The reasons 3 exciting Miami freshmen took so long to get on field (and why they are now)

Brashard Smith’s debut season with the Miami Hurricanes had, in a way, been building to Saturday. Those jet sweeps had started to become more and more frequent throughout the second half of the year, and then the wide receiver started to do some other things. He was on the field for five plays against the Florida State Seminoles on Nov. 13 and they weren’t all just designed to get him the ball in space. It was progress for the freshman and it all led to the second quarter Saturday when he came out of the backfield, split a pair of Virginia Tech Hokies in the secondary and hauled in a 75-yard touchdown to give Miami a three-score lead.

The same was true for Thaddius Franklin Jr. He played three snaps in the loss to Florida State and even had a catch, and then he followed it up by icing the Hurricanes’ 38-26 win Saturday with eight carries for 36 yards on the final drive.

A mostly lost season has primarily become about finding future stars for Miami, whether it’s Tyler Van Dyke establishing himself as a program quarterback or James Williams, Kamren Kinchens and Leonard Taylor looking like the foundation of a potentially elite defense. In the final weeks of the season, a few more names are popping up for the Hurricanes and proving they need to be considered part of their long-term vision.

In particular, Franklin, Smith and striker Chase Smith have all seen dramatically increased roles in the final month of the season, with coaches providing varied reasons for the former four-star recruits’ November emergence.

Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Brashard Smith (12) runs to score on a pass reception from quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (9) in the second quarter as Virginia Tech Hokies defensive back Jermaine Waller (2) and defensive back Chamarri Conner (1) give chase at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, November 20, 2021

Brashard Smith

Smith’s elite skills have never been a secret to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee or, really, anyone. The 5-foot-10, 194-pound receiver was the lone non-quarterback Lashlee took the recruiting lead on for the Class of 2021, hoping to add one of the fastest players in the country as a do-it-all weapon for his offense. Throughout his career at Palmetto, Smith starred as a wide receiver, running back and even carried the Panthers to the Class 8A semifinals as a quarterback last year to earn Miami-Dade County Offensive Player of the Year honors from the Miami Herald for Classes 8A-6A.

His skills were tantalizing enough for Lashlee to give him some basic assignments early on — Smith had 14 offensive touches in the first nine games, mostly on jet sweeps and swing passes — and he even even turned a short pass into a 75-yard touchdown against the FCS Central Connecticut State Blue Devils in September. In the last month, Lashlee has gotten comfortable with using Smith as more than just a gadget player.

“Now he’s at a point, too, at this point of the season where he understands the base offense to the point that he doesn’t have to be just a specialty job,” Lashlee said. “You can do more things with him.”

Some of the best examples are on plays he doesn’t even touch the ball. In Tallahassee, Smith touched the ball on less than half of his offensive snaps and was on the field for a pair of post routes Van Dyke threw to other players. As he has gotten a better grasp on the playbook, Smith has been able to contribute in a wider variety of ways, Lashlee said.

“He’s a guy you want to get the ball to and we know the defense knows that, but maybe do it in a different variety of ways, try to be less predictable,” Lashlee said. “His versatility is good because he’s a receiver, but obviously he has running back skills, so you can line him up in the backfield, you can line him up in the slot, put him outside. But he can run our whole base offense.”

Miami Hurricanes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (9) hand off to running back Thaddius Franklin Jr. (22) during the fourth quarter of their ACC football game against the Virginia Tech Hockies at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 20, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Thaddius Franklin Jr.

Franklin’s emergence Saturday was about opportunity, both because of the season-ending injuries at his position and the situation the Hurricanes (6-5, 4-3 Atlantic Coast) found themselves in at Hard Rock Stadium.

At the start of the year, Franklin was buried on the depth chart behind running backs Cam’Ron Harris, Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton. Even after Harris and Chaney went out for the season, Franklin was mostly stuck behind running back Cody Brown before passing his fellow freshman against the Seminoles. Franklin caught his first pass in the Florida State game, then got his biggest opportunity yet against Virginia Tech.

Franklin played 17 snaps in rainy Miami Gardens and became the Hurricanes’ choice when they wanted to chew clock in the final four minutes. Given Miami’s struggles in short-yardage situations, the 6-foot, 230-pound tailback was a logical choice to get a shot.

“That situation was built for Thad. He’s a big downhill runner, it was rainy, it was like a 1985 inside drill, everybody’s slipping all over the field at that point. ... It was a really good fit for his skill set,” Lashlee said. “He started practicing the last couple weeks like a guy that really wanted to play and did a really good job learning the game plan each week.”

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Chase Smith

Smith has played seven snaps in back-to-back weeks, his most against FBS opponents, and defensive quality control analyst Bob Shoop said the freshman graded out as one the Hurricanes’ best players Saturday when he recorded three tackles and broke up a pass.

His late-season emergence has been about opportunity, too. At the start of the year, the 6-2, 230-pound freshman was stuck behind fellow strikers Amari Carter and Gilbert Frierson on the depth chart, but Williams’ injury against Florida State forced Carter to move to safety and opened up a spot for Smith.

Next year, he’ll have a chance to be the Hurricanes’ starting striker depending on whether Frierson decides to use his final season of eligibility at Miami, although Shoop didn’t rule out a potential move to linebacker. The Hurricanes discussed using him there some this year, Shoop said, before opting against it because they didn’t want him to have to learn a new position as a freshman still getting adjusted to college football.

“That’s just the position that he’s been trained at throughout the course of training camp. That’s where we’ve had him,” Shoop said. “There’s been discussions at different times about, with some of the injuries and some of the depth issues, moving him into ‘Will’ linebacker and that’s something that wouldn’t surprise me if that was in his future.”