RedHawks 'rearmed' for run at MAC title
2022 Record: 6-7, 4-4 MAC
2023 MAC Head Coaches Poll: Second in MAC East
By MIKE SMTH
In some respects, the Miami RedHawks had two football seasons last year. The first lasted less than 60 minutes of playing time. The second was everything after that.
Two key RedHawks went down to serious injuries during a Week One game at Kentucky. Tackle Sam Vaughn was lost for the season. Quarterback Brett Gabbert, meanwhile, appeared in just three more games after injuring his non-throwing shoulder.
Gabbert's injury was particulary devastating given the RedHawks had already lost backup A.J. Mayer to transfer during the offseason. That forced Aveon Smith into the starting spot. Not only was he lacking any significant game experience, the freshman was much more of a running weapon than a passing threat. Although he improved in the latter and picked up valuable game management skills, the RedHawks preseason offensive battle plans were radically altered.
Although he was briefly in the transfer portal, Gabbert returned to the RedHawks and has shined through spring and fall practices. Smith is also back, and Colorado transfer Maddox Kopp joined the program. Over a matter of months MU restocked its quarterback room. With a few transfers mixed in among experienced returnees, this year's Miami offense will try to look a lot more 2021. With Gabbert on his way to All-MAC honors that year, the RedHawks topped the conference in passing (278.5 ypg) and were second in pass efficiency. With Gabbert missing most of 2022, MU fell to 12th (last) in passing.
>> Gabbert's return is by far the biggest key to any Miami offensive resurgence. He threw for 2,648 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2021. With former RedHawks QB Gus Ragland stepping in as quarterbacks coach, Smith returning and Kopp joining the mix, Miami's QB room is in much better shape than it was entering 2022. Kopp was picking up the offense well in spring drills and is a bit more of a passing option than Smith.
>> With MAC Hippenhammer gone (Cincinnati Bengals UDFA), Miles Marshall is the most productive returning wideout. He caught 24 balls, good for 390 yards and two TDs last year. One was the game-winning touchdown against Ball State, a win that made MU bowl eligible. More targets, however, are now available, and Gabbert has been busy building chemistry. Junior Gage Larvadain (5-10, 165) arrived after spending last year at Southeastern Louisiana. Joe Wilkins (6-2, 202) is a red-shirt senior from Notre Dame. Cade McDonald was a late transfer from Michigan State. Martin noted several returning receivers who saw limited action in the past have also improved, resulting in some depth at the receiving positions.
>> Jack Coldiron and Nate Muersch return as tight end options. The former recorded 24 receptions totaling 286 yards and a touchdown last year.
>> At least entering the season, one of Miami's biggest questions is how productive the offensive line can be. The RedHawks lost two starters -- Rusty Feth to Iowa and Caleb Shaffer to Oklahoma -- during the offseason.
>> We lost a couple good players to Power Five schools, which is going to happen (at times) with good players," Martin said. "You just kind of roll with the punches. Our staff has done a good job. ... We've filled in some of the cracks with older guys; some of the cracks we filled with younger guys."
>> Even before the transfer losses, Martin felt the offensive line needed to raise its level of play. "We have not run the ball consistently like we need to (in order) to be a high calibre offense. We have not protected consistently to be a a high calibre offense, so (improving) our O-line has been a huge emphasis."
>> Vaughn (6-7, 297, R-Jr) is back from his injury in the 2022 opener. Although he missed spring ball, he should be good to go for the 2023 opener. He and Ben Jackson will likely combine to hold down the left side. Jackson got 11 starts after Vaughn's injury.
Reid Holskey (6-6, 303, R-Jr.) figures at right tackle and is a key to chemistry. "He's a tremendous young player and a leader that is just scratching the surface of what he can become," Martin noted.
>> Chuck Nank (6-4, 315, R-So) is at center after a "tremendous" spring. Former Kentucky player John Young (6-6, 317) is among a group of players battling for various spots on the depth chart.
>> We feel like we've got the depth. We need the productivity," Martin said. "If they play well this year, we're going to have a really good football team."
