College Miami Hurricanes

Defense Shines, Freshman Receiver Hightower Flashes In Canes Spring Game

In a game that was largely dominated by the defense, early enrollee freshman wide receiver Brian Hightower flashed his big-play potential and caught a pair of touchdown passes as Team Soffer defeated Team Carol 17-0 Saturday night in the University of Miami’s spring football game at Hard Rock Stadium in front an estimated crowd of 15,875 fans.

Instead of using traditional colors – some combo of orange, green, and or white – Miami head coach Mark Richt elected to name the teams after the Carol Soffer, the longtime UM donor who is the namesake of the Hurricanes’ new indoor practice facility.

Soffer and her family, including her son South Florida real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer, donated $14 million toward the $34 million project that is currently under construction and is on schedule to be completed by the fall of this year.

The 6-foot-3 youngster Hightower caught a touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry and fellow early enrollee freshman, quarterback Jarren Williams to lift Team Soffer, which was comprised of the No. 2 and No. 3 offense and the No. 1 defense. Kicker Suleman Burrows made a 28-yard field goal during the game’s first quarter.

Hightower tied for a game-high four receptions for 100 yards – which included a 52-yard connection with Perry. Sophomore receiver Mike Harley and redshirt senior Dayall Harris each also had four catches; Darrell Langham finished with 66 receiving yards and Lawrence Cager had two catches for 48 yards.

The No. 1 defense – and sometimes the No. 2 defense – had its way with the offensive units; totaling nine sacks and an interception.

Sophomore defensive end Jonathan Garvin and early enrollee freshman defensive end Greg Rousseau each had three sacks.

Rousseau’s disruptive performance at Hard Rock stacked on top of his four-sack performance in the team’s closed scrimmage this past Saturday.

Richt said his offense couldn’t do much of anything against his defense.

“They were stout up front,” Richt said. “The offense couldn’t really get much run going, couldn’t consistently form a good pocket. They tackled well. I couldn’t really see any missed tackles at all, which is a great sign.”

Fellow true freshman cornerback Gilbert Frierson also accounted for one of those sacks – a delayed cornerback blitz in which he overzealously knocked Williams to the ground – and he earned the right to rock the “Turnover Chain” when he picked off a Perry pass.

Quarterback Battle

As it has been all spring, the talk amongst media and fans has been the Canes’ ongoing quarterback battle.

Coaches have maintained that redshirt senior Malik Rosier remains “QB1” – with quarterbacks’ coach Jon Richt calling him “the man” after Tuesday’s practice this past week – and he was still the first quarterback on the field Saturday.

Statistically, Rosier had a solid day – completing 9 of his 14 passes for 105 yards. He didn’t throw any touchdowns or interceptions but he was sacked four times.

Beyond the stats, Rosier still showed some of the bugaboos that plagued him in 2017 again on Saturday. The placement of his passes was off – missing wide on certain incomplete passes and even missing out on potential yards-after-catch opportunities for receivers after completed passes because of where he threw the ball.

“Malik was on most of the time was the one offense versus the one defense and they didn’t get much going,” Richt said.

“They had a couple plays here and there, had a couple of well-executed plays. Malik really didn’t get much of a shot to really stand back in there and sight some things up and make some throws. He did pretty well with what he had. His numbers were fine.”

The player who fans want to see under center for the Hurricanes come this fall – Perry – saw the most action of any of the active quarterbacks Saturday.

Perry spent time leading the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses and finished the game 11-of-26 for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran the ball a game-high eight times for game-high 45 yards.

Perry’s appeal to fans lies in his dual-threat abilities. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Ocala, Florida native did give fans a few plays to salivate over – like the seemingly effortless juke move he used to evade a defender in the open field or the 30-yard dart of a pass he threw on the run that fell incomplete only because the receiver couldn’t finish the contested catch.

