Barry Jackson

What we’re hearing from Miami Hurricanes spring ball: Who looks good and ongoing battles

With the Miami Hurricanes having conducted four of 15 spring sessions and now off for a week, here’s what we’re hearing from a couple of people who have attended those closed practices:

OFFENSIVE FEEDBACK

UM so far has been thoroughly impressed by everything with quarterback D’Eriq King, including — as expected — high marks for leadership, arm strength and mobility.

“He’s going to bring a different dimension,” said one person who watched him closely last week. “He can make all the throws, but you say that about a lot of quarterbacks. His ability to escape pressure will help all of their offensive line issues. Very smooth runner.”

Beyond throwing a nice deep ball, King is adept at the type of quick throws that new coordinator Rhett Lashlee wants in this spread offense, particularly the intermediate throws that demand anticipating where a receiver is going to be, not where he is when the ball is thrown.

And don’t discount the leadership, which was lacking at the position last season. Throughout last week, King stayed after practice to work with receivers. He ran sprints and worked on throwing drills. There was no rush to get off the field.

One source at practice said that freshman Tyler Van Dyke struck him as the second most impressive quarterback, behind King.

“If King hadn’t come here, I think Van Dyke would start this year,” that source said. “His passes are crisp, accurate.” He also praised the QB’s demeanor. That source said N’Kosi Perry was OK but Tate Martell continues to struggle with accuracy and turnovers.

Freshman running back Jaylon Knighton might be even better than UM thought.

“In the practice I watched, he was ridiculous,” one source said. “He’s as fast as anybody. Very dynamic.” And very effective at zone runs, that person said. He’s expected to have a major role in the offense as a freshman.

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This UM staff has gained an appreciation for Robert Burns — and how hard he is to tackle — and envision him as a more than adequate veteran backup for Cam Harris. The Canes love the diligence with which Harris approached the offseason — particularly in the weight room — and believe he’s primed for a big year taking over as the unquestioned No. 1 back amid the departure of DeeJay Dallas.

Junior receiver Dee Wiggins, who didn’t make a huge jump from his freshman season last year, appears back on track. One source at practice last week said Wiggins was Miami’s most impressive receiver and that he and Mark Pope have the elusiveness to turn short throws into long gains, which is paramount in this spread offense. Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Payton also looked very good last week.

One source said Xavier Restrepo was the most impressive of the freshmen receivers.

“He’s gained weight,” that person said. “I know there are Braxton Berrios comparisons, but he makes Berrios look like a fifth-grader [physically] and his hands are better than Berrios’.”

Freshman receiver Daz Worsham drew the ire of new receivers coach Rob Likens when he dropped a ball and then picked it up nonchalantly and started walking back to the huddle at a leisurely pace. Likens made him do the drill again, picking up the ball and running with more urgency. Likens has been harping on catching and tucking the ball and then quickly lining up for the next play, which is vital in this up-tempo offense…

Freshman receiver Michael Redding isn’t fully participating in spring ball because of a wrist injury; freshman receiver Keyshawn Smith has flashed his above-average speed.

Tight end Will Mallory dropped a pass at one session last week but that can happen to anyone. Canes coaches were impressed how he came on late last season after an uneven start. He still must continue to work on his blocking, which was poor as a freshman two years ago, but there has been some improvement. Brevin Jordan is out this spring with a left foot/ankle injury.

Though the thinking was that freshman Dominic Mammerelli could redshirt, he might be needed as a blocking tight end in the run game, and the position lost depth with Michael Irvin and Brian Polendey transferring.

“It’s so hard to find a tight end in high school that can block,” Manny Diaz said. “He adds something we may not have on campus and thus provides immense value for us.”

H-backs Larry Hodges and Mike Parrott also can play tight end and offer that blocking component, and Hodges has upside as a receiver.

John Campbell got a long look at first-team left tackle last week, and new offensive line coach Garin Justice believes there’s something to work with there. The player who gets first team reps early in spring ball certainly doesn’t always end up being the starter, but Miami believes Campbell can be a competent left tackle, at the very least, after Zion Nelson allowed nine sacks last season.

Kai-Leon Herbert received first team work at right tackle last week, and the light may finally be going on for the redshirt junior after three disappointing seasons here. Nelson also is the mix there.

Freshman tackle Jalen Rivers is getting an initial look at guard, and former starting right tackle DJ Scaife also has been working at guard and might be better suited there.

Don’t discount former junior college player Ousman Traore as a factor at guard; there has been some improvement there and he got some first team reps last week.

If Scaife and Navaughn Donaldson (who’s out this spring with a shoulder injury) start at guard, Jakai Clark - who started 12 games at right guard as a freshman - could focus on backup center duties, behind Corey Gaynor. Clark worked a lot at center last week.

DEFENSIVE FEEDBACK

Former UCLA linebacker Jaelen Phillips is going to be a big factor.

“His size really jumps out,” one practice observer said.

It will take time for him to get back in rhythm after not playing for more than a year, but the athleticism and quick first step were evident to one source in attendance. Despite several injuries, observers saw the skill set that made him one of the top recruits in the nation in 2017. The Canes had him bulk up to play defensive end.

One source said Temple grad transfer Quincy Roche isn’t overwhelming physically (just 235 pounds) but has polish and savviness as a pass rusher. That source compared his frame to longtime NFL pass rusher Dwight Freeney.

Defensive tackle Nesta Silvera was “very disruptive” last week, one source said. “Best I’ve seen him look.”

Redshirt freshman Jalar Holley was impressive last week - the guy has a serious motor - and figures to join the defensive tackle rotation with Silvera and Jon Ford (the likely starters) and either Jordan Miller or redshirt freshman Jared Harrison-Hunte, who also has made a jump. Diaz noted how Harrison-Hunte made some plays last week where he “knocked some guards back.” What’s clear is UM is recruiting athletic defensive tackles who can really move.

Jason Blissett, the other defensive tackle from last year’s class, is getting a look at defensive end after losing weight; he’s now at 257 pounds.

The thinking is that senior Zach McCloud is going to be solid, reliable and prepared for whatever offenses throw at the Canes. One source said he expects Sam Brooks - who is out for the spring with an injury - will become “the guy” who plays alongside McCloud the most.

Amid several injuries at the position, Avery Huff is getting a lot of linebacker reps this spring, and “you can see how athletic he is,” one practice observer said. “But he’s raw, too skinny.”

One practice observer said safety Gurvan Hall looked very good last week; UM believes there’s another level he can get to after allowing three touchdown catches last season.

Amari Carter will get a lot of first-team work this spring, with Bubba Bolden sidelined at least for the first half of spring ball. Carter is a cerebral and physical player but must improve in pass coverage; during the regular season last year, he gave up 212 yards on just nine receptions…

There’s internal confidence in new striker Gilbert Frierson, who allowed too many receiving yards (133) on just five completions against him last season. By comparison, Romeo Finley - whose eligibility is up - relinquished 166 yards on 15 completions against him in the regular season.

Sophomore Christian Williams, the ballyhooed four-star cornerback from Alabama, wasn’t a big factor last season - he was primarily used on special teams - but UM believes he has improved and he got some first team work last week.

One observer at closed practices was struck by cornerback Al Blades Jr.’s intensity; he has become a vocal leader and was doing a good job “motivating guys.”

Though the offensive line could use help, one source said he won’t be surprised if UM uses its remaining scholarship on a grad transfer cornerback or linebacker.

We’ll have a few more observations and more UM notes in a Thursday column. And here’s my Wednesday piece on where UM’s 2021 recruiting class stands.

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