>> Smith led RedHawks rushing last year, logging team highs in carries (123), rushing yardage (553/4.5 ypc), and rushing scores (6). With Gabbert under center, the rushing yardage will need to come from others. Keyon Mozee (5-7, 182, Jr) is one of several players that will likely be part of the running back picture. He carried 109 times for a total of 471 yards (4.3 ypc) with two TDs in in 2022. Whether it is Mozee or any other member of the "committee," they'll be in a multi-task role that will compliment a pass-friendly offense. If the offensive line begins to click, then they might be able to break off some of the "chunk plays" that Martin enjoys.
>> Miami was forced to lean on its defense last year, and the unit helped MU reach a bowl game. Despite the loss of a few players to the transfer portal, the RedHawks will field an experienced and talented unit in 2023. Several big-time playmakers are among seven returning starters.
>> Miami led the conference, yielding 22.6 ppg in 2022. The RedHawks were third in total defense (373.1 ypg), first in rushing defense (135.9 ppg) and seventh in pass defense (237.2 ppg).
>> Rowan Zolman (Minnesota) and John Saunders (Ole Miss) must be replaced in the secondary. However, senior Michael Dowell, along with juniors Ambe Caldwell and Jacques Warren return to anchor the secondary. If the corners step up, it could be a good unit -- especially if MU can generate pressure on opposing QBs.
"We feel like we've got some really talented (players) back there and if they stay on the same page, they can have a tremendous season," Martin said.
>> Three starters return along a front line that led the league in rushing defense (135.9 ypg/3.9 ypc) last year. Martin said that overall, the group could be even better this time around. "Coming into this year, you've got everybody back, and I don't mean (just) starters," Martin said. "It was a really good group a year ago (and) as the year went on, they got better and better. They were really good against the run ... and the pass rush got better and better as the year went on. I think the pass rush is where these guys can make a significant jump here in (2023)."
Senior Austin Ertle and Kobe Hilton are part of what Martin called "tons of anchors and run stoppers on the inside." Caiden Woullard and Ty Wise have starting experience at the ends, while Corey Suttle and Brian Ugwu have plenty of experience, as well.
>> Linebacker is another strong area. Ryan McWood (Second Team All-MAC) is gone, but Matthew Salopek (Third Team All-MAC) returns after amassing a whopping 124 tackles (61 solos) last year. Wise can also see duty at linebacker, but according to Martin, the RedHawks are so deep in linebacking talent that the depth has bolstered special teams. "We have a lot of depth at the linebacker position, which (translates well) to special teams. We have some really good coverage guys and guys that can do the dirty work to get in front of the returners."
>> In addition to some "dynamic returners," Miami has a solid kicking unit.
"We have multiple kickers that can really kick the ball well. We have multiple punters that can punt the ball well. We have three long snappers," Martin said.
Sophomore Graham Nicholson converted 27-of-28 PATs last year. He also hit 18-of-23 field goal attempts, with a long of 49 yards. Dom Dzioban, meanwhile, ranked fourth among MAC punters, averaging 42.4 yards per boot.
While Ohio got the nod in the 2023 MAC Coaches poll, a variety or publications are split between Miami and the Bobcats on who will win the MAC East. Both programs lost quarterbacks to injury last year, but Ohio's key injury came in Week 11. Moreover, the 'Cats had a relatively quick fix available to run the majority of their offense.
Miami's QB situation is in much better shape this year, although keeping Gabbert healthy is the most likely path to success. It appears the RedHawks have strengthened their receiving corps. Questions remain along the offensive line, maybe not quite as much in protection as in opening holes for the running game.
It's possible that a rejuvinated passing game may force teams to back off loading the box against runs -- at least in some situations.
The defense should be strong once again, which would certainly be a plus when MU and Ohio meet Oct. 28. That game is in Athens. One week earlier, Miami hosts another gifted offense in the Toledo Rockets.
The RedHawks non-conference slate includes three straight road tilts - Miami (FL), UMass and Cincinnati. They are finally home for a Sept. 23 game against Delaware State.
The first three MAC games are against teams predicted to finish in the lower half of their divisions: Kent State (A), Bowling Green (H) and Western Michigan (A). However, for what its worth, the latter two defeated Miami in 2022.
After Toledo (H) and Ohio (A), the RedHawks finish with Akron (H), Buffalo (H) and Ball State (A).
Editor-Publisher Mike Smith
Mike grew up in Mid-American Conference football and basketball territory and returned there after military service. He has been covering MAC football and men's basketball for much of the last several decades.