Spring practice is underway at Miami, where Mario Cristobal has a second chance at a first impression as the leader of a program where he once played and still cares for deeply. The 2023 season in Coral Gables is arguably the most pivotal of any Year 2 campaign in college football; coaching staff changes bring the expectation that last year's results -- a wildly disappointing 5-7 record -- will not be replicated.
Miami will have a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and four new position coaches, bringing changes in philosophy and signaling that the results of 2022 will not be acceptable. There is some familiarity among the new, like Miami Dolphins legend Jason Taylor moving from an analyst role to defensive line or Tim Harris Jr. returning to his alma mater as running backs coach. Overall, however, Miami is preparing for the fall it's like another crack at Year 1 of the Cristobal era.
There are a myriad of reasons for the changes, and not all of them are tied to last year's results. While former offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was dismissed, former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was hired away by Nick Saban at Alabama. The ensuing dominoes saw quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce, co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, running backs coach Kevin Smith and defensive ends coach Rodrique Wright seek opportunities elsewhere. The winds of change have been blowing all around Cristobal and this program, and now here in spring practice it's time to get settled and chart the course for 2023.
New offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson brings with him an Air Raid system that aims to use the pass concepts to open up the run game. Dawson has told reporters that while he acknowledges the Air Raid label, his offense and its goals are not going to fall in line with all of the expectations that might come with that system.
For example: Dawson plans to throw the ball down the field to get big yards in the passing game and use that success to set up the run. That's a shift from a shorter passing attack with higher completion opportunities, but if the wide receiver room rounds into form, it could be an effective way to bring quarterback Tyler Van Dyke back into the fold as one of the ACC's elite quarterbacks.
"Shannon Dawson was a guy that I've watched over the years, and he has shown he could do it on the ground," Cristobal explained to 247Sports' Cooper Petagna and Andrew Ivins earlier this month. "He had one of the top 10 rush offenses of all time, and yet, he was able to take in the Air Raid system and combine it with a downhill run game and produce top players, top performers, explosive plays and ungodly numbers, while at the same time, understanding that there are times where there has to be balance."
Dawson sent eight of the last 12 seasons working for Houston coach Dana Holgorsen but now he's getting a chance to craft an offense in his image at the game's highest level.
New defensive Lance Guidry also gets chance to show his chops after more than two decades at the FCS and Group of Five levels. After a successful 2022 season with Marshall, Guidry was initially hired by Tulane to replace Chris Hampton, but then left that gig when Cristobal offered the Miami defensive coordinator position less than a month later.
"We had to make some changes philosophically as we continue to build our program to what we want it to be," Cristobal said. "Being able to get a guy like Lance Guidry to come in and be our defensive coordinator -- that's hard to do. You've seen him; statistically, he's a top-five guy in just about every important category that relates to knocking people back, preventing people from scoring points, getting the ball back, forcing turnovers and negative plays. He has been exceptional."
Another wrinkle to the offseason changes is the influx of new talent to the roster. Despite missing a bowl game, Miami was able to sell Cristobal's vision for the future on the recruiting trail and locked in the No. 7 class in the country. More than a dozen of those players are already enrolled and taking part in spring practice, as are a handful of transfers from the portal that will be battling for key spots on the depth chart.
Names to know:
- Tyler Van Dyke, quarterback: Van Dyke started the final nine games of the 2021 season and finished with 25 passing touchdowns to just six interceptions, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors. Hype was established for what many believed was a budding star; however, the 2022 season did not match those expectations, and eventually injury issues limited him to just 10 touchdowns and five interceptions across nine games of action. This is Van Dyke's third offensive coordinator and third offensive system in as many years, and last year's backup Jake Garcia has transferred, so spring practice is going to be huge for Van Dyke and Dawson to get on the same page as the team installs the new Air Raid system.
- Javion Cohen, offensive lineman: The former Alabama player arrives as one of the highest-rated transfers in a Miami class that has just eight players but ranks in the top-15 nationally, according to 247Sports. Cohen had 24 starts across the last two seasons with the Crimson Tide, earning Second Team All-SEC honors in 2022. He's expected to be a starter along the offensive line, possibly at left guard, but he has some versatility that could allow Dawson to tinker with the offensive line as some of the blue-chip freshmen come along in their development.
- Francisco Mauigoa, linebacker: The brother of five-star freshman tackle Francis Mauigoa arrives via the transfer portal from Washington State, where he played well enough during his 2022 sophomore season to be one of the only linebackers in the top 50 of the 247Sports Transfer Portal player rankings (No. 44). Mauigoa had 60 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in 12 games with 11 starts, and with the consistency of his production coupled with his versatility at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he'll be competing for one of starting spots in Guidry's 4-2-5 defense.
Offensively, there should be a lot excitement with Dawson's Air Raid and the chance that it showcases the best of Van Dyke's skill set. Van Dyke had his terrific ACC Rookie of the Year season with Rhett Lashlee as offensive coordinator, and though the personnel was different that 2021, the offense did a much better job of setting up deep-ball opportunities. A healthy Xavier Restrepo will help things immensely, but Miami also needs to see development from receivers like Colbie Young and Jacolby George to round out a versatile set of weapons.
The spring will also spotlight a pair of true freshman offensive tackles that headline Miami's top-10 recruiting class. Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola are the two highest-rated players in the class -- each boast a five-star rating -- and both have arrived with game-ready size (Mauigoa is 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, Okunlola is 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds). Tracking their development, including when and if they could start running with the first-string offense, will be of considerable interest to those following Miami's spring practice.
It's less likely much will be learned defensively. Guidry has indicated the install process will be slow as he turns over terminology and builds out a new system from the foundation. The defensive staff doesn't have quite as much turnover among the position coaches, however, so this spring is an important time for that group to gel with their new leader as well. There are enough talented pieces on the depth chart for Miami to expect notable improvement from 2022, but whether the defense is strong enough to compete for ACC championships won't be immediately obvious until we get closer to the start of the season.
And while plenty of the focus will rightly be on the new coordinators, there's also the pressure that rests on Cristobal himself to deliver results. It's not often coaches go through so much upheaval after just one season on the job, but any notion of instability could be squashed if the changes spark notable improvements. Cristobal also needs on-field results in order to continue his success on the recruiting trail. Players want to know they are joining a program on the rise -- not one spinning its wheels in mediocrity.
Miami won't be starting the season as a top-20 team in the AP Top 25 poll the way they did in each of the last two seasons, and maybe that's a good thing. Here in spring practice, Cristobal can install not just X's and O's, but the hunger to go and earn respect that won't be given easily considering the recent results.