all-time leaderboards if he continues his recent pace. Over his last five contests, he has logged 7+ receptions and 100+ yards four times. The 2019 MAC Championship Game MVP ended his 2020 with a 177-yard, 4-touchdown performance against Akron, and he’ll aim to resume where he left off with Gabbert as 2021 approaches.
Sorenson’s supporting cast features plenty of familiar faces from past years. Jalen Walker finished second in receptions on the 2019 squad and serves as a great threat near the sidelines for the RedHawks. Walker also serves as a key component of the special teams as the primary kick and punt return specialist.
When Gabbert is looking vertical, James Burns (formerly known as James Maye) is the preferred target. Burns registered 506 yards on just 20 catches in 2019 — rounding out to over 25 yards per reception. Nearly every catch Burns registers is on a streak or post pattern, so downfield safeties will have to be weary of the 5’9” speedster. However, Walker and Burns didn’t see a similar pace of production in the shortened 2020 campaign, but both receivers will be vital to Miami’s success if opponents are going to key on Sorenson.
One name that did emerge from the group last year is Mac Hippenhammer. In his first year with the program after transferring from Penn State, Hippenhammer ranked second on the team in receiving yards and his presence in the lineup complements the other receivers immensely.
Sorenson, Walker, Burns, and Hippenhammer will serve as Gabbert’s primary quartet of options. When looking further at the depth chart for potential names who could shine as breakout players, Austin Robinson (1 reception, 29 yards in 2020) and Nick Manson (2 receptions, 25 yards in 2019) are among qualified candidates.
Andrew Homer is one of the longer tenured tight ends in the country, first arriving on campus in Oxford in 2016. Homer has earned a reputation as a solid blocking tight end and red zone threat for the RedHawks, especially after racking up 231 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 2018. Homer missed the entire 2020 season due to injury, but the silver lining for Miami was it discovered a new talent at the position.
Jack Coldiron enjoyed a breakout mini-season in Homer’s absence, landing second on the team in receptions with six. Two of those catches were exchanged for touchdowns in the third quarter of the opening night win over eventual MAC champion Ball State. With the 6’6” Homer and 6’5” Coldiron in the lineup, Miami’s two tight end sets by the goal line become a real novelty, as both are capable run blockers and goal line options.
The RedHawks utilize tight ends in the offense more than most MAC teams, so Homer and Coldiron also function as integral pieces of the receiving corps. Packaged with Sorenson and the horde of receivers, this might be the best assembly of weapons Miami has seen on campus in quite some time.