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Cameron Ward, highly touted freshmen and more: Five storylines to watch during Hurricanes spring practice

Spring football is around the corner for the Hurricanes, with practices scheduled to start on March 4.

Even though Miami’s season ended on a sour note with a loss to Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the Hurricanes’ chances in 2024.

Key returnees and major additions have Miami looking like a challenger in the new-look ACC this year, and spring practice is the first time players and coaches can work together consistently after the offseason.

Here is a look at five key storylines to keep an eye on in March and April:

1. Cameron Ward arrives

Given the changing nature of college football, it is hard to say when a quarterback arrived in Coral Gables with more promise than Cameron Ward this winter. It is not often that a player arrives on campus with four years of excellent play under his belt. But that’s what Miami is getting in Ward, who had two great seasons at FCS Incarnate Word and two strong seasons at Washington State. Ward won’t be a Hurricane for a long time, but if he lives up to the hype, he will be a crucial part of the 2024 campaign. Ward said in January that he thinks the Hurricanes can be a playoff team, and if he can take Miami there in his one and only year with UM, he will leave a short but impactful legacy. The chance to do that starts now.

2. Continuity with coaches

Hurricanes players who have been with the team for a few years have seen a lot of turnover. In 2021, UM fired Manny Diaz and brought in Mario Cristobal. Cristobal, naturally, brought a mostly new staff with him. After a disappointing 2022 season, Cristobal replaced both coordinators and multiple position coaches.

For the first time since the 2021 season, there is continuity for most of the coaching staff (in 2021, defensive coordinator Blake Baker departed, but Diaz, the head coach, took over defensive coordinator duties). This spring, coordinators Shannon Dawson and Lance Guidry return. Miami has needed to replace two position coaches, with Matt Merritt taking over as the running backs coach and Chevis Jackson arriving as defensive backs coach, but the bulk of the staff remains the same for the first time in years. The continuity should show up on the field as players who have been in the program are now completely familiar with the offensive and defensive schemes.

3. O-line jelling

Last year’s UM offensive line accomplished an impressive feat: All five starting linemen started all 12 regular-season games. Chemistry is an important part of a solid offensive line, and the Hurricanes had it in 2023. Miami returns three of the five starters from last year: left tackle Jalen Rivers, right guard Anez Cooper and right tackle Francis Mauigoa.

The Hurricanes have two spots up for grabs on this year’s line, and they brought in a couple of new linemen who will compete for jobs immediately. Center Zach Carpenter, who transferred from Indiana, figures to immediately slot in to replace Matt Lee, who excelled in his one season at Miami. The Hurricanes also need to fill the left guard position, and there are several new returning players like Matt McCoy, who played the sixth-most snaps among Miami offensive linemen, who could fill the role. The Hurricanes could also reconfigure the line to suit the players’ strengths. We will see in the spring what they decide to do.

4. Position battles

The offensive line is not the only spot where the Hurricanes are looking for new players to step up and fill starting roles.

Miami also needs a new starting receiver to replace Colbie Young, who transferred to Georgia, two defensive linemen to step up after Branson Deen and Leonard Taylor III left for the pros, a starting cornerback to replace graduated Jaden Davis and two safeties to replace Kamren Kinchens and James Williams, who are pro prospects.

The Hurricanes have plenty of options, new and returning, to fill the voids left by departing players.

5. Which freshmen break out

Rumblings started in spring last year that new players like Ruben Bain Jr. and Francis Mauigoa could make a quick impact in their freshman seasons. Both did, with Bain earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and Mauigoa was a full-time, starting tackle in his first year. Who will be the freshmen who play a similar role this year? It could one of the standout receivers, Joshisa “JoJo” Trader or Ny Carr, who steps in for Young. Or Zaquan Patterson, a four-star safety from Chaminade-Madonna in Hollywood, may move south and immediately fill one of the open safety spots.

Opportunities are available for freshmen, and spring football is a chance for those young players to prove themselves to their new coaches.