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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Miami RedHawks secondary

Miami retools its secondary with a new defensive coordinator and two likely starters from the transfer portal.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Frisco Football Classic Bowl - North Texas v Miami (OH) Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Miami RedHawks have their work cut out for them when it comes to revamping the defense for 2022. Miami witnessed a mass exodus of impact players at all three levels of the defense, in addition to the departure of both co-defensive coordinators, John Hauser and Spence Nowinsky, to its crosstown rival Ohio this offseason.

Replacing Hauser and Nowinsky in the defensive coordinator role is Bill Brechin. Brechin enters his ninth year on the RedHawks staff and spent the last four specializing with the safeties. His work included developing recent program icon Sterling Weatherford, an All-MAC selection who signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent this offseason. Another longtime Miami safety under Brechin’s watch, Mike Brown, also landed a free agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings in the spring.

But starting experience wasn’t completely zapped out of the safety depth chart. The RedHawks’ top defense player is a member of the group Brechin used to oversee. Matthew Salopek is the new face of Miami’s defense after earning Second Team All-MAC honors in 2021 — although the conference labeled him as a linebacker in the official release.

While Salopek is built like a linebacker at 6’1” and 215 pounds, and he delivers hits like one, Miami officially lists the talented redshirt sophomore as a safety. The versatile defender ranked second among all RedHawks with 112 tackles in 2021, meeting ball carriers in the backfield on seven occasions while deflecting six passes in the secondary. He racked up double-digit tackles in six contests, including a career-high 17 in a rivalry trophy game against Ball State.

Salopek rose from obscurity to star overnight — registering roughly 7.5 times the number of tackles last season as he obtained in his previous two combined. The sudden escalation of Salopek’s production should inspire hope within a very young secondary.

To counter the lack of experience, Miami addressed its offseason needs in the transfer portal. The team landed East Carolina cornerback Nolan Johnson who was a regular contributor in the Pirates’ secondary over the last four seasons. In Greenville, Johnson totaled 71 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles, and he’ll likely leverage those numbers into the No. 1 cornerback role for the RedHawks.

East Carolina v Cincinnati
Nolan Johnson transfers to Miami after four years of repping East Carolina colors. Johnson’s most accomplished season at ECU was 2020 when he ranked sixth on the squad with 31 tackles.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Johnson will work with Robert Blanton, a former Viking strong safety who was hired on Chuck Martin’s staff to coach the cornerbacks this season. Michael Dowell also joins these newcomers in Oxford as a transfer from Michigan State. Dowell started five games at nickelback for the Peach Bowl champion Spartans last season, cleaning up opposing offenses to the tune of 40 tackles and three pass breakups. He brings 32 games of coveted starting experience to this defense, as well as the ability to thrive in both cornerback and safety roles.

Johnson and Dowell should occupy 40 percent of Miami’s five starting secondary openings, assuming the team continues to run its 4-2-5 scheme under Brechin. Salopek and incumbent RedHawks likely fulfill the other 60 percent. One of the familiar faces back in the lineup is John Saunders Jr., who collected four starts at cornerback in his redshirt freshman season. Saunders led all Miami defenders with three interceptions, breaking free for 66 interception return yards and a touchdown on his runbacks. Saunders opened the season with an exclamation mark by returning a pick six against Cincinnati, and he concluded his breakout year in similar fashion with a momentum-swinging interception in the Frisco Football Classic win over North Texas.

Safety Jacquez Warren also made his mark in the Frisco Football Classic — the one-off bowl game Miami participated in last December. One drive after Saunders picked off North Texas quarterback Austin Aune, Warren manufactured an interception of his own. He staved off a Mean Green red zone drive less than 90 seconds before halftime to preserve the RedHawks’ 6-point lead at the break. In recognition of his efforts, he was showered with Defensive MVP honors at the conclusion of the bowl.

Warren ranked seventh on the roster in total tackles last year by recording 42, and he checks in at second in the category behind Salopek among returning RedHawks. The North Carolina native will transition to sophomore status in 2022 after notching seven starts in 11 appearances last fall.

While Salopek, Saunders, and Warren all tout valuable starting experience, all three players are only sophomores. The trio exhibited promising play as freshmen in 2021, and they’ll serve as the established locker room leaders of this new-look defense along with the experienced transfers.

NCAA Football: Frisco Football Classic-Miami (Ohio) at North Texas
John Saunders Jr. ran back two of his three interceptions more than 30 yards last season, including his 31-yard return in the Frisco Football Classic.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of on-field action, the depth is very shallow. Ambe’ Caldwell is the most seasoned member of Miami’s projected second-string defense, accumulating eight tackles as a freshman. Another name to watch is Ja’Von Kimpson, who has suited up for the RedHawks since their 2019 MAC championship season. While his career stats are limited to seven tackles, he should see an increase in playing time in 2022 along with Caldwell. But after Miami’s success in developing young talent last year, expect a bundle of the 10 freshmen defensive backs to also receive a share of reps.

One other fascinating name on the defensive depth chart is two-way player Yahsyn McKee. McKee joins Miami after excelling at the FCS level for Mercer as a wide receiver and cornerback. It is unclear how the RedHawks plan to utilize their new multidimensional talent, but McKee’s 37 receptions and two touchdowns — along with 59 tackles, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries — could thwart opposing gameplans with his sheer versatility.

If Miami’s secondary must emphasize one area of improvement in 2022, it’s forcing turnovers. The RedHawks were roughly average in opponent passing yards, completion percentage, and passing touchdowns in 2021, but acquiring takeaways was not a strong suit. Miami snatched just nine interceptions a season ago, but the secondary trended in the right direction down the closing stretch by securing four of those nine picks in the final two outings.

Armed with a new coordinator and a healthy mix of transfers and returning talent, Miami’s refurbished secondary makes its first gameday appearance on Sept. 3 in hopes of upending a powerful Kentucky team fresh off a 10-3 season.