2022 G5 Preview: Miami (Ohio) Has Brett Gabbert, And That's Just Going To Have To Be Enough
Listen, there are worse ways to be in the MAC.
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It’s not especially taxing to identify the tiers within the MAC in any given year. Separating programs, on the whole, is quite a bit more difficult, but heading into a season, teams at the bottom, middle and top of the conference have a pretty distinct look to them. They change every year, sure, but there are a few indicators of quality ahead of time that can be pretty reliable within this league. It’s pretty rare in this league that someone outshoots or wildly undershoots their talent.
And let me tell you, there has maybe never been a more “mid-tier MAC” team than 2022 Miami (Ohio). This group is perfectly cultivated to be anywhere between 5-7 and 7-5, producing some truly impressive performances behind a few stars but ultimately falling to the middle of the pack because of a lack of depth elsewhere. Even Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin is designed pretty much exactly as you’d want a coach of a mid-tier MAC team to be. He was born to do this.
Martin’s Miami teams have had either six or seven losses in five of the last six seasons. The lone time the RedHawks avoided that total since 2016 was in 2020, and I can confidently say that had Miami played nine more games, its 2-1 record would have very quickly devolved into one of 5-7, 6-6 or 7-5.
And now, entering the 2022 offseason, Miami sure looks like it’s revving up to do that same thing again, albeit in a slightly different way, while finishing in the middle of a MAC West filled with teams that just could not separate in 2021.
The RedHawks have a couple of very strong stars who can keep the team afloat and will win a few games on their own, but the departure of wideout Jack Sorenson to the NFL, linebacker Ivan Pace to Cincinnati and several other entries to the transfer portal is going to seriously limit the ceiling for a program that has already explored its ceiling under this staff pretty extensively.
Rather than dwelling, let’s look at the stars who are back. There are compelling players here and this won’t be a bad team by any means, but it’s difficult to overlook Martin’s whole deal when assessing this team. This is just what he does. They’re fine.
Quarterback Brett Gabbert is the biggest name to know and will provide much of the entertainment here. The youngest of three Division I quarterbacks from the Gabbert family, Brett took large steps forward in 2020 and 2021 and should be one of the best QBs in a MAC that’s slated to lose several of its top quarterbacks, namely Eastern Michigan’s Ben Bryant, Kent State’s Dustin Crum, Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby and Ball State’s Drew Plitt, among others. Of those returning, there’s a strong case to be made for Gabbert as the best pure passer.
The next step – and this is critical – is staying on the field. He didn’t play in the season opener against Cincinnati and then missed the better half of October. Backup AJ Mayer is both not very good and in the transfer portal, without an obvious replacement.
Miami absolutely cannot afford a month like this past October in 2022. Gabbert has to be on the field, and he has to continue improving. He has a very good arm and a flair for the dramatic, but his accuracy is still developing. Thankfully, his decision-making has improved significantly too, so that accuracy doesn’t hurt him as badly as it did when he was a freshman. The offense will start and stop with him.
That’s going to be especially fascinating without Sorenson. Miami’s leading receiver in 2021 by a large margin and one of the MAC’s top receivers, Sorenson is off to the NFL, leaving a huge void out wide for Martin’s offense. Mac Hippenhammer returns, as does slot specialist Jalen Walker, but those two combined a season ago for only three more catches and 224 fewer yards than Sorenson. Halfback Kevin Davis was the only other player on the team with more than 20 receptions (23 for 208 yards).
Hippenhammer is likely ready for a larger role, though Walker has all but reached his ceiling and the backups at both outside receiver spots a year ago were freshmen. Indiana transfer Miles Marshall looks like a plug-and-play replacement out wide, but he’s an entirely new body type and play style for Gabbert at 6-4. Tre’Von Morgan, from Kentucky, cuts a similar profile at 6-6 but has essentially no production to his name at this point.
Hippenhammer is the more direct replacement – not that there’s any replacing someone like Sorenson directly. Even with his departure, it’s hard to imagine a huge drop-off in passing production.
All five offensive line starters are back and Holy Cross transfer John Brekke joins the fold, so everything should be just about where it was in 2021 again this year. It was a very strong pass protecting group, but could improve in paving the way for a stable of running backs best described as “young but encouraging.”
Davis, Kansas State transfer Keyon Mozee, Tyre Shelton and Kenny Tracy all carried the ball at least 50 times last season and the oldest of the bunch, Shelton, is only a rising junior (he also had the fewest carries of the group). Mozee, who led the team in rushing with 557 yards, Davis (No. 2 with 341) and Tracy (No. 3 with 305) all had freshman eligibility and flashed unique and valuable skillsets.
