After a 9-4 showing in 2013, the Hurricanes have their work cut out for them this year with the loss of several key offensive contributors including All-ACC third-teamer and starting quarterback Stephen Morris, and two starting offensive linemen in Brandon Linder and Seantrel Henderson - two of the mere three Miami players selected in this year's draft. Despite these departures, the Hurricanes will see the return of one of the nation's top NFL prospects at the running back position in junior Duke Johnson after an ankle injury limited him to nine games in 2013, as well as two key seniors on the offensive line in center Shane McDermott and guard Jon Feliciano - two more NFL hopefuls to keep an eye on.
With the QB position up in the air following an ACL injury to Ryan Williams - the guy everyone assumed would take over as the starter in the wake of Morris's departure - senior tight end Clive Walford's return after briefly considering entering the draft after last season is an important one to the offense, as he has shown consistent improvement each year, and looks to be one of the more intriguing prospects at the position leading up to next year's draft.
While the defense struggled last season (12th in the ACC in points allowed in conference-only games), it does return seven starters including All-ACC first-team ILB Denzel Perryman, versatile and disruptive DE Anthony Chickillo and 6'2 cornerback prospect Ladarius Gunter - all of whom enter the 2014 season as top prospects on several NFL Draft watchlists.
Miami's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
ILB Denzel Perryman (5'11 | 242 | 4.72 | #52)
Recently named to the 2014 Nagurski Trophy watchlist, Perryman earned All-ACC First-Team honors after a breakout campaign where he tallied 108 tackles in 13 starts including six games with 10 or more stops. He also made 69 solo tackles on the year, to go with five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Perryman's impact has been felt seemingly since day one in Coral Gables, as he saw action in 12 games and was the team's second-leading tackler as a true freshman in 2011, then earned All-ACC Honorable Mention accolades as a sophomore after playing in nine games with six starts at middle linebacker before moving to the outside last season.
Despite lacking desireable height, Perryman has the look of a prototypical inside 'backer with a stout, thick frame and plays with superb instincts and toughness in the box. He's difficult to latch onto at the second level due to strong, active hands, agile feet and good use of leverage when taking on bigger blockers, and he exhibits good burst and solid angles to either sideline when asked to pursue plays on the edges. He's fast to pick up on routes when dropping into coverage, and possesses quick enough hips to hitch himself to a crossing route and maintain stride-for-stride coverage on slot receivers and tight ends.
While Perryman's skill set and physical makeup suggest he'd be best suited to play inside at the next level, he has the experience, instincts and athleticism to move outside as he did so well last season, and should by no means be thought of as a one-dimensional, in-the-box defender. This versatility will certainly keep him in contention to be a first-day selection on draft day if he's able to continue his high level of play this season.
RB Duke Johnson (5'9 | 206 | 4.42 | #8)
Much like Perryman, Johnson wasted no time making his mark on the ACC from the moment he arrived on campus, compiling 947 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012 along with 892 yards and two touchdowns as a kick returner, for an impressive 2,060 all-purpose yards in his true freshman season - second most in UM history.
He kept right on rolling as a sophomore when, despite missing the final four games of the season due to a fractured ankle, Johnson earned second-team All-ACC honors compiling 920 yards and six touchdowns and averaging 174.1 all-purpose yards per contest.
While Johnson may lack the size that scouts look for in an every-down running back at the next level, he exhibits vision and patience beyond his years, possesses rare initial burst throught the hole, and is a physical runner with the ability to move defenders and extend plays on contact.
He needs to work on adjusting his levels in the open field as he tends to run a bit upright making it hard for him to stop and redirect with suddenness, and despite his strong initial burst, he's had some trouble running away from secondaries once he's had a clear path to the end zone.
A healthy junior campaign with continued improvement and perhaps a bit more bulk added to his frame could put Johnson at the top of the list of draft-eligible running backs for 2015. And considering the shorter NFL lifespan of running backs, early entry might just be his best option.
DE Anthony Chickillo (6'4 | 277 | 4.84 | #71)
A 2012 All-ACC Honorable Mention earner at defensive end who has started 34 consecutive games for the Hurricanes, Chickillo, like Perryman, considered an exit to the NFL after a strong junior year in which he compiled 3.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and seven QB hurries.
Though not the naturally explosive edge rusher that teams look for in the early rounds of the draft, Chickillo plays an extremely consistent and balanced brand of football demonstrating a strong anchor and good vision against the run, power to set the edge, and a high motor to grind opponents down. He'll even occasionally flash moves to suggest he could develop more of a repertoire as a rusher, despite the fact that his sack numbers have regressed each season since posting five as a true freshman.
Considering that he was evaluated and given a mid-late round grade by the NFL Draft Advisor Board when he contemplated entering the draft after last season, Chickillo should easily garner the same consideration with another year under his belt, and could see a substantial rise in his stock, with better sack production as a senior.
CB Ladarius Gunter (6'2 | 198 | 4.56 | #37)
Gunter spent two years at Fort Scott Community College prior to transferring to Miami in 2012, where he has since started 17 games including all 12 last season. And though he didn't garner anything of note in the way of post-season accolades within the conference, he quietly had one of the better seasons among ACC corners, tallying 46 tackles (36 solo), two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and nine passes defensed including three picks, and also returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
At 6'2, Gunter looks every bit the part of the new wave of big, physical corners that are growing in demand with the success of teams like Seattle, who essentially built their dominating defense around their towering DBs. His frame, though long and lean, is by no means slight and he plays with a high level of physicality both in coverage when pressing at the line, and as a tackler where he prides himself on laying the big pop. He's instinctive and responsive against the run, and as a cover man can turn and run from press coverage, or play off and drive back to the football, and displays good discipline when asked to sit in zone and cover an area of the field.
Where he needs to continue to improve is when his back is to the football. He's late to get his head around and locate at times, and has missed opportunities for more plays on the ball as a result.
Though still raw in some areas, Gunter's combination of size and natural cover skills make him one of the more intriguing press corner prospects in the 2015 draft class.
Other Miami prospects to watch in 2014:
TE Clive Walford (6'4 | 263 | 4.87 | #46)
Caught 34 passes for 454 yards and two TDs as a junior, and will be the team's second-leading receiver returning from the 2013 season. Quick, athletic receiver with the ability to separate from linebackers down the seam, or line up wide and beat corners with his size and catch radius. Struggles as a blocker and has been plagued by drops in the past, but has the talent to be an explosive weapon at the next level.
C Shane McDermott (6'4 | 296 | 5.21 | #62)
Third-team All-ACC selection by head coaches, and starter of 23 of Miami's last 24 games at center. Tough, physical and heady center who lacks great athleticism but demonstrates good technique in both facets of the offense and possesses the size and strength to potentially kick to guard.
OG Jon Feliciano (6'4 | 320 | 5.30 | #70)
All-ACC honorable mention as a junior, with 33 career starts who has experience both at left guard and right tackle. Powerful run blocker with a strong anchor against the bull rush, who lacks fluidity in space but can dominate opponents once he latches on. Versatility could be his ticket to a draft selection next spring.
DT Olsen Pierre (6'5 | 305 | 5.23 | #91)
Long defensive tackle with good awareness against the run, and who occasionally flashes something as a pass-rusher. Better consistency as a senior could mean a draft-able grade for Pierre.