Hurricanes offensive line coach Alex Mirabal preaching versatility, trust in spring practices

CORAL GABLES — Miami offensive line coach Alex Mirabal preaches to new Hurricanes offensive linemen not to get too caught up with what position they have played in the past. At UM, they need to be prepared to play any of the five spots on the line.

“I don’t recruit anybody as nothing,” Mirabal said. “If you ever sat in my room, and I’ll tell the recruits that, I recruit you as, ‘Are you an offensive lineman or a right guard? You’re an offensive lineman.’ Why do I tell them that? If you’re an offensive lineman, you’ve got five opportunities to play. If you say I’m only a right tackle, guess what, you’ve got one opportunity. That’s foolish on your part. At the end of the day, these kids want to play on the field.”

Jalen Rivers has been a poster child for UM’s offensive line versatility, moving from left tackle in high school to left guard in 2022 and back to left tackle last season. The veteran lineman, who is expected to play left tackle again this year, has stepped up as a leader on the line (along with returning guard Anez Cooper) and leads the unit into this year’s season.

“He’s just a steady guy,” Mirabal said. “He’s the quiet guy, the one no one ever talks about, the one everybody wants to move to different positions. But he’s always there.”

On Tuesday, Miami moved Rivers inside to guard so 6-foot-8 junior-college transfer Markel Bell could get work in at left tackle and practice next to Rivers.

“Why? Because it’s going to help Markel Bell grow as a left tackle when you’re next to a vet like that,” Mirabal said. “The vet will just look at you and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got him.’ … That’s another thing I don’t think, a lot of times, people factor in. When Anez Cooper’s playing right guard and Zach’s (Carpenter) at center or Ryan’s (Rodriguez) at center — like they both were today with the ones — them being next to Coop helps them grow.”

Under Mirabal, Miami’s offensive line did all that was asked of it last year. The five-man combo of Rivers, Cooper, Javion Cohen, Matt Lee and Francis Mauigoa helped the Hurricanes notch an 82.5 pass-blocking grade and a 68 run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in the regular season, which ranked second and fourth in the ACC, respectively.

Those five linemen started every game — an uncommon occurrence for five offensive linemen. Mirabal said those linemen built chemistry through their toughness.

“When the guys show up every game and play every game, it’s not because they’re lucky. It’s because they’re tough,” Mirabal said. “Trust me, all five of those guys at some point in the season were injured, were hurt and were beat up. But they chose to play for each other. To me, that’s what toughness is.”

Cohen and Lee have departed to try their luck in the professional ranks, and the Hurricanes are looking for the players to fill their roles.

Indiana transfer Zach Carpenter will likely start at center. Although he does not have Lee’s brash personality, Carpenter said he works with “controlled rage” when on the field.

“I just try to be as calm as possible, stay in the moment,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes you get caught up in emotions and start screwing up, so you’ve got to just focus and be the same player every day.”

The Hurricanes have many in-house options for a new left guard. Former five-star prospect Samson Okunlola is one of them. Although he played tackle in high school, he also seems well-suited for guard coming off of an injury last year.

“I don’t remember what week he got hurt last year, but he got hurt last year and hurt his knee, and he’s a guy that, in rehab, he wanted to play more than he wanted to be hurt,” Mirabal said. “So that drove him to rehab. Best guy I’ve ever been around in my 18 years coaching in college (at) rehabilitation and just wanting to come back because it means that much to him. … He’s out there; he’s like a kid at Christmas because he’s able to play football again. And it don’t matter — today he took reps at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. It helps him. Any rep he takes at left guard’s going to help him as a left tackle. Any reps he takes at left tackle’s going to help him as a right tackle.”

Mirabal said Tuesday that the coaching staff is not necessarily looking for its top five for its starting lineup yet. Instead, the staff is trying to ascertain who it can trust in game situations. Right now, he said there are eight or nine linemen who the staff trusts.

“Right now, what we’re doing is we’re trying to see who could play,” Mirabal said. “Not necessarily who the best five are. Our job is to find out who can do what we ask them to do in the run game, who can do it in the pass protection. And then at a later date, we’ll worry about jelling those guys into five, eight, nine, 10 guys. What coach Cristobal and I are looking at right now is who can we trust. Who can we trust to play in a game against another opponent? Our job is to get as many of those guys as we can to trust.”