Mozee seems likely to remain in the starting role despite being only 5-7 but Davis is tremendous as a receiver out of the backfield and might be the fastest player on the team, Tracy is a comfortable power runner at 5-10, 211 pounds and Shelton was fantastic as a freshman before missing all of 2020 and the first month of 2021, ceding his job in the process. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of them hit the portal, but none have yet and Miami has proven capable of using all four.
The offense wasn’t Miami’s strength in 2021 but looks ready to slide into that role even without its best wideout unless Gabbert was entirely relying on Sorenson for his production. That seems… unlikely.
That offense needs to be ready because the strength of the team a season ago is suddenly entirely in hell. This defense. Woof. After one of the best defensive seasons in Martin’s tenure, Miami is losing its leading tackler (Pace), its starting safeties and top backup (Cecil Singleton, Sterling Weatherford and Mekhi Miller) a quartet of defensive ends (Kameron Butler, Ben Kimpler, Lonnie Phelps, Dominique Robinson) who combined for 48.5 TFL and 25 sacks on a defense that relied on havoc and will return, generously, three starters slated to be upperclassmen. Cornerback Mike Brown appears to be gone too, which moves that number to two, and only one of them was a full-time starter.
That’s the bad news. Those departures are going to hurt a lot, and the connecting tissue of a really good defense is going to need to be repaired on the fly to maintain the progress that Miami made under the direction of co-coordinators Spence Nowinsky and John Hauser. More bad news there: Nowinsky is the new defensive coordinator at Ohio, and Hauser was mentioned as a likely departure by Football Scoop back in December. There’s been no further reporting on that front, so we’re going to assume he’s sticking around. I do not feel good about this even a little bit.
The good news, where there is some, is twofold. Firstly, the number of returning upperclassmen is so low in part because this defense was super young last season. Miami started seven underclassmen in its bowl game against North Texas and had another nine on the second-string. Granted, two of the starters and a third from the reserve are leaving (Pace, Singleton, Miller) but youth is always going to be a strength in this sport when the youth movement is behind you. Miami is in for another one of sorts this season, but it’s not going to be quite as drastic.
Secondly, some of the departures seemed to force Miami’s hand in the portal, where it has added several immediate impact veterans to help this whole thing move along a bit smoother. Michigan State safety Michael Dowell, ECU cornerback Nolan Johnson, Iowa State defensive lineman Corey Suttle and Indiana linebacker Ty Wise all join the fold in that category.
Despite that, projecting a two-deep is just tricky right now. All four defensive ends on the final two-deep in 2021 are gone, and Suttle, who has very little production, can only fill one of those roles. Rising sophomore Caiden Woullard and his five tackles will have to do, for now. Either him or Kyle Bryant.
The tackle spots are a bit easier to predict with Anthony Collier, Austin Ertl, Kobe Hilton and Jacob Snell all returning. Ertl is the best of the bunch and Hilton was strong when he was on the field, while Collier and Snell require a bit more projection (though the former did get first-team reps in bowl practice).
Matthew Salopek blunts the loss of Pace at linebacker, though Pace’s big-play ability will be greatly missed. Salopek took a back seat in that respect in 2021, but he’s a former defensive back and could have the potential to take over that spot. The hope seems to be that he will, and Wise or rising sophomores Dominic Nardone and Camden Rogers can grow into Pace’s MLB spot. Luke Bolden will be around as well.
Nickel Jacquez Warren returns after a really impressive freshman campaign, as does outside cornerback John Saunders Jr., who checks in at 6-3 and is a blast to watch. Rising sophomore Jamar Mundy projects into a larger role, as does Ja’don Rucker-Furlow – who has flashed brilliance but struggles with consistency. Johnson, the ECU transfer, fell by the wayside with the Pirates but certainly offers plenty of upside.
Dowell will slide right into a safety spot and might immediately be the best defender on the team with Ambe’ Caldwell presumed as the favorite for the other safety job.
That’s too much to replace without lowered expectations. The offense might get better, but it seems that the ceiling here is essentially a role swap between the units. Miami’s offense and Gabbert can win some games, but the defense is going to have its growing pains that will keep this team from escaping the same fate that Martin has led it to for five of the last six seasons. Miami is fine, and it seems to be fine with being fine.