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2023 Miami RedHawks Positional Previews: Defensive Backs

The RedHawks return four of five starters to the secondary, including three established safeties.

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

Consistency is key for the Miami RedHawks, which are set to enter their 10th season under head coach Chuck Martin. That theme carries over to Martin’s coaching staff and a multitude of position groups, namely the defensive back room.

Miami returns a wealth of its 2022 starters to the secondary for 2023 including one cornerback and three safeties. The safety experience will prove to be invaluable as the returning talent consists of tremendous run-stoppers who were vital in establishing the MAC’s top rushing defense a season ago. The RedHawks also boasted the conference’s top overall scoring defense at 22.6 points per game, but there remains room for improvement, especially in the aerial defense.

Miami ranked 87th in the FBS in passing yards surrendered per contest at 237, but the RedHawks mitigated some of the damage by intercepting 11 passes — good for 51st on a national basis. Shockingly, there are no returning All-MAC selections to the defensive backfield in Oxford, but a strong foundation with substantial experience exists within this position group.


Cincinnati v Miami Ohio
Yahsyn McKee is one of four returning starters in the defensive back room for Miami, and the only one at cornerback.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Miami garnered one All-MAC selection in its secondary last year. Cornerback John Saunders Jr. attained Third Team honors in recognition for a season which featured 52 tackles, a pair of interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. But Saunders won’t be a component of the 2023 lineup, as the cornerback transferred to Oxford, MS this offseason to play for Ole Miss.

However, the other starting cornerback Yahsyn McKee is running it back in Oxford, OH. McKee started seven games last season before missing the final five with a leg injury. In his first year transitioning from the FCS level, he accumulated a season stat-line of 35 tackles, two interceptions, and six passes defended. Some of McKee’s finest work was observed right before the injury transpired, as he racked up a career-high seven tackles and forced a fumble in his final full game of 2022.

Which cornerback will Miami pair with McKee?

While the transfer portal took Saunders away, it added Jayden Williams to the program. From 2019 to 2021, Williams participated in 24 games at USC, but the junior cornerback hasn’t played in nearly two years. With the Trojans, Williams was often utilized on special teams, totaling 15 tackles in his former stomping ground. He even contributed defensively with an interception in a dominant 2021 victory over Washington State.

Another portal addition was William Hardrick, a former 3-star prospect acquired by Mississippi State in the 2022 recruiting cycle. However, his collegiate experience remains limited to one game in 2021. But many FBS transfers, especially from Big Ten and SEC country, have seen exponential increases in production upon arriving at Miami, so the same could transpire for Hardrick in his new residence.

Like Hardrick, Louisville transfer Jeremiah Caldwell has not registered a stat at the collegiate level. The former 3-star recruit redshirted the 2022 season and looks to compete for playing time in this transfer-dominated cornerback room.

There are several other names to watch as potential risers in this group. Jalen Peterson arrived from University of Indianapolis at the Division II level last fall, but the former wide receiver turned cornerback took a redshirt upon arriving to Miami. Caleb Tubbs is a redshirt sophomore who earned his first taste of on-field experience with three appearances last fall. Devin Johnson is a redshirt freshman ready to make his collegiate debut after sitting out the 2022 season, while Cam Kirk and Ryan Kahn are redshirt sophomores eyeing their first snaps at Miami. Lastly, true freshmen involved at cornerback include Pittsburgh native Raion Strader and Daisjuan Mercer from Hopkinsville, KY.


NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern
Michael Dowell racked up 97 tackles in his first year after transferring from Michigan State. He stood three tackles shy of becoming the RedHawks’ third member of the 100-tackle club in 2022.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Miami has utilized a 4-2-5 base defense throughout the Chuck Martin era, typically sending three safeties in the starting lineup to complement the cornerback tandem. And there aren’t many safety rooms in the MAC, or in the country, which exhibit the starting experience Miami does. Jacquez Warren and Michael Dowell were full-time starters last season and are expected to maintain their roles for 2023.

Warren contributed 63 tackles and a pair of interceptions — including a 66-yard pick six against Akron — building on a stellar 2021 campaign when he first entered the starting lineup. To cap off 2021, Warren claimed Defensive MVP honors of the one-time bowl game, the Frisco Football Classic, securing an interception and four tackles in Miami’s first bowl victory since 2010.

Dowell led the entire secondary in tackles with 97 (third overall on the team) in his first season with the RedHawks after arriving from Michigan State. The nickelback, now entering his senior season, demonstrated his versatility as both a backfield invader and coverage specialist with five tackles for loss and six pass breakups.

Additionally, the RedHawks retain Eli Blakey who missed the second half of the season after suffering an arm injury. Blakey seamlessly adjusted to a collegiate starting role, deflecting six passes in a five-game sample. The Louisville, KY native shined in his home state during Miami’s 2022 opener against Kentucky, as he recorded a personal-best nine tackles and an interception that evening.

When Blakey was sidelined beginning Oct. 1, Ambe’ Caldwell accrued valuable experience. Caldwell added six starts to his résumé and wound up with 37 tackles and two fumble recoveries in his sophomore season. Even with Blakey back in action, Caldwell should play a valuable role for a unit heavily reliant on defensive back production.

Other incumbent roster members in the safety room include TJ Rush, who enters his fourth season in Oxford with three games of experience. Additionally, Silas Walters collected 10 appearances as a special teamer. Mason Moore redshirted last season and still seeks his Miami debut. Newcomers holding true freshman status are Mychal Yharbrough, Steven Favazzo, and Kohl Jarvis.