The Miami RedHawks were supposed to make 2017 their year.
Coming off six-straight regular-season wins and a bowl bid to finish 2016, Chuck Martin’s team looked poised to take a big step forward and etch itself among the Mid-American Conference elite.
That didn’t happen.
Marred by injuries and late-game collapses, the RedHawks finished the 2017 season with a disappointing 5-7 record and fell to fourth place in the MAC East.
“Last year, I would definitely say, at times, we were worried about the big picture,” Martin said. “We were worried about the result more than we were worried about grinding through to get to the result.”
In the end, the result that the ’Hawks were worrying about wasn’t the desired one.
Four of their seven losses were by five points or less and came as the result of critical MU errors down the stretch. Late second-half mistakes led to Miami blowing leads against both Bowling Green and Cincinnati. That’s even more deflating considering winning just one of these games would’ve made the Red and White bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season — something that hasn’t happened since 2003-2004.
But Martin is back — he signed a two-year contract extension in March to remain the team’s head coach through 2020 — and so are 16 of last year’s starters. Experience is something Miami will count on to right the ship.
While the holes left by Heath Harding, Ryan Smith and Tony Reid won’t be easy to fill, the RedHawks retained some of their most important playmakers.
On offense, last season’s leading passer, rusher and receiver all return and are seniors.
After a sparkling second-half of 2016, quarterback Gus Ragland put up solid numbers in 2017, completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,032 yards and a 19:7 touchdown to interception ratio. However, he struggled with a nagging leg injury, causing him to miss three games and be less than 100 percent for a couple others.
Miami struggled to move the ball in Ragland’s absence, and lost two of the three games started by backup Billy Bahl. Bahl transferred to Ashland University in the offseason, leaving junior Alex Malzone — a highly-touted graduate transfer from Michigan — and Redshirt freshman Jackson Williamson to battle for the second-string spot this season. Martin said the competition is still open between the two.
Like the past two seasons, Ragland will be tasked with carrying the load on offense.
“I think the biggest thing for me, and I’ve seen it work over and over again in the past, is the turnover margin,” Ragland said. “I’m the guy who’s touching the ball every play, so I need to be taking care of it in the air and when I’m running.”
Senior wideout James Gardner looks to remain Ragland’s most valuable weapon. Coming off a 927-yard, 11-touchdown season, he’s considered one of the best wide receivers in college football, and has been named to preseason watch lists for the Maxwell Award, the Biletnikoff Award and the Wuerffel Trophy.
Redshirt seniors Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith will anchor the running game after combining for over 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns last season. They’ll be running behind experienced offensive lineman, as the RedHawks return players who combined to make 57 of the 60 offensive line starts last season.
The only question mark on offense is who will be lining up opposite from Gardner when Week One arrives. Miami lost three of last season’s top four receivers to graduation this offseason. Redshirt junior Luke Mayock and sophomore Dominique Robinson are the top two candidates to earn the starting position.
Like offense, the defense returns eight starters from last season and is led by a host of seniors. But, the storyline with the MU defense is more about who it’s missing rather than who it has.
The unit lost Tony Reid and Heath Harding – the team’s second and third leading tacklers, respectively, from a year ago. They were not only stalwarts in the secondary, but were counted on as leaders in the locker room.
Regardless of the losses, Redshirt senior Brad Koenig – MU’s 2017 leading tackler – is excited about the new players stepping into bigger roles.
“It’s always tough when you lose seniors, especially starters like Heath and Tony,” Koenig said. “But I think we’ve challenged guys to step up. They’re really taking the challenge and trying to do their best. I think they’ll be good.”
The front seven of the defense will be the strong point. Six of the eight defensive returners are either defensive lineman or linebackers, including Koenig and junior defensive lineman Doug Costin. Costin led the RedHawks with five sacks last season.
Special teams shouldn’t cause too many headaches for Martin this season, as junior kicker Sam Sloman, Redshirt junior punter Kyle Kramer and sophomore returner Jaylon Bester are all back. All three had solid 2017s and will look to remain consistent.
Notice a trend?
There is a wealth of experience at virtually every position. That’s something Miami hasn’t had in the Chuck Martin era, and it’s something Martin, himself, is excited about.
“We’ve had very small senior classes and very inexperienced people,” Martin said. “This is the first time, where you come into camp, and you feel like we can move forward pretty quickly.”
And they have moved forward quickly. The RedHawks’ experience has allowed them to be well ahead of schedule. Not even two weeks into training camp, Martin had put his players through almost every game scenario they could see.
“I think the players enjoy [being challenged ahead of schedule],” Martin said. “It keeps the older guys on edge when you keep throwing new situations at them, as opposed to making it pretty basic. It’s harder on the freshmen, but when you have a more veteran group, the freshmen are going to be further behind. That’s what you want.”
The RedHawks will need to be prepared in order to conquer the tough schedule that lies ahead of them.
They open the season at home against the Marshall Thundering Herd on Saturday, before back-to-back games against Cincinnati and Minnesota.
Conference play begins on September 22 with an away game at Bowling Green.
Always an anticipated game for Miami, the RedHawks host the Ohio Bobcats in the Battle of the Bricks on November 7. They close the regular season with a home game against Ball State on November 20.
It will be a telling year for the program. With the amount of experienced talent and Martin’s contract extension, the expectation seems to be MAC Championship or bust.
“We always want the MAC Championship,” Koenig said. “But we’re going to try to make sure we just take it one game at a time and let that come to us if we just worry about each game.”
Miami will look to finally put it all together starting Saturday at 3:30 p.m.