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When last called upon to be a starter, quarterback Austin Boucher led the Miami RedHawks to four straight wins down the stretch as MU won a MAC title and subsequent bowl game to cap a 10-4 campaign (7-1 MAC). Since that time, Miami has registered a total of eight victories over two seasons. With record-setting QB Zach Dysert now gone, Boucher is set to take the reins for his senior campaign. Can he and the RedHawks fashion some more Miami magic?
Dysert, though not drafted, was signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos. He was a key player in moving a Miami offense that has, for a variety of reasons, struggled mightily with its ground game in each of the past two seasons. MU finished both campaigns with identical 4-8 marks.
Dysert’s best target, pro prospect Nick Harwell, was due back for his senior campaign in 2013. However, Harwell ran into some legal issues in the spring and was eventually dismissed from the school.
Not only will the RedHawks be sporting a radically different look with their uniforms this year, the offense may well be markedly different, as well. To be sure, Boucher is capable enough throwing the ball. The lefty isn’t likely to challenge many passing records, but he can pass effectively within a balanced offense.
Balance is what the RedHawks had going down the stretch in 2010 and balance is what head coach Don Treadwell has often stated is a team goal.
During the 2010 run, MU benefitted from the running of Thomas Merriweather. He, in turn, was able to shine thanks to a line that got healthy in time for MAC play. With Merriweather pounding away between the tackles, occasionally breaking a long run, the passing game also prospered.
Then, as now, much of MU’s success is related to line play. Injuries decimated the group, which didn’t have the depth to adequately fill in when needs arose over the last two years.
The RedHawks finished last among MAC teams rushing the ball (league games) in 2012, averaging 102.8 ypg. Treadwell recently identified being able to run the football as one of the key stats for his squad to be successful
Of course, the numbers might have been slightly better if MU hadn’t finished last in sacks. Opponents pulled down Miami QBs 28 times for 159 yards in eight games.
Better line play would likely help both those areas, so the question is: Can the line stay healthy and play efficiently?
“I’m sure, even coming out of the spring, you are always looking to see if there are some things you can tweak and improve the overall mission,” Treadwell said. “Certainly for us on offense, that is to be more balanced.
Junior Marcus Matthews figures at the center position. Seniors Jeff Tanner (LT) and John Anevski (LG) could hold down the left side. Redshirt freshman Brandyn Cook drew a starting nod last year in the RedHawks opener at Ohio State, but a hand injury in that game put him out for the season. He and sophomore Trevan Brown may work right guard while junior Zach Lewis or senior Julian Green would pull duty protecting lefty Boucher’s blind side from the right tackle spot.
Redshirt senior Steve Marck returns at tight end after catching 27 passes for 299 yards last year. Dustin White and Orlando David can certainly help at the spot.
As for running back, nobody distanced himself in last week’s Pigskin Preview scrimmage, so the door is open for a host of possibilities. Eric Finklea and Justin Semmes are gone, leaving Jamire Westbrook and Spencer Treadwell as the most experienced RB candidates. Both have sophomore standing. Westbrook led MU with 95 carries as a freshman in 2012.
“Right now it’s still (running back) by committee. There is a group of them that we are giving a lot of reps to. If, indeed, by the time the season rolls around that is how we continue to play, then that will be fine, as long as they are all productive,” coach Treadwell said.
The RedHawks may also get some ground yardage out of their quarterbacks this time around. Boucher is a very competitive player who is capable of running the ball. Other quarterbacks seeing action in the scrimmage also showed an ability to use their feet to pick up valuable yardage.
“In the past, we may not have asked the quarterback to tuck it and run, but I think we all are capable of running and scrambling when we need to.,” Boucher said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I think we have some QBs that can run the ball if need be.”
As for passing the ball, Boucher remains optimistic he has enough good targets despite the loss of explosive Harwell and key possession receiver Andy Cruse.
“We have great receivers: David Frazier, Dawan Scott, Rokeem Williams and Sam Shiso on the outside. You’ve got Alvonta Jenkins. The list goes on with our tight ends in Dustin White and Steve Marck,” Boucher said.
