FAMU vs. Miami Matchups

Quarterbacks Advantage: Miami (FL)

Jacory Harris enters his junior campaign for the Hurricanes this year, as well as his second season as the team’s full-time starter. The 2010 season also marks his second under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple who has installed an explosive pro-style offense which has really expanded the aerial capabilities of this team. Last year Harris thrived under Coach Whipple’s offense and utilized the plethora of weapons surrounding him. He completed just under 60% of his passes, throwing for 3,352 yards and 24 touchdowns. The problem for Harris is that he often finds himself misreading defenses and lofting balls into opponents’ hands when under pressure from the opposing pass rush. He threw 17 interceptions last season, and that is a number that should take a significant drop this season if this team wishes to fulfill their expectations. Harris is also battling back from surgery on his thumb which was injured for the majority of his 2009 season. He has said throughout training camp that the thumb is back to being 100%.

Harris will be followed by sophomore Alonzo “AJ” Highsmith (son of former Hurricane great and ’83 national champion Alonzo Highsmith Sr.) on the depth chart with Coach Whipple’s son, Spencer Whipple, third on the list. True freshman out of Pace High, Stephen Morris, may end up being redshirted.

Florida A&M faces the difficult task this season of replacing Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player of the year Curtis Pulley at quarterback. Last season he accounted for 2,705 total yards of offense and 18 touchdowns including 144 passing yards, 81 rushing yards, and a 26-yard touchdown run against the Canes in last season’s meeting. Sophomore Martin Ukpai is the man that head coach Joe Taylor will look toward to fill the void.

Running Backs Advantage: Miami (FL)

Miami is loaded at the running back position. Graig Cooper has made a speedy recovery throughout the offseason after severely twisting his knee as he fell victim to the Champs Sports Bowl’s unsatisfactory turf in Orlando. He’s been ahead of schedule in his recovery, and will be available on Thursday night, but nonetheless the senior finds himself behind fellow senior Damien Berry, sophomore Mike James, and redshirt freshman Lamar Miller on the depth chart. Berry led the team with eight rushing touchdowns a year ago and 6.6 yards per carry and is expected to get a majority of the carries on this team. He’s a powerful back who likes to run downhill and is always falling forward when he gets tackled. Berry really burst onto the scene last season in the fifth game of the season, which happened to be played against A&M. Lamar Miller out of Killian High School has electric speed and is a threat to take any rushing attempt to the end zone if given a hole to run through. Mike James is a solid, balanced runner who will get a chance to play his natural position of tailback this season after filling in at fullback a year ago for the injured Pat Hill. Hill, the bowling ball of a fullback, returns to the field this season and is expected to make a huge impact in improving this offense’s running game with his blocking.

The Rattlers’ offense will revolve around senior running back Philip Sylvester. Sylvester inherits the keys to their offense with the departure of quarterback Curtis Pulley who formerly had control, both on the ground and through the air. Sylvester has amassed over 2,000 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns throughout his career at FAMU, but in last season’s matchup against the Canes could only muster 24 yards on 12 carries.

Wide Receivers/ Tight End Advantage: Miami (FL)

The Canes have one of the top receiving corps in the nation (if not the best). The Miami receivers are marked by quality depth, and the group is led by senior Leonard Hankerson. He’s Jacory Harris’ favorite target and has improved his route-running ability steadily every year while always possessing the natural skills and physical tools to be an elite receiver. He’s one of four Miami receivers that are listed at 6’3” or above (juniors Laron Byrd and Aldarius Johnson and redshirt sophomore Tommy Streeter are the other three). Junior Travis Benjamin is the fastest receiver of this group and will be starting on the side opposite of Hankerson. He’s developed great chemistry with Jacory Harris, and they’ve connected on numerous deep passes. While the team will miss the presence of Thearon Collier, who transferred to USC recently, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat with redshirt sophomore Kendal Thompkins filling in at the slot position. Thompkins hasn’t had much playing time at wide-out thus far in his career and there were even rumors surrounding him about the coaching staff wanting to play him at defensive back, but he comes into this season with a chip on his shoulder and will play on offense.

There is a hole that needs to be filled at tight end. Miami graduated the three tight ends that it featured most a year ago. This opens things up for sixth-year senior Richard Gordon to finally make an impact. He’s oscillated from backup roles at tight end and defensive end and has dealt with a number of injuries but will finally be given his opportunity to shine this season. He’s the best blocking tight end on this roster, but the team will possibly look to the 6’6” junior college transfer out of Texas, Chase Ford, in a lot of the same ways Jimmy Graham was utilized last season.

FAMU returns its greatest receiving option in redshirt junior Kevin Elliot. The 6’3” wide receiver out of Orlando, FL hauled in 44 passes last year for 554 yards and 7 touchdowns. Also, redshirt senior Adrian Smith is expected to play a bigger role in the passing game with the departure of Isaac West.

Offensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL

Much like the team did at the end of last season when senior left tackle Jason Fox went down with an injury, the Canes will move senior Orlando Franklin from left guard to left tackle to fill the void as Fox departs to the NFL. Joel Figueroa, also a senior, will make a similar alteration this year on the right side. How seamless these two can be in their transition will be key in keeping Jacory Harris upright and giving him time to find one of his many deadly receiving options. Junior Harland Gunn will start at left guard with big Brandon Washington at right guard and Tyler Horn starting at center. There is no starter on this offensive line returning from last year to the same position. It’s important that this group develops cohesion quickly in order to be successful. A definite positive on this offensive line is the added depth it’s expected to have with guys like Ben Jones and Jermaine Johnson ready to get on the field (although Johnson is listed as questionable for the game). All Cane fans will be ecstatic to get their first look at the highly-touted recruit, freshman Seantrel Henderson, who is officially listed at 6’8” and 330 lbs. (although some argue that that figure must be closer to 350 or 360). He should come in and take over at right tackle at some point in the second half once the game turns into a blowout. He won’t be ready to be a regular starter on this line, however, until later on in the season at the very least.

The Rattlers offensive line is a solid run blocking group under MEAC standards. In last year’s meeting, they did open up some holes for Curtis Pulley to run through and were able to sustain some solid drives against John Lovett’s defense including an opening drive that resulted in a field goal and the initial lead in the game- a drive that the Hurricanes’ defense is still very upset about.

Defensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL)

Head coach Randy Shannon likes to employ a four-man rotation at both the defensive end position and the defensive tackle position in John Lovett’s 4-3 defense. Miami’s defensive line is loaded with so much quality depth that there are some real quality players that won’t see the field in many games because they won’t crack the “four-deep.” Senior stud Allen Bailey leads the defensive line, and Hurricane fans are thrilled that he decided to return for his senior campaign. With size, strength, athleticism, and excellent technique, Bailey is one of the top defensive ends in the nation. Sophomore Olivier Vernon may start at the opposite end of Bailey as he’s been impressive in scrimmages while redshirt junior Adewale Ojomo and junior speed-rush specialist Marcus Robinson will also get reps. Junior Andrew Smith has been superb in practice and in scrimmages, but is listed as doubtful on the injury report with an upper extremity.

At defensive tackle, there’s a moderate surprise with senior Josh Holmes and redshirt junior Micanor Regis starting and redshirt sophomore Marcus Forston coming off the bench. Also, redshirt freshman Luther Robinson seems to have cracked the “four-deep” over sophomore Curtis Porter, but they all should get their fair share of reps come Thursday night.

Florida A&M’s defensive line does not compare to neither the quality nor depth of Miami’s D-line. A year ago the Canes ran all over the Rattlers. That was the first game last season where Damien Berry really exploded with 14 carries for 162 and a 35-yard touchdown run.

Secondary Advantage: Miami (FL)

As opposed to the defensive line, Miami’s linebackers are not nearly as deep, especially with Jordan Futch reportedly behind schedule in his recovery from last year’s injury (listed as doubtful for the Thursday-nighter with a lower extremity). There were thoughts throughout training camp that senior linebacker Kylan Robinson would start at middle linebacker, but that hasn’t panned out and senior Colin McCarthy will start in the middle. Sean Spence will start at weak side linebacker as expected while Robinson and Ramon Buchanan are listed as co-first teamers on the strong side. Futch’s return would be key for the depth he’d add to the team, which is also dependent on the development of the numerous freshmen linebackers on the roster.

Miami’s defensive backs are led by junior cornerback and All-ACC selection Brandon Harris. Harris was tied with Micanor Regis for the team lead last season in interceptions, albeit 2 picks was all that was necessary for the team lead. Miami’s secondary would really like to force a lot more turnovers than it did last year, and it’s been a point of emphasis in training camp and in the spring. This season we’ll find out how ready sophomore Ray Ray Armstrong and redshirt freshman Jamal Reid are to play alongside redshirt sophomore and second-year starter Vaughn Telemaque at safety. If they can’t handle the task, Jojo Nicolas will gladly step in for an abundance of playing time. Senior Demarcus van Dyke will start opposite of Harris at cornerback while sophomore Brandon McGee and senior Ryan Hill look to come in for nickel and dime packages.

FAMU’s secondary actually did not have a poor showing at all against UM’s passing attack in last year’s meeting. They held the combination of Jacory Harris and A.J. Highsmith to a total of 255 passing yards and picked off Harris twice. They are still no match for Division I FBS talent however.

Special Teams Advantage: Miami (FL)

The automatic Matt Bosher is back for his senior season to take control of the team’s kicking and punting needs. As far as the return game is concerned, the Canes have a plethora of athletes they can look to. Freshman running backs Storm Johnson and Eduardo Clements are prime candidates to return kicks if they’re not redshirted, but they probably won’t get to return punts because of the added pressure that accompanies fielding punts as opposed to kickoffs. Some more experienced options on this roster in the return game are Travis Benjamin, Graig Cooper (when he’s healthy), and redshirt freshman Lamar Miller who may get involved in the return game with his blazing speed.

Redshirt junior Trevor Scott will handle the kicking game for the Rattlers while they look for a replacement to the incendiary return man Leroy Vann.

Coaching Advantage: Miami (FL)

It’s Randy Shannon’s fourth year at the helm in Coral Gables. He knows it’s time for this team to return to elite status. He’s improved the number of games he’s won each year he’s been the head coach by two games- from 5 to 7 to 9 last year. Mostly all the players on this roster are his players that he’s recruited to come to The U as the Larry Coker era is dead and gone. This season also marks the first under Randy Shannon where the team returns both its offensive and defensive coordinators. The Florida A&M Rattlers are led by third-year head coach Joe Taylor.

David Furones may be contacted at dfurones@themiamihurricane.com.