Hurricanes QB is hard to stop
Houston transfer has lived up to billing
Eleven years ago, Russell Wilson gave Florida State fits. Before he was a Super Bowl champ and two- time All- Pro, the N. C. State standout threw for 349 yards, scrambled when needed and tossed five touchdowns in a wild 45- 42 loss to the Seminoles in October 2009.
That’s all former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel could think of when asked about Miami star D’Eriq King and the Hurricanes earlier this week. Manuel is now an analyst with ACC Network, and as he’s watched the Canes pop off to start the 2020 season, Manuel has “seen a lot of Russ in D’Eriq.”
That should worry Pitt’s defense at noon Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
King, a transfer from Houston where at one point he was a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, has played to that standard through four games with No. 13 Miami. The 5- foot- 11, 202pounder is a big play bound to happen, averaging 274.6 yards per game ( 214.3 passing, 60.3 rushing). And those stats would look even better if not for facing Clemson’s defense last week.
Still, behind the Tigers’ Trevor Lawrence, King might be the second- best quarterback the Panthers will face all season. You could make the argument for Notre Dame’s Ian Book and maybe even Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec. But at the very least, King will certainly be the most versatile, operating within a system built to his liking.
Miami pushes the tempo under offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a national title runnerup with Auburn in 2013 and Gus Malzahn’s former protege. The Hurricanes average 69.5 plays per game but rank second- to- last in the ACC in time of possession. The last- place team in the ACC is Syracuse. That’s because the Orange are bad. Miami’s ignorance of the clock is by design.
Pat Narduzzi said the Hurricanes’
tempo reminds him of how Central Florida pushed the pace against Pitt the last two seasons. The Knights ran 79 plays in a 45- 14 win back in 2018 and tallied 76 in a 35- 34 “Pitt Special” loss last September.
So in Saturday’s case, which result will the Panthers get at Miami? A helter- skelter win, or a blowout at the hands of a ranked foe? Following back- to- back defeats in which defensive lapses were more than prevalent, it all depends on how well Pitt contains the Canes’ No. 1.
“He’s a baller,” Pitt defensive end Patrick Jones II said of King. “We’re going to have to bring our A- game.”
The initial attraction to watching King play within Miami’s scheme stems from his ability as a ball- carrier. Lashlee’s play- calling puts defenses in conflict, allowing King to capitalize. But we’ll get to his running chops a little later. Because first and foremost, Miami’s quarterback is, well, a quarterback.
In Manuel’s view, anyone who believes otherwise isn’t looking hard enough.
“A lot of people have the idea that D’Eriq is a receiver or a running back that’s playing the position
of quarterback,” said Manuel, a pass- first, dual- threat quarterback in his days at Florida State. “Obviously his mobility gets him out of trouble, but he doesn’t use it when he’s not supposed to. He really only moves around the pocket when it calls for it. ... I think he’s a quarterback who can play at the next level.”
Manuel complimented King’s timing as a passer. At 6- foot- 5, the former Seminole never had an issue with seeing over his line and scanning the field. But
King, six inches shorter, has to be in sync and know where his weapons are at all times.
Aside from the Clemson game in which he completed only 12 of 28 passes for 121 yards — “He was off- kilter a little bit against Clemson, but most quarterbacks are,” Manuel added — King has had little issue finding those play- makers.
In Miami’s 47- 34 win over Louisville on Sept. 19, King logged seven completions of at least 15 yards. The following week against Florida State, he
connected on eight such passes, all while completing 29 of 40 attempts.
That accuracy, especially downfield, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched King at Houston.
In 2018, his 63.5% completion rate and 271.1 passing yards per game led the American Athletic Conference. Only nine quarterbacks in college football recorded more than his 14 passes of 40- plus yards; six of them are
on NFL rosters, and one of them is Lawrence. And King’s Pro Football Focus grade of 91.2 was bested by one passer: Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray.
Up 14- 0 in Death Valley last weekend, Clemson got caught in the second quarter. On a third- and- 8, the Tigers’ defense sent six and tried to pinch the edges, but King saw his opening. He stepped up in the pocket, avoided two would- be tacklers and took off.
King ripped off a 56- yard scramble down to Clemson’s 22- yard line. Right after King popped up from the tackle, the Hurricanes rushed to the line to keep up their tempo before Dabo Swinney called timeout for a breather.
