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FSU football opponent Q&A: Miami

An orange and green perspective on Saturday’s rivalry renewed

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Cameron J. Underwood, managing editor over at State of The U, SBN’s Miami blog. We talk expectations following a breakthrough year, a quarterback change, and whether Florida State has any chance to upset the Hurricanes in Miami.

TN: After finally breaking through a year ago, I’m sure your expectations entering 2018 were quite high for the Hurricanes. Have they changed over the first five weeks of the season?

SOTU: My expectations have not changed through the first 5 weeks of the year. Yes, Miami lost the opener to LSU in pretty horrific fashion, but they’ve rebounded to 4 straight wins by an average of 38.25 points per game. Okay, if you take out the Savannah State beatdown, that margin of victory is still 25.33 ppg. So, these games haven’t been close.

Overall, I expected 11-1 or 10-2 for the regular season, and Miami is still on pace for one of those records. The ACC Coastal Division championship was also a baseline expectation for the year, and I’ve seen nothing from any other team in the division to have made me change that thought, either.

Even with the chapters of the story unfolding slightly differently than I had predicted before the season, the overall expectations I had for the Hurricanes this year remain unchanged. We are where we should be.

TN: Last week saw the ‘Canes make a change under center. How do you feel about the switch? What does Perry bring to the table that makes him an improvement over Rosier?

SOTU: I’ve written about Perry A LOT in the last couple of years. For a more complete discussion about his game and what I think he does well,check out this Recruiting Notebook from when he signed.

I love the move to Perry. Love it, love it, LOVE IT! I think the offense will be more efficient and equally if not more explosive (due to the increased efficiency) with a player of Perry’s talent and developing skill. I thank Malik Rosier for what he did bridging the gap from Brad Kaaya to N’Kosi Perry, but there was always an expiration date on him starting for Miami. I’m glad Mark Richt finally made the move to go from average to potentially great at QB, and I think Miami will be better for it.

Speaking about Perry’s game, he has a very strong arm and good accuracy. Both of those things are improvements over Rosier. Perry is at least as good a runner as Rosier, but probably more explosive when using his legs, so that’s an upgrade as well. Miami has always been an explosive offense, and that will continue with Perry. The main improvement, based upon his increased athleticism and throwing accuracy, will be that Miami will be a more efficient offense, and that should pay huge dividends with the talent that Miami has on offense.

TN: Do you have an injury update on Ahmmon Richards and Jaquan Johnson? Who has stepped up in their respective steads?

SOTU: Head Coach Mark Richt gave some injury updates on Monday, which you can read fully here.

But, the long story short is this: Shaq Quarterman, Mike Smith, and Jaquan Johnson, 3 players who either missed games or missed time in the North Carolina game with injury, are all expected to play. On the other hand, Ahmmon Richards is still out, and could be out “for a while”, according to CMR.

In Johnson’s absence, sophomore Amari Carter took a heavier work load, and did well. He missed some tackles, but he was seen hitting people HARD (his specialty) in the last 2 games. Carter will play his standard role against FSU, but will step up into a bigger role if Johnson isn’t able to stay on the field or needs a breather.

In Richards’ absence, Jeff Thomas has blossomed into one of the most explosive WRs in America, but that’s from the Slot. At his X receiver position, senior Darrell Langham, he of the game-winning catch against FSU in 2017, and freshman Brian Hightower, an All-American from IMG Academy, have stepped into bigger roles. Expect both Langham and Hightower, and even fellow freshman Dee Wiggins, to continue to play the X in Richards’ absence.

TN: How do you think the ‘Canes will attack Florida State’s new defense? Which match-ups do you like? Are there any that concern you?

SOTU: In general, Miami’s offensive line concerns me. Not because of anything specific to FSU, because the OL has a penchant to be average to bad in big games, so that’s something I’m watching in every game, this one especially.

Obviously, running the ball against FSU has been a struggle for Miami over the course of the last decade, so I’m interested to see how that shakes out. Miami is quietly becoming a very solid running team, and that has set up things in the passing game. Moving the ball on the ground to take some pressure off a QB making only his 2nd career start is a key to the game.

Lastly, I love Miami’s receivers (including backs and TEs) against FSU’s pass defense. I’ve watched every FSU game this year, and in all contests, there have been guys running WIDE OPEN through the Seminoles secondary. Miami has the players on offense to take advantage of similar situations, and hitting open receivers when the opportunity presents itself will be a necessity in order to win.

TN: The Hurricanes’ defense currently leads the nation in Bill Connelly’s stuff rate, while the Seminoles are dead last in stuffs allowed. Obviously, this is a point of concern for us. What’s made the Miami defensive front so successful against the run?