“We’ve got a plethora of weapons. Every single one of those guys is capable of making big, big, big plays.
Scott, a 6-1, 191-pound junior, is the veteran among wideouts. He had 57 catches for 851 yards (14.9 ypc) with seven touchdowns last year.
“Collectively … there are still a lot of guys that have played a lot of good football,” Treadwell said.
As with offense, the main ingredient for success will likely be line play. Oh, there is talent beyond the line, but last year’s struggles from a unit that was projected to fare well show the need to take care of business up front.
Miami ranked 12th of 13 teams in stopping the run during MAC play. That translated into 234.8 yards per game. Given their troubles and the returning talent/schemes around the league, MU can expect to see a heavy dose of ground game again this season.
Fortunately for Miami, there is some talent if it can stay healthy. Senior DT Austin Brown’s presence on the field is a key and Luke Kelly started four of the final five games in 2012. Mwanza Wamulumba has battled injuries through much of his career, but like Brown, is a significant player along the front line. Wes Williams provides a good sack threat and was instrumental down the stretch in last year’s upset of Ohio.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we wanted to … tremendously improve against the run. We did a lot of that work in the spring, so we just continued to work on that (during fall practice), “ Treadwell said.
“It’s like anything else, when you’ve got veteran players that are healthy, what a difference that makes. We lost Austin Brown after about the first game last year. That makes a difference. We (also) lost another guy for a big part of the year. Having those guys healthy, and rolling (other) guys in has made a difference already.”
Senior starter Chris Wade led MU with 128 tackles last year and returns to anchor a linebacking corps with potential. Sophomores Josh Dooley and Kent Kern are very active. If the line holds up better, that can only help the next level.
The same might be said of the defensive backfield, which lost a pair of experienced players in D. J. Brown and versatile Pat Hinkle.
Senior cornerback Dayonne Nunley has been a First-Team All-MAC selection in each of the past two seasons. He has a nose for the ball, with career stats that include 12 interceptions and 19 tackles for loss.
Chrishawn Dupuy (CB), along with safties Brison Burris and Marshall Taylor, have experience.
In some respects, special teams has been a strong area for the RedHawks. In other respects, not so much.
Sophomore placekicker Keleb Patterson burst onto the scene last year and soon provided the steady leg/foot Miami needed. He led the team in points (68) while converting 15-of-18 field goal attempts and 23-of-25 PATs. He elevates the ball quickly and showed a strong leg for a true freshman, hitting an impressive 5-of-6 on field goals from 40-49 yards.
Zac Murphy ranked ninth among MAC punters, which wouldn’t exactly bring the crowd to its feet. But Murphy has come a long way, and if he can avoid the occasional shanked punt, he can be another strong suit for special teams. Given the uncertainty of MU’s offensive production coming into the season, punting may be particularly important until the “O” hits stride.
Where the RedHawks could use more improvement is in some other special teams areas. For example, MU was 12th (MAC) in kickoff coverage. The RedHawks were last in punt returns and eighth in kickoff returns. With new special teams coordinator Andrew Marlatt on board, Miami hopes to improve across the board.
The upcoming season poses many questions as Miami transitions out of the Zac Dysert era. Boucher’s competitive nature and experience in clutch situations should serve everybody well. After waiting for his opportunity, he is anxious to shine. The question is, does he have the necessary cast around him?
Beyond that, can Miami stay relatively healthy? Quality depth has been a problem in certain units.
The margin of error for this team will likely be small. Gone are the days of “given” wins as several MAC East “also-ran” programs have improved. MU must bring its “A” game every week.
Miami opens at a particularly tough road venue when it meets Marshall in Huntington. The current MU players likely don’t know what that means, but they will quickly find out.
Road tilts at Kentucky (SEC) and Illinois (big 10) are part of the non-conference schedule. Area rival Cincinnati, which has dominated recent meetings, is the lone home game during the first month.
Miami’ mid-season slate will be particularly important, because Ohio, Bowling Green, Kent State, an improved Buffalo squad and Ball State round out the regular season schedule. The RedHawks managed one win against that group last year, and Ohio will be anxious to issue some payback when the two teams meet in Athens Oct. 26.