University of Miami spring football observations: A freshman revelation, portal targets and more



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CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Miami is two-thirds of the way through spring practice and set to host its spring game on campus on April 13.

What meaningful developments can we take away from the first 10 practices at Greentree with several key absences to injury among projected starters? There are a few.

We sought the opinions of two former Hurricanes — quarterback Malik Rosier and punter Brian Monroe — who have watched practice over the past month and included them along with what notable things coaches and players have said over the past month.

Portal targets?

What positions will Miami address when the portal reopens on April 15?

Running back tops the list. Receiver, edge rusher, linebacker and defensive back are other likely areas where coach Mario Cristobal will look.

“We’re going to be very aggressive,” Cristobal said. “I think like the (previous transfers) had a chance to meet some of our players, I think the next ones will want to play with some of these guys. Hopefully, it’ll be a good portal season for us.”

Biggest development

We ranked Miami’s top 24 returning players and 11 best roster additions before spring practice, and one name I left off was freshman Elijah Lofton. Big mistake. He could become the most impactful freshman on the team.

Lofton, listed at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds and a former four-star recruit from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, could become Miami’s version of Deebo Samuel this season. He’s getting snaps at tight end, H-back, running back and receiver.

“I’m comfortable (anywhere on the offense) — just have to line up and play ball,” Lofton said Tuesday. “I’ll do whatever I can to help the team be elite, be great.”

Lofton could follow a similar path to the one CJ Donaldson has taken at West Virginia. The 6-1, 238-pound former Miami Gulliver Prep standout signed with the Mountaineers in 2022 and evolved from a tight end recruit to a running back and has run for 1,324 yards and 19 touchdowns on 258 attempts (5.1 yards per carry) over his first two seasons in Morgantown.

Will Lofton get that many carries next season? Probably not. But he could if Miami doesn’t land a true No. 1 running back or if Mark Fletcher doesn’t recover from his injury as expected.

“I personally think if he was a linebacker he’d go over there and give everyone a run for their money,” Cristobal said last Thursday. “He’s exceeded expectations and we’ve thrown a lot at him. We talked a lot about Rueben Bain and Francis (Maugioa) last year. When you talk about Elijah, you feel a little bit the same way.”

Quarterback

We touched on five pressing questions entering camp and wrote about Cam Ward’s immediate influence as a leader. He took the entire offensive line to eat at Fogo De Chao restaurant at the start of camp.

“I mean obviously the quarterback position stands out,” Monroe said of the biggest difference he sees this spring. “You can just tell what kind of player (Ward) is. It looks effortless, his passing ability. From what I hear from the guys, he’s a really good leader.”

One of the most important questions revolves around how often offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson will ask Ward, who led Washington State in rushing attempts (120) and rushing touchdowns (eight), to tuck it and run considering his past issues with fumbling (46 in four seasons according to Pro Football Focus). Dawson said if Ward decides to run instead of throw, it’s likely not by design and only because it happened “organically” during a play.

“There were a couple times today he scrambled and you could see he could get 15, 20 or so yards,” Dawson said after Miami’s second practice this spring. “The biggest deal with me and the scrambling and keeping your eyes down the field and throwing it — just extending plays. And that’s really where the game is played today because D-linemen are so good, coverages are so complex that if you have 80 snaps a game and you throw it 50 times, there’s probably going to be 10 snaps a game where everybody’s covered or protection breaks down. You’d like for those 10 plays not to be just something that kills you.”

Rosier said Ward is “super comfortable in the pocket” and is blessed with excellent awareness and an ability to sidestep pressure.

“Secondly, I think his best skill is his ability to take what the defense gives him,” Rosier said. “A lot of guys when they come over try to prove themselves, (it’s) ‘I’m gonna show you guys I can throw the ball 80 yards. I’m gonna show you all these crazy plays that I can make.’ He has made really good throws. He has made some really good plays. The biggest thing I see is just consistency. If the hitch is there, he’s taking it. If the slant is there, he’s taking it. Then, when you go Cover 1 and press him, he’s taking shots. That’s one thing that I really like about him — his ability to let the game come to him instead of trying to basically reach out and grab plays.”

Albany transfer Reese Poffenbarger appears to be a strong candidate to be the No. 2 QB in the fall.

“He definitely surprised me with some of the arm talent he has,” Rosier said. “I didn’t think he could throw it as far as he did on some of his deep shots. He’s a competitor and wants to make plays.”

Skill positions

We know Fletcher is a favorite to be Miami’s lead back when he returns from injury because of his size, speed and skill set (Cristobal said he’ll be back early summer). But we still expect Miami to look for veteran help in the transfer portal following the departure of Henry Parrish Jr.

Rosier and Monroe said speedy redshirt freshman Chris Johnson has been the most impressive of the healthy running backs available this spring but noted he still has to learn his blocking assignments and improve his route running out of the backfield. TreVonte’ Citizen, back after missing consecutive seasons because of a serious knee injury, doesn’t look as fast as he did before the injury and is running a bit tentatively.

Ajay Allen, who transferred from Nebraska a year ago, has been out this spring but makes up for the loss of Parrish in size and skill.

• Rosier said he expects Miami’s passing game to make a big jump in Dawson’s second season calling plays because of the familiarity receivers have in his system. Last season, the Hurricanes ranked ranked 48th nationally in yards per pass attempt (7.7), 52nd in touchdown passes (23) and 107th in interceptions (14).

With veterans Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George back, the question heading into camp was if Isaiah Horton was ready to replace Colbie Young as a big outside threat. Consider it answered. Horton has been consistently good throughout camp.