SOTU: A combination of talent, scheme, position coaching, and performance. While Miami lost both starting DTs from 2017 early to the NFL, redshirt senior Gerald Willis III and junior Pat Bethel have been great in starting roles. Willis III specifically has been dominant, leading the nation in TFLs and generally being a terror to opposing offensive lines. Add in DEs Joe Jackson and Jon Garvin, who both have the look of future 1st round NFL Draft picks and the performance to back that up, and you have plenty of talent up front on defense. And that’s not even mentioning quality backups like Gregory Rousseau, Scott Patchan, Demetrius Jackson, Tito Odenigbo, Jonathan Ford, and Nesta Silvera.

Insofar as scheme, Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz’s defenses are known for one thing: havoc. The goal is to penetrate gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield before they get started. No matter the players up front, and make no mistake that the players up front are very, very talented, the scheme is designed to get up the field, and it’s working.

While Miami lost DL coach Craig Kuligowski to Alabama (a better fit due to his relatively lax recruiting persona), the Canes replaced him with legendary HS coach Jess Simpson. But this isn’t a first rodeo for Simpson: he coached at Georgia Southern and with the Atlanta Falcons in the years preceding his move to Miami. Simpson is one of the best teachers and technicians at DL in the game -- college and NFL teams routinely went to his HS in Buford, GA to learn the finer points of DL play from him -- and that teaching ability has shown itself to be elite so far this season. Miami’s DL has maintained the elite performance seen during Kuligowski’s tenure, and when you’re replacing 8 players, including 4 NFL draftees, that is no small feat.

TN: If FSU is to have any success against the ‘Canes D, how do you think they’ll do it?

SOTU: Good question. To have success against Miami’s D, I think FSU will have to do a couple things:

  1. Utilize Deondre Francois in the QB run game. It is no secret that Miami has either struggled defending QB run or ignored QB run in the hopes of shutting down other offensive options. Either way, having a mobile QB is a weapon that has been successful against Miami’s D in the past so that’s an area where FSU can be successful.
  2. Give the ball to Cam Akers. The former 5-star RB had 120 yards against Miami last year, and is one of the best players at his position in America. When you have a player like that, you find ways to get them the ball and hope their talent takes over. FSU should do that.
  3. Call timely screens. Look, FSU’s OL is bad. Full stop. So, they should use Miami’s defensive aggression against them by calling slip and tunnel screens -- seen often last week against Louisville and throughout the season -- to get the ball to receivers in space, and will blockers in front.
  4. Hit vertical shots. FSU’s passing game has been explosive down the field this year. That will need to happen for the Noles to be successful overall.
  5. Get some improvement from the OL. Miami’s DL vs FSU’s OL is, to my mind, the biggest mismatch of the game. If FSU is to find offensive success, the OL will need to raise their level of play so this isn’t as glaring an issue as it looks to be at this time.
  6. Force Miami into turnovers. If FSU can get the ball with a short field after a Miami turnover or 3, that will help the offense immensely.

TN: How would you evaluate Miami’s special teams play to date?

SOTU: Miami’s special teams have been average at best. Freshman K Bubba Baxa has made 4 of 5 FGs, and 27-28 XPs so that’s good, but those kicks haven’t been in high pressure situations. So, the talent is there, but it remains to be seen if he is able to make kicks in pressure situations. Punter Zach Feagles has been one of the worst in America, averaging 37.8 yards per kick, with a shank as likely as a 50 yard bomb. And, punt protection has been an issue previously with several kicks nearly being blocked.

The kick and punt return games have been good, but Miami is more likely to fair catch a punt than return it. When they do, though, Jeff Thomas is electric in space, is averaging 40 yards a return, and that’s with a TD being called back.

TN: Finally, let’s hear it. The Hurricanes opened as an 11-point home favorite, which has since been bet up. How do you see this one unfolding?

SOTU: I’ve said this all week long, and even a while before that referring to last year’s Miami-FSU game: if you put up anonymous stat profiles for these teams and asked people to choose a winner and winning margin, people would unanimously choose the Miami-profile team to win by 21+ points.

BUT, when you put names on the teams, and consider the rivalry nature of this game, things aren’t as clear as the profiles on paper might lead people to believe.

I don’t think that FSU can block Miami’s defensive line, and their offense won’t be able to get going because of that. And with Miami playing a new QB, one who is accurate and has the arm to take advantage of the receivers I believe will be running open all day long, and plenty of skill position talent to exploit the already-seen holes in FSU’s defense, I don’t think this game ends up being all that close.

Final Score: Miami 38 Florida State 20

Big thanks to Cam for his time and insight! Head over to State of The U for your Miami coverage needs. Check here for our answers to their questions.