Miami spring practice preview: Richt, Hurricanes searching for a new QB

Miami coach Mark Richt

In trying to get back to their glory days, the 2017 Miami Hurricanes will look to maintain momentum from the last half of last season.

The Hurricanes, who start spring practice Tuesday, finished 9-4 in 2016 and ended the season on a five-game winning streak, including a rout of West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

RELATED: Full list of jersey numbers for Miami’s 2017 early enrollees

Second-year coach Mark Richt and his staff have a young but experienced team with 14 returning starters. With 10 early enrollees and multiple players returning from injury, there will be plenty of competition for the few starting spots remaining.

Finding a new starting quarterback for the first time in three seasons, finding the right combination along the offensive line among plenty of returning veterans and finding a new cornerback and safety highlight Miami’s spring “to-do” list.

The three biggest position battles

1.Quarterback. After Brad Kaaya led the ‘Canes to their first bowl win in a decade, he declared for the NFL draft. The backup the past two years has been Malik Rosier, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback who recently set a Miami quarterback record in the power clean. In 13 career games, he has passed for 370 yards and two touchdowns; he has started once, passing for 272 yards and two touchdowns in a victory in a win over Duke in 2015. He must improve his accuracy if he wants to run Richt’s timing-based, pro-style offense. No other quarterback has played a down; sophomore Evan Shirreffs, redshirt freshman Jack Allison and true freshman Cade Weldon, an early enrollee, will be the main competition. Who ultimately wins the starting job will determine how much zone-read option and run-pass options the coaching staff installs and ultimately uses. Cade Weldon’s dad, Casey, was a starting quarterback at Florida State in the early 1990s. His offensive coordinator? Richt.

2.Offensive line. Though the ‘Canes return six players with a combined 85 starts, the line could have a different look this season. Though Trevor Darling has 27 career starts at left tackle over the past three seasons, including the first nine last year, he has the body type (6-4, 320) for guard in Richt’s pro-style scheme. Tyree St. Louis started the final eight games in 2016 at right tackle and he could move over to the left side. Nick Linder has 21 career starts at center. K.C. McDermott has 21 career starts (mainly at guard but including four at left tackle last season) and he probably will play left guard, meaning the only spot up for competition will be right tackle. Massive senior Sunny Odogwu (6-8, 325) started four games there last season before an ankle injury sidelined him, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. Tackle George Brown transferred from LSU and sat out last year. Expect plenty of cross training at each position during the spring.

3.Secondary. Miami lost three key seniors in the secondary in cornerback Corn Elder and safeties Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins. In Sheldrick Redwine and Malek Young, secondary coach Mike Rumph has young, aggressive corners who started a combined nine games last year. Both are expected to start, with junior Ryan Mayes and sophomore Robert Knowles looking to gain more playing time in reserve. Junior Jaquan Johnson will start at strong safety, and free safety likely is up for grabs between hard-hitting sophomore Romeo Finley and true freshman Amari Carter, a four-star early enrollee.

RELATED: FCS All-America CB Dee Delaney transferring to Miami

The three strongest positions

1.Linebacker: Preseason suspensions and dismissals in 2016 led to three true freshmen starting last season. But what was expected to be a trouble spot instead was a pleasant surprise. In sophomores Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has a solid starting trio. Quarterman and Pinckney were freshmen All-Americans with a combined 17.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Depth is solid, too.

2. Defensive line: Line coach Craig Kuligowski returns all of his significant contributors from last season, led by freshman All-American Joe Jackson. The uber-athletic rush end had 11.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles. Trent Harris (9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks), Chad Thomas (11 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Demetrius Jackson (6 TFL, 2.5 sacks) also return at end. Inside, Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh return, and they were big reasons UM allowed just 131.6 rushing yards per game last season, ranking 26th nationally.

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3. Wide receiver: Ahmmon Richards was second on the team in receptions (49) and led the ‘Canes in receiving yards (934) and yards-per-reception (19.1) last season as a true freshman, breaking school records in each category. UM did lose seniors Stacy Coley and Malcolm Lewis, but there is a plethora of talented receivers outside of Richards, led by slot guys Braxton Berrios and Malik Mayweather along with outside receivers Dayall Harris (a former four-star signee with nine receptions last season) and 6-5, 210 pound Lawrence Cager, a physical receiver who could contribute mightily but is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last summer. Other receivers need to step up to help the new starting quarterback, but the talent is there.

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