Williams looked as solid as an 18-year-old could playing in his first college “game” in front of a crowd – going 9-of-14 for 107 yards and a touchdown. Williams was sacked three times and avoided an interception when a late throw went through senior cornerback Jhavonte Dean’s hands and into Langham’s mitts.

Richt gave his second-team offense credit for its performance Saturday.

“They had some good moments, scored some points, had a little excitement here and there and with N’kosi getting some of those and of course Jarren getting some of those,” Richt said. “They did a nice job. It’s good to see. They have the skill set that they need to compete at this level and they just have to keep learning and knowing what to do and they’ll continue to push Malik.”

“My guess is if either one of those guys were with the No. 1 units, they’d have a hard night too, so we’ll have to take that into consideration when we’re grading film,” Richt added.

Offensive O-Line

The underlying issue for the Hurricanes this spring – and really since Richt and his staff took over three years ago – is the play of its offensive line.

UM graduated two players from its starting offensive line from this past season – Kc McDermott and Trevor Darling – and has spent the spring trying to find the “best five offensive linemen”.

The coaching staff shifted senior Tyree St. Louis over from right tackle to left tackle; redshirt senior Jahair Jones moved into the No. 1 group at left guard; Tyler Gauthier remained at center; redshirt junior Hayden Mahoney started at right guard and sophomore Navaughn Donaldson has been moved from guard to tackle.

Shuffling players along the offensive line is never viewed as a positive thing, but UM offensive line coach Stacy Searels made comments this past week saying that he just wanted to find the “best five guys” and that his main objective was to “protect the quarterback”.

They had a tough time protecting the quarterback during last week’s scrimmage and had another lackluster performance Saturday.

Richt did acknowledge and credit the talent that Miami’s defensive ends possess, but he said that the O-Line limited what he could do as a playcaller.

“Our edge pressures, not necessarily blitzes, but our edge players so far this spring have been a little too much for our tackles right now,” Richt said. “If I were to play a game against us, I’d be using tight ends and backs to chip and help. We don’t do a lot of that in the spring because we want our guys to learn to protect without the help. But against guys like that, you have to chip a little bit. I started to do that toward the end when I got tired of not being able to step up and throw it.”

Aside from allowing the nine sacks, the rushing attack couldn’t gain any traction Saturday.

Perry earned his game-high total on scrambles; junior Travis Homer finished with 29 yards; Robert Burns had 14 yards; freshman Lorenzo Lingard had 12 yards and sophomore DeeJay Dallas had 2 yards on four carries.

Donaldson’s move to tackle, which Richt said is something that the former freshman All-American was yearning for, means that he has to shed weight. Listed at 6-foot-6, 350 pounds, Donaldson – while very athletic for a man of his size – would ideally need to drop 20-30 pounds to aid his ability to contend with wiry-strong defensive ends on a consistent basis.

Proper Perspective

Because football, is football – it evokes plenty of emotion from fans.

Some are ready to crown the Hurricanes national champions while others question if they’ll be able to break the .500 line this coming season.

The bottom line remains, Miami is a talented team with a fair share of game-changing players but it also is a team that has long road of work ahead if it wants to be considered one of the best – four – teams in the country.

The quarterback battle will rage on through the summer and into fall camp, but more importantly, the coaches will have to settle on five offensive linemen and give them as many reps together as possible because their cohesion will determine the level of play of the entire offense.

As far as Saturday – and the entire spring session – goes, the main objective is to come out of it injury free, which Richt said his team did Saturday.

“I spoke to our trainer and he didn’t have any players that had anything that resembled an injury,” Richt said. “I do want to thank our fans who showed up. They did a great job loudly cheering. It was awesome. Our band was there and our cheerleaders were there. They all love this program. Our Golden Canes came, former players came and a lot of people who help run this program were here and I just wanted to say thank you to everybody.”

J.T. Wilcox
J.T. Wilcox is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked in South Florida for more than a decade. He authors "The Bald Predictions" blog and "The Baldcast" podcast.

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