Falling for TDs instead of turnovers is a key for Miami. Photos by Kevin Smith.
Miami University football fans will likely remember 2009 as the year of the turnover. The biggest turnover was in a coaching staff that included new Head Coach Michael Haywood. The former Notre Dame player and assistant coach is working hard to return the RedHawks to the status of a traditional Mid-American Conference football power. To do so, however, Haywood and company will have to do something about those other turnovers.
The RedHawks finished 2009 minus-24 in turnover margin. That was more than twice as bad as any other MAC team. Among 36 MU turnovers during the campaign were 21 interceptions. Sixteen of those came from Zac Dysert. The redshirt freshman moved into the starting spot before the halfway mark and remained in that role through the remainder of the season.
While Dyserts game inexperience undoubtedly contributed to miscues, the RedHawks also coughed up 15 fumbles (tied for the league high).
Suffice it to say that turnovers have been a talking point on several levels over the past several months and will continue to be an area of focus leading up to the Sept. 2 opener at Florida.
Its going to be a major focus point as we go into the last two weeks, Haywood said following Saturday's annual Pigskin Cookout scrimmage. We have to make sure that we can secure the football, because we cannot win football games losing the turnover battle.
He continued, It was lack attention to detail in the backfield, and I think it was youth at wide receiver and also at quarterback.
With a year under his belt, as well as some diligent off-season work, Dysert could be less gracious (e.g. interceptions) to opposing defenses this time around. Haywood indicated Dysert has made strides in going through a methodical process instead of being an emotional player.
Another point of emphasis for Miami has been the run game. Only two MAC teams finished 2009 averaging less than 100 yards of rushing offense per game. Miami not only nailed down the bottom spot, it did so rather handily with a 70.1 ypg. rushing average to Bowling Greens 86.5.
Fumbles and 2.4 yards (with a cloud of artificial turf rubber pellets) do not make for successful football. It was, nevertheless, a stroke of good fortune that Dysert and the passing game were often able to move the football.
Although Dysert never got a chance to throw to wideout Chris Givens, who was lost to a season-ending injury early, Dysert nonetheless helped MU average 273.4 ypg through the air. That was good for fourth place among MAC squads and just over five yards behind second place Toledo.
One other stat might further illustrate the RedHawks rushing vs. passing relationship. Dysert, though primarily a passer and saddled with 329 negative yards, nonetheless finished just 33 yards off the team lead for net rushing yardage.
While Haywood and staff are determined to lay a foundation for eventual success in the running game, the second year head coach is happy to see Dyserts development as a passer.
I think the best thing hes done is (learn) the protections and (protecting himself) from the blind side, Haywood said. We just have to make sure that we get the receivers on a better page for him.
Dysert proved to be pretty durable as a redshirt freshman. Should he be forced to the sidelines, however, redshirt freshman Austin Boucher (6-1, 210) would assume signal calling duties.
Just a few years ago, the RedHawks were struggling mightily in the passing game. As they enter 2010, not only do they have a quarterback who is a threat, that QB also has an array of legitimate targets.
Joining the talented Givens (6-2, 209, Jr.) at wide receiver is senior Armand Robinson (6-1, 197) and Luke Swift (6-2, 180, So.).
Jamal Rogers (5-11, 173, Sr.) and Andy Cruse (6-4, 212, So.) also saw significant action last year, while Nick Harwell (6-1, 183, R-Fr) out of the Air Force Academy Prep School has been impressive since joining the team earlier this year.
The coaches have done a tremendous job of getting some players in here , and the guys who have been here are getting better, Haywood said, citing Swift as an example. He is just a sophomore, (but he) is starting to step up and become more of a physical player and (is) running better routes.
A number of options also exist at tight end where sophomore Steve Marck (6-3, 250) moved up in what is a very fluid depth chart. Kendrick Burton (6-4, 255, Jr.) had a good spring and senior Jordan Stephens is also in the picture. Haywood and tight ends coach J.D. Vonderheide appreciate receiving skills, but demand run-blocking skills, as well.
The RedHawks will take all the blocking they can get, especially in the run game.
Thomas Merriweather led the Red and White rushers last year with 291 total yards on 105 carries for a 2.9 ypc. average. He had three TDs on the campaign.
The 5-10, 213-pound senior got banged up early in the recent scrimmage but should be back for the opener. Merriweather, according to Haywood, has gotten stronger and could be more productive if he stays healthy and can be more consistent.
Danny Green, (5-10, 203, So.) and Ome Bey (5-8, 175, Fr.) will also get their touches and opportunities.
Fullbacks Justin Semmes (6-2, 238, R-FR.) and sophomore Vince Helmuth (6-1, 265) hope to provide good lead blocking and a viable run option in short yardage.
Whoever runs the ball, they will benefit from any improvement along a very young offensive line. Nearly every other area seems poised for a significant step forward. But the offensive lines performance is more of a question mark and yet may prove pivotal in a number of games.
Theyve got the keys to the car, and they know that, said offensive line coach Bill Mottola, adding that his linemen are accepting the challenge.
Guard Bob Gully is the only senior along a very young line. Should Gully be sidelined, classmate Nate Williams could step into the spot.
