Every season, the Miami RedHawks have one objective.
“Win every MAC game,” head coach Chuck Martin said. “Like, that’s the goal.”
It may be a lofty feat, but it’s not out of reach for Martin’s squad. The team has dominated the conference lately, with a 6-2 conference record in three of the last four seasons.
That includes last year, when the RedHawks turned a 2-4 start into an 8-6 finish and won its first conference championship since 2010.
Miami is returning a lot of key players from last year’s team, including its sophomore quarterback, Brett Gabbert, and most of its skill positions players. The team will also bring most of its defensive starters, including defensive backs Mike Brown and Sterling Weatherford.
Like every team, the RedHawks had a challenging offseason. With spring practice getting cut short, as well as limited activity in the summer and early fall, it’s been hard for them to develop their normal rhythm.
Martin hopes the team’s continuity and experience will help get them going early in the season.
“It’s certainly a huge benefit in any year to have a lot of experience coming back, but in a year where you didn’t have as much of a chance to develop kids in the offseason, it’s an even bigger plus,” Martin said.
Gabbert, who won MAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, will have a lot of good options in his receiving corps.
The team returns its top three receivers from last season, including redshirt senior Jack Sorenson. Sorenson led the team in receptions (44), as well as receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. His biggest moment of the season came in the MAC Championship game, catching eight passes for 123 yards and a touchdown en route to winning Offensive Player of the Game.
While Sorenson missed a few games with an injury last season, Gabbert developed his connections with his young receivers, including redshirt junior Jalen Walker and sophomore James Burns (formerly James Maye).
After Gabbert’s promising freshman year, this offseason was supposed to be his time to improve his chemistry with the younger receivers. However, because of the shortened offseason, the team’s offensive isn’t where they want to be, development-wise.
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Despite this, Martin isn’t too focused on the negatives.
“Their chemistry has been good in camp, and it’s growing every day,” he said. “Obviously, we’re behind, just like every other team, where you’d like to be without an offseason, but you’ve just got to plug ahead and get better day by day.”
Although Gabbert played well last year, the offense’s bread and butter is still its run game. Miami returns its top running back, senior Jaylon Bester, who rushed for 800 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, as well as redshirt sophomore Tyre Shelton.
The RedHawks will also return four of its five starters on the offensive line, including seniors Danny Godlevske and Tommy Doyle. Originally, the pair decided to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft when it looked like the season would be pushed to the spring. After the MAC decided to return this fall, the two seniors returned for their final season in red and white.
“It’s just huge (to have them back), ’cause obviously, they’re great players, but also great leaders, great competitors, they help you so many different ways,” Martin said.
On defense, the team loses a few key starters, including defensive end Doug Costin, linebacker Myles Reid and defensive back Bart Baratti.
Despite this, the team is still loaded on the defensive side of the ball. The RedHawks return their top pass rushers, including junior defensive lineman Kameron Butler, sophomore defensive lineman Lonnie Phelps and sophomore linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. Redshirt senior Ryan McWood, the team’s leading tackler from last year, will also return to play his final season for the RedHawks.
Miami’s secondary, one of the team’s strengths from last year, is also returning most of its key players, including Weatherford, a redshirt junior, and Brown, a senior. The team will also return redshirt senior cornerback Emmanuel Rugamba, who originally declared for the draft before returning to play for the RedHawks.
Although Miami has a ton of experience, special teams is where things get dicey. The team has to replace kicker Sam Sloman, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in this year’s NFL draft, as well as punter Kyle Kramer.
Last season, the RedHawks relied heavily on Sloman and Kramer to help win games, and the duo delivered. Sloman made key kicks all year, including a field goal late in the fourth quarter to secure the win against Ohio. Kramer helped flip the field and consistently gave the defensive favorable field positions.
With both Sloman and Kramer gone, the competition to replace them is wide open. No matter who takes over the kicking and punting duties, though, Martin knows his team must be consistent in all three phases of the game.
“We’re gonna have to be better on O and D to make up for the losses of Sloman and Kramer … We don’t know who’s gonna replace them yet, but we know there’s gonna be a loss there that we’re gonna have to make up for in other places on the team,” he said.
The MAC will play a shortened, six-game season this year. Miami’s first opponent, the Ball State Cardinals, is the only team on the RedHawks’ schedule this year who defeated them in 2019. The team will end the season with the Bowling Green Falcons, who the RedHawks beat 44-3 last year.
Still, Martin knows nothing is guaranteed in this conference.
“Anybody who follows the MAC knows there’s not a lot of blowouts, you gotta find ways to win,” he said. “We were 5-1 against these teams, but four of those five wins were one-score games, so you know the games can go either way. You gotta have a tough-minded team that’s willing to fight through the highs and lows…having that mindset and continuing that mindset last year that we found ways to win games. At home, on the road, high scoring, low scoring, doesn’t matter. That’s just kinda MAC football.”
Yes, it is. And we’re glad it’s back.