Last year was supposed to be a big season for Miami football.
Coming off a Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship run, the RedHawks had most of their starters returning and were poised to be loaded with seniors.
Instead, COVID-19 hit, and the 2020 season was different than any other. The MAC reduced its season to six games, but Miami only played in three games due to positive COVID tests on either their team or the team they were scheduled to play.
The NCAA Division I board of directors voted to give every fall athlete an extra year of eligibility. All of the seniors the RedHawks were supposed to have in 2020? They had the ability to come back in 2021.
Inevitably, some chose to leave anyway. Left tackle Tommy Doyle and defensive back Emmanuel Rugamba both declared for the draft, and are now on NFL rosters. Center Danny Godlevske transferred to Oklahoma State. A few others decided it was time to graduate and leave college.
Still, head coach Chuck Martin has to be pleased with the players who are now here for their fifth — and in some cases, sixth — year in Oxford. Players like running back Jaylon Bester, defensive back Mike Brown, wide receiver Jack Sorenson and more used their extra year of eligibility with the goal to win another conference championship.
Martin is not only glad for them to be back in red and white, he’s also happy he gets to see them on a daily basis.
“It’s just awesome,” Martin said. “You spend all the time with these kids and you just grow relationships with them … I just like being around those guys.”
Quarterbacks Brett Gabbert and A.J. Mayer are more of a 1A and 1B than a true one and two on the depth chart. Both signal callers saw action last season, as Mayer stepped in after a week one injury to Gabbert and led the ’Hawks to victory against Ball State. While Gabbert will likely earn the starting role, Mayer can easily step in and replace the St. Louis native if need be.
Both Gabbert and Mayer go into this season with three years of eligibility remaining. While both have shined in their brief careers, Martin is confident that they both still have room to grow.
“They’re not even close to where they’re gonna be yet,” Martin said.
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The RedHawks also bring back a solid receiving corps, including Sorenson, Jalen Walker and James Burns, all three holdovers from 2019’s Conference Championship. Walker changed his jersey number from 83 to 14 this season.
The wild card in the group will be Mac Hippenhammer, a Penn State transfer who came to the RedHawks last year. Hippenhammer, who also plays on Miami’s baseball team, had five catches for 77 yards in his lone outing in red and white last season.
After not participating in Spring practices due to his role on the baseball team, wide receivers coach Israel Woolfork is excited not only for Hippenhammer’s production on the field, but his role as a leader off of it.
“I’m more excited having him back around a lot of our young guys, because he is a great human being,” Woolfork said.
While none of the team’s receivers are big, physical targets (Sorenson is the tallest of the core four receivers at 6’0”) who can go up and get a jump ball in traffic, the RedHawks aren’t lacking in smart, fast and tough receivers.
Sixth-year tight end Andrew Homer is back after missing all of last season with an injury. Homer is expected to carry the load at tight end, as he and third-year Jack Coldiron are the only two tight ends on the roster with a catch in their college careers. Coldiron recorded six catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s shortened season.
Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton are back after missing all three games last season due to injuries. The duo will join Davion Johnson in a loaded backfield that should be the focal point of the offense. Second-year players Kevin Davis and Keyon Mozee, a Kansas State transfer, could also step in and contribute when needed.
Of course, the running game always starts up front. The team is replacing key parts on the offensive line, as former left tackle Tommy Doyle was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and right tackle Danny Godlevske transferred to Oklahoma State.
Third-year Sophomores Caleb Shaffer and Rusty Feth will start at left and right guard, respectively, and should be strengths on the offensive line. Besides that, Martin says there are as many as ten offensive lineman battling for the last three starting spots. Still, Martin is confident the group will be one of the team’s strengths this season.
“I think we’re gonna have some guys [on the offensive line] that step in and become, like, you don’t even know who they are now,” Martin said. “But by the middle or late in the year, like, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty damn good player.’”
The defense returns most of its starters from last year, many of whom were key pieces in 2019.
The defensive line is anchored by defensive ends Kameron Butler and Lonnie Phelps, who both earned spots on last year’s All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) team. Sixth-year defensive tackle Ben Kimpler will start and should provide a veteran presence in the trenches
Still, the most impactful defensive lineman might be someone who never played a snap on defense until last season. Fifth-year senior Dominique Robinson was a quarterback in high school, then transitioned to wide receiver for his first three years as a RedHawk.
Now? He’s a 6’4”, 252 pound defensive end with real NFL draft buzz. In three games last year, Robinson had 9 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.
The RedHawks return most of its linebacking corps, including sixth-year senior Ryan McWood and third-year sophomores Ivan Pace Jr. and Luke Bolden. McWood’s acrobatic interception helped seal Miami’s victory against eventual conference champs Ball State last season.
Behind the trio are a lot of unproven young players, including McWood’s younger brother, Oscar. A player who could break out for the RedHawks is Ed Warinner, a transfer from the University of Michigan. Warinner, the son of a former Ohio State assistant coach with the same name, was a three-star recruit who started his career at Michigan State.
The secondary is anchored by veterans like safety Sterling Weatherford and corners Mike Brown and Cedric Boswell. Matthew Salopek and Cecil Singleton will also be seeing increased roles from last year.
Last year, Miami had to figure out how to replace NFL kicker Sam Sloman, as well as punter Kyle Kramer. While it’s too early to tell, Henry Beckett and Dom Djobian have settled nicely into the roles. Beckett made 3 of 4 field goals in 2020, with his longest make from 42 yards, and was a perfect 11/11 on PATs. Djobian punted the ball 15 times last season for an average of 42.7 yards per punt.
Walker was the team’s primary kick and punt returner last season, so expect him to play that role again this season. Hippenhammer or any of the team’s running backs could also get some return man reps.