King scampering in the open field has become a college football staple since he broke onto the scene in 2018. The speedster has logged at least one run of 20- plus yards in 11 of his last 14 games. It even happened to Clemson — a defense that allowed only three runs of 50 yards or more in 15 games last season. And two of them came at the feet of Ohio State’s J. K. Dobbins in the national semifinals.
So if Clemson can give up a run like that to King, Pitt can, too.
However, the Panthers should feel good about what they did to Louisville’s Malik Cunningham a few weeks ago.
Cunningham, the ACC’s No. 1 improviser not named King, managed only 31 yards and one first down on six scrambles in Pitt’s 23- 20 win last month. The Panthers picked him off three times and brought him down for seven sacks. Notably, six of those seven sacks were with Pitt rushing four. The Panthers rarely blitz, but defensive coordinator Randy Bates featured a linebacker or two at the line of scrimmage, dummying pressure and instead dropping them back as spies on Cunningham.
“We had a little game plan for Louisville that we wanted to keep him in the pocket and let him throw the ball. This guy for Miami, he can do both,” Pitt starting middle linebacker Chase Pine said. “So we’ll mix it up for him. We’ll have different looks.”
Jones, who had three sacks on Cunningham, added that if Pitt’s defensive ends “rush with good eyes” and keep contain, they’ll be fine against King. Along those lines, Manuel cautioned against the Panthers’ pass- rushers doing too much.
“Pitt plays a lot of man- to- man because they’ve got good DBs. But when you play man- to- man, sometimes that quarterback breaks the pocket, and there’s nobody there to tackle him,” the former firstround pick said, before addressing Jones and Rashad Weaver. “They just can’t go upfield. That’s where I see a lot of teams get hurt defensively with these running quarterbacks. They lose contain, and they’re not holding their edge.
“That’s what Clemson does a really good job of. When it’s your turn, you make the play for Clemson’s defense. What I mean by that is, we’re not going to get out of our gaps. If we’re supposed to contain, let’s do that instead of being a hero and doing something extra that you’re not supposed to do. ( Pitt has) got to play 11- man defense, not 9- man, 8- man or 7- man. All 11 have to be on the same accord.”
Of course, Miami’s offense and King alone.
Cam’Ron Harris leads a talented backfield with five touchdowns and an average of 6.83 yards per carry. First- team AllACC pick Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory make up maybe the most effective tight end tandem in college football, though the former — Miami’s leading receiver — is considered questionable for Saturday’s game. If he’s out, King can look to his receiving duo from Miami Southridge High School: 6- foot- 3 target Dee Wiggins and 6- foot- 1 pass- catcher Mark Pope.
Jordan, Mallory, the wideouts and the stable of backs all contribute to Miami’s short- range and downfield successes so far. The Hurricanes’ 45.9% third- down conversion rate ranks fourth in the ACC, even after being stymied to the tune of 4 of 15 at Clemson. And among the teams nationally who have played fewer than five games, Miami’s 11 plays from scrimmage
isn’t King of 30- plus yards ranks sixth.
Allowing the big play has been an issue for Pitt in recent weeks. At Boston College, the Panthers couldn’t get a grip on wide receiver Zay Flowers, allowing touchdowns of 77 and 44 yards. In its loss to N. C. State, Pitt surrendered a 35- yard score to Emeka Emezie on top of five other passing plays of 20- plus yards.
Narduzzi pointed to the reps Pitt cornerbacks Jason Pinnock and Marquis Williams have had to play with Damarri Mathis lost for the season. The coach raised his hand and admitted the Panthers’ starting corners weren’t rotated enough, handling around 160 reps each in the last two games.
Narduzzi hopes spelling Pinnock and Williams here and there — look for youngsters A. J. Woods and Rashad Battle to factor in — will help keep Pitt’s secondary fresh against Lashlee’s tempo and perhaps help limit some of the big plays.
“We’re never going to be perfect. We’re never going to be flawless. But it’s those big plays that we’ve got to eliminate,” Narduzzi said, rehashing the 31- 30 defeat to Boston College. “That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what great defenses do. We were talking a lot about the defense, and you guys wanted to evaluate them after three weeks and I told you we’d evaluate them after 11 or 12 or 13 weeks. That’s kind of why.”
Pitt’s defense will certainly be tested this week at Hard Rock Stadium. King will make sure of that.
Miami quarterback D’Eriq King leaps for a second- quarter touchdown in a 31- 14 season- opening win against UAB at Hard Rock Stadium.