Miami (OH) finished the shortened 2020 season at 2-1. The one blemish was primarily a result of the pass defense, which allowed Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease to sling it deep with ease. Normally a rushing team, Vantrease led Buffalo through the air with 353 passing yards and four touchdowns on just 17 completions. The RedHawks had plenty of balls sail over the heads in the 38-31 victory over Ball State in the conference opener as well.
The 3-game 2020 season didn’t allow for many takeaways, but there was one major revelation. It became clear that the secondary is the unit Miami needs to step up to return to Ford Field for its second MAC Championship Game appearance in three seasons.
Miami trots out five defensive backs in its standard 4-2-5 scheme, so there are plenty of names roaming around the secondary. The most versatile is Sterling Weatherford, who can be found meeting ball carriers in the backfield more than any other DB on the roster.
The strong safety first burst onto the scene in Oxford as a redshirt in 2017 but quickly developed into one of the key cogs on defense. Basically put, the 6’4”, 221 pound hitter is a linebacker playing safety. His breakout campaign was 2019 when he ranked second on the team with 98 tackles and starred in zone coverage with 10 pass breakups — including three in the MAC title game. Weatherford continued his pace last season with four deflections in three games. The first All-MAC appearance of his tenure at Miami is an attainable goal in the workshop this season.
Weatherford’s running mate in the secondary has been Mike Brown for quite some time. Brown first saw action in 2017 and has possessed a stranglehold on a starting safety spot since 2018. He emerged as one of the playmakers on defense during the 2019 MAC title run, hauling in two interceptions in a pivotal win over Buffalo and securing another pick against Bowling Green — two of those three takeaways turned into touchdowns. Brown is a solid pass rusher too and contributed to Miami posting the highest sack average in the FBS by recording one against Ball State.
Miami’s safeties do a great job at stacking the box, assisting in zone coverage, and essentially serving as additional linebackers on the roster. Man coverage is a point of growth the RedHawks must embody in 2021, and much of that starts with the cornerbacks.
Cedric Boswell was a haul from the transfer portal prior to the 2019 season. Coming over from Iowa, Boswell shared a position group with multiple All-Americans, learning behind the likes of Desmond King and Amani Hooker. The former Hawkeye joined the starting lineup last year at cornerback, deflecting two passes and collecting nine tackles. Securing his first interception and spiking the turnover total will be a primary objective for Boswell and Co. after Miami finished in the bottom 10 in takeaways per game in 2020.
The RedHawks must focus on replacing Emmanuel Rugamba at the other corner position. Rugamba is on the Cleveland Browns preseason roster after landing on the All-MAC Third Team for consecutive seasons. There are a variety of names with a hint of experience that could possibly replace the former MAC Championship Game Defensive MVP.
One is junior Ja’don Rucker-Farlow who has 18 appearances, 24 tackles, and a pick six under his belt. Another is a promising redshirt freshman in Ja’Von Kimpson who tallied three tackles as a young prospect in 2019. Mekhi Miller also saw action in all three games last year and picked up six tackles.
To fill in the nickelback role in the defense, look no further than Cecil Singleton. After 30 tackles and a forced fumble in 2019, the Cincinnati native added eight takedowns and a sack in the abbreviated season. Providing depth as a fifth defensive back for this defense is Matt Salopek, who also registered a sack to complement seven tackles in 2020.
The biggest name to leave for the transfer portal is Deland McCullough II. He is the son of Miami’s star running back Deland McCullough from the early-to-mid 1990s. The senior Deland McCullough just accepted a job as a running backs coach at Indiana, luring his son to Bloomington.
With the group returning, Miami must prioritize coverage schemes. Getting beat near the sidelines and on fly routes plagued the secondary in the Buffalo loss last November. The RedHawks’ defensive backs are a sharp set of tacklers though, and that includes the cornerbacks. Adding better man coverage techniques to that arsenal of skills is the step the team must take in order to showcase the best defense in the MAC.
Then suddenly, a second MAC championship in three years sounds like a feasible task.