MIAMI — “Connection” is a word that University of Miami athletics has emphasized lately. And from the sound of new, spread-guru Rob Likens, plenty of sparks will be flying between UM’s eventual starting quarterback and his pass-catchers.
Likens, who was announced as UM’s wide receivers coach on Feb. 7, met with the local media late Thursday afternoon via Zoom video conferencing.
He wants to keep it simple on the field, and plentiful among the roster. We’re talking about a prolific coach who played as many as 10 receivers in a game in a decades-long career, alternating them constantly.
The receivers Likens mentioned immediately as impressing him during UM’s four days of spring practice in early March, cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic: Dee Wiggins, Mark Pope, Jeremiah Payton and Mike Harley — with true freshman early enrollee Xavier Restrepo lauded as a young standout.
The animated, affable Likens, 52, served as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the past two seasons and before that in 2017 as its receivers coach. Under Likens, the Sun Devils had five different receivers with 100+yard-games in 2017. And ASU receiver Brandon Aiyuk was ranked 15th nationally this past season in receiving yards, with 1,192.
Likens stressed that keeping the play book simple will be key to UM’s success. “We understand that it’s very important we don’t make this thing hard,” he said. “It’s a proven fact when you don’t have a whole lot to think about, you can just go out and play freely. And that’s what we’re hoping is going to happen with this new offense.”
Liken said it’s harder for a coordinator when there’s only one dominant receiver “because you have to game plan more, do different things, be more creative.” Thus, he intends to play a lot of them, though it was difficult to ascertain details in just four practices.
“Yeah, I saw flashes out of some guys, but it’s so hard to tell in just one week, especially because it’s new … you know, playing fast and fatigue had some things to do with it. Guys weren’t all the way in spring training shape yet.”
But Wiggins, Pope, Payton and Harley, he said “all to me showed flashes of the type of guys that you want to have in this offense, that’s for sure.”
He praised Wiggins, a junior, for his route running. “I would put (redshirt freshman) Jeremiah Payton in that same category,” he said . Those two guys look like they’re pretty route savvy and … they’re longer. You like those guys on the outside. They can run some deep balls. They got some speed to do that. They also have the quickness to be able to run some decent intermediate routes.
“They have great ball skills. They’re long, they’re athletic, they have pretty big catch radiuses. And those are guys that you can project are going to be pretty good at the outside receiver.”
He said Pope, a former five-star Miami Southridge All-American who is still waiting to break out, “is the kind of guy I really like — the 6-footish-type guys somewhere around the 180 realm. I’ve had success with those guys in my past because they really have good lateral moment. Even though they may not be the 6-4, 6-3 body frame, they’re able to get off press coverage. The guys that play on the outside, they gotta be able to get off press coverage.”
Likens said Pope has “freakish quick skills,” although he only got a chance to see him “in the open field with the ball in his hand” once during spring.
Regarding senior Harley, he said he “loves his leadership” and that he’s experienced and “courageous across the middle. He’s not afraid and that’s what you need with some guys that are going to play in the inside.”
The UM receiving corps, despite some obvious talent, underwhelmed during last season’s 6-7 campaign, partly, of course, because the quarterback play of former Hurricane Jarren Williams and backup N’Kosi Perry pretty much fell apart the second half of the season.
The Canes had no receivers ranked among the FBS’s top 200 in receiving yards.
Now, former junior Jeff Thomas (379 yards and three touchdowns on 31 catches), who is headed for the NFL Draft along with leading receiver K.J. Osborn (547 yards and five touchdowns on 50 catches), have departed, and the Canes will have a new quarterback — almost certainly Houston transfer D’Eriq King — when and if the 2020 season gets going.
The returning leading pass-catcher is rising 6-3, 235-pound junior tight end Brevin Jordan, currently in Las Vegas isolating with his family and still recuperating from left-foot surgery in January. Jordan, one of three 2019 finalists for the Mackey Award that goes to the nation’s top tight end, caught 35 passes for 495 yards and two touchdowns last season in nine games through Florida State on Nov. 2, when he injured his left foot. He technically played in 11 games, but the injury kept him from ultimately participating.
UM’s top returning wideout is Harley, a 5-10, 166-pound offensive leader who played in all 13 games and caught 38 passes for 485 yards and three touchdowns.
The Canes’ next top returning wide receiver is 6-3, 193-pound Wiggins, who played in 12 games and caught 20 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns, and whose upside is substantial. Wiggins showed his finesse and penchant for big plays on Nov. 2 at Florida State (56-yard touchdown) and during a career day Nov. 9 against Louisville (85 yards on three catches, with two touchdowns, including a 67-yarder).
Pope amassed only 266 yards and two touchdowns on 18 catches last season, but will obviously get more attention this season.
UM also has junior tight end Will Mallory (293 yards and two touchdowns on 16 catches) back to reinforce the depth.
But it’s some of the newcomers and one redshirt freshman who are especially intriguing for the future. Payton, a 6-1, 188-pound high-leaping wideout, played sparingly in four games last season, with only one catch for 23 yards. A consensus four-star All-American out of Neptune Beach’s Fletcher High, Payton was rated by 247Sports as the 12th best receiver in the nation.
The newcomers include 5-10, 190-pound Restrepo out of Deerfield Beach.
“I call him the X-Man,” Likens said. “I thought he did a really good job playing slot in the spring. Really smart, absolutely loves football — that’s what I love about him. That’s what’s going to make the kid successful.”
Likens also mentioned 6-0, 170-pound Keyshawn Smith from San Diego as the other early enrollee true freshman who drew his attention.
“It’s kind of so hard, guys, because we were trying to find who the No. 1 guys were,” the coach said. “Those two freshmen kind of stood out to me the most.”
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