Even if Horton or George slip, freshman Jojo Trader has proven he’s capable of starting. He has “completely dominated the twos and threes” throughout camp, Rosier said.

“He’s silky smooth,” Monroe said. “Talking to (receivers coach) Kevin Beard, he thinks he can be very special and have an impact soon. Same with (freshman Ny) Carr. Those two are gonna be dynamic.”

• Cristobal was asked in camp if he considered running George off the team at the end of last season in light of the several personal foul penalties the receiver committed late in the year. Cristobal said he did but ultimately decided against it. George, for what it’s worth, said he felt remorse for the flags because it set the team back and that he has learned from it. George said Beard was in his ear and helped him understand what he did wrong. “I just want to earn the trust of my teammates and have fun out there,” George said.

• How involved will Miami’s tight ends be after combining for 18 catches, 154 yards and one touchdown last season? A lot of it probably depends on the health of Elijah Arroyo and if sophomore Riley Williams takes a step up in development. Cristobal pointed the finger at his staff for not doing a better job last season drawing up plays to get tight ends open. Rosier believes Miami needs to get a veteran tight end in the portal.

“We got some guys that can play, but my biggest concern is Arroyo’s health — he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy over time,” Rosier said. “When I was at practice, I also didn’t see very many throws to the tight ends. All the throws basically went to the receivers. I’d like to see some plays where the tight ends are the primary read.”

Offensive line

Who is going to start at left guard? The jury is still out, but if I had to guess right now I’d go with either Samson Okunlola or Matthew McCoy if Jalen Rivers isn’t kicked inside from tackle. Rivers has worked at left guard at times in camp, offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said. Markel Bell, a massive human at 6-8 and 330 pounds, has taken snaps at left tackle when Rivers moves to guard.

“I don’t know if Bell will start right away,” Rosier said. “But if he doesn’t and somebody messes up, he’ll be in the game. He just towers over people, does a great job getting his hands inside, swallowing guys.”

Mirabal said he and Cristobal have spent the spring figuring out who they can trust to play this fall, not necessarily where they’ll play them. “Right now we have eight, nine of them (we trust),” Mirabal said following Miami’s seventh practice of the spring.

The Hurricanes were fortunate to have the same starting offensive line for all 12 regular-season games last season. The team lost left guard Javion Cohen and center Matt Lee to the NFL but returns starting left tackle Rivers, right guard Anez Cooper and right tackle Francis Mauigoa, who has missed the spring following surgery on both shoulders.

Lee was Miami’s vocal leader a season ago. Mirabal said Cooper and Rivers are the leaders of the offensive line this year. He said Cooper is more of the vocal leader while Rivers sets the example.

Center Zach Carpenter isn’t the same kind of guy from a vocal perspective. Mirabal said Carpenter is very bright and adept at calling out where the pass rush is coming from. But he’s not Lee from a personality standpoint. Carpenter snaps left-handed because he broke his right thumb at Indiana and was forced to use his other hand. “In his own way he’s done a good job of leadership too,” Mirabal said.

Mirabal said Okunlola, a redshirt freshman, has taken reps at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. The assistant said the former five-star recruit is “close to being one of the guys we trust.”

Secondary

There’s no doubt the biggest question on defense remains the secondary, which must replace four starters, including safeties Kam Kinchens and James Williams.

Washington transfer Mishael Powell has spent nearly all of camp in the slot covering Restrepo. He could play safety but appears locked into the starting nickelback job. Returning starter Daryl Porter Jr. is entrenched as the No. 1 corner opposite sophomore Damari Brown, who has been hampered by injury and has missed most of camp. Brown’s older brother Davonte left Miami for Florida State in the offseason.

Rosier thinks Miami shouldn’t rush top-100 safety recruit Zaquan Patterson on the field too quickly. “If we can get an older guy to teach him or rotate in with him, that would be the smart thing to do,” Rosier said.

Miami has had Jaden Harris and Vanderbilt transfer Savion Riley get the bulk of work at safety with the first team. Jadais Richard, a transfer last season from Vanderbilt, has taken the bulk of the snaps with the first team at corner with Brown limited.

Front seven

Miami has been without its three best players in its front seven — middle linebacker Kiko Mauigoa (torn labrum) and defensive linemen Akheem Mesidor and Bain — most if not all of the spring as they recover from injuries or surgery.

Mesidor had surgery on both feet last season for torn ligaments and appeared in only three games. Mesidor said Tuesday he’s waiting on a special pair of cleats from Adidas before taking the field again.

Portal additions Elijah Alston (Marshall), C.J. Clark (NC State) and Marley Cook (Middle Tennessee) have all been viewed as solid additions to the defensive line rotation. Alston, an edge rusher, could drop into coverage as a linebacker if needed, defensive coordinator Lance Guidry said after Miami’s third spring practice.

• Does Miami need to add a veteran linebacker through the portal? Cristobal said last Thursday he still isn’t sure. Starters Maugioa and Wesley Bissainthe are back, but there isn’t much experience behind them.

Redshirt freshman Popo Aguirre has progressed and has received the bulk of the snaps at middle linebacker with starter Mauigoa out this spring. Aguirre said he can play middle and weakside linebacker. Other new freshman arrivals have looked good at times, too.

“Someone in general on defense didn’t really stand out to me,” Rosier said. “To me the group that looked better overall were the linebackers. (Freshmen) Adarius Hayes, Cam Pruitt could end up getting a good amount of playing time for me. The summer is gonna be big for them. Can they get bigger, faster, stronger? From an intensity perspective, the linebacker group surprised me.”

(Photo of Jacolby George: Brian Fluharty / USA Today)





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