Sophomore center Brad Bednar (6-4, 297) returns, backed up by former defensive player JoJo Williams (6-2, 280, So.).
Matt Kennedy (6-5, 271, So.) was listed at one tackle, while Josh Harvey (6-5, 322) was penciled in on the other side. The latter is returning from an injury that led to a redshirt freshman season.
Injuries during the spring and fall practice have hampered junior Brandon Brooks (6-5, 325). Depending upon his progress, Brooks is expected back by the first or second game of the 2010.
We had Brandon Brooks for two days and we were a significantly better offensive line. With Brandon Brooks in there at guard, we were moving people. We really need Brandon Brooks back, because he can really do some good things for us and help us to be more dominant up front.
Redshirt freshman John Anevski was listed behind Brooks on a recent depth chart. However, Mottola continues to study various combinations.
Sophomore Cory Brown (6-5, 295) joined the RedHawks this summer after spending last season at Tyler Junior College in Texas. Brown adds depth and could challenge for a starting spot as he becomes more familiar with the system.
Guys are getting a lot better and they are doing much better at making the plays, Haywood said.
While there are also depth chart questions on the defensive side, the unit as a whole looks poised for a good year after finishing eighth in total defense (377.3 ypg) last season. Two related keys will be to avoid giving up big plays and cutting down on touchdowns. Only Toledo (59) and Eastern Michigan (55) gave up more TDs than Miami (51) in 2009.
A centerpiece for the RedHawks D last year was middle linebacker Jerrell Wedge. The 5-9, 223-pounder from Upper Marlboro, Md. recorded 114 tackles as a sophomore.
Luke Kelly (6-2, 225) could be at one linebacker after adding 20 pounds of muscle for his upcoming sophomore campaign. Evan Harris (6-0, 228) figures at the other linebacking spot, although a number of players could end up on field. Eight players combined for 13 letters last year in one of the RedHawks deepest position groups.
Some new blood will only add to what should be a more experienced and stout group up front if they can stay healthy. Injuries opened up competition in the spring, but the addition of players like speedy freshman Mwanza Wamulumba (6-3, 246) is adding some depth.
True Freshmen Austin Brown (LT) , Anthony Sheoemaker (LE) and Wes Williams (RD) , plus redshirt freshman Mike Johns (RT), combined for 22 starts in 2009. Junior left end Morris Council, when healthy, is a natural pass rusher. He took a medical redshirt last year.
Most of the secondary returns for the RedHawks, who lost just two letter winners in the group. However, improvement is key as MU was too susceptible to big plays in 2009.
Senior safety Jordan Gafford, senior cornerback Brandon Stephens and junior safety Anthony Kokal are veteran defenders. D.J. Brown had an outstanding spring and should move into one corner spot.
As the season progresses, the secondary may get more help from the incoming freshman class. In addition to focusing on recruiting linemen, Haywood has made it a priority to add speed in the secondary and at running back. Freshmen Dayonne Nunley and Demetrius Quarles, for example, worked their way into the cornerback picture for fall cookout game and will battle for positions heading into the opener.
As a unit, the defense had shined through much of fall practice.
Defense has dominated camp, and today we didnt dominate like we normally have, Haywood said after Saturdays scrimmage. I really (had to get) on the ones over there on the other side of the field because we werent dominating the trenches. We werent dangerous out there on defense, and we have to be dangerous every time that we step out on the field.
Becoming a dangerous team, in fact, is a key to success, according to Haywood. Before we can turn Miami back to the historic tradition that Miami has always had, we have to become a dangerous, relentless team where the scoreboard doesnt matter, the clock doesnt matter. The opponent has to say, Wow! They were physically dominant.
SPECIAL TEAMS Special teams may be a mixed bag for the RedHawks.
Jamal Rogers is Miamis all-time leading kick returner with 1,950 yards. However, punt return duties could go to one of several newcomers.
Zac Murphy impressed enough to earn a scholarship and replace graduated Chris DiCesare at the punter position. Several candidates are competing for the long snapper spot.
Fifth-year senior Trevor Cook enters his final season after connecting on a critical school-record 55-yarder last year against Toledo. He hit 7-of-12 on field goal attempts and was 16-of-19 on PATs.
Keeping Dysert and the offensive line will be particularly important this season. However, the RedHawks have more experience, depth and speed at many positions so much so, in fact, that Haywood reminds his squad that he believes in position competition which gives everybody veterans or newcomers opportunities.
One of the things that we had to overcome was this orphan syndrome, Haywood said. The orphan syndrome is that when you come in and take over a program and you start bringing in players that compete for jobs and start winning jobs, you have to make sure the other guys (who) were here previously understand that you love them just as much. It has to do with productivity, and I think guys are starting to understand that.
SCHEDULE The RedHawks toughest game will likely be their first as they take on perennial SEC and national power Florida Sept. 4 in the swamp. After that, however, the schedule is more forgiving than last years brutal slate.
Miami returns home for games against Eastern Michigan and Colorado State.
Two more non-conference games on the road - Missouri, Sept 25 and rival Cincinnati, Oct. 9 are among the remaining MU contests. Two games against top MAC East contenders (Ohio, Oct. 23 and Temple, Nov. 23) will be played on at Yager Stadium.
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