Hur­ri­canes’ pass­ing game strug­gles with­out Thomas

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Sports - By Christy Cabr­era Chiri­nos ccabr­[email protected]­tinel.com; On Twit­ter @ChristyChiri­nos.

MI­AMI GAR­DENS — Three days af­ter los­ing one of their top of­fen­sive play­mak­ers, the Hur­ri­canes had to be­gin the work of truly mov­ing on with­out re­ceiver and punt re­turner Jeff Thomas.

Thomas, a sopho­more, was dis­missed from the Hur­ri­canes pro­gram on Wed­nes­day af­ter some re­ported fric­tion with Mi­ami’s coach­ing staff.

Satur­day, the Hur­ri­canes took the field for the first time with­out him, host­ing Pitts­burgh in their reg­u­larsea­son fi­nale at Hard Rock Sta­dium.

And the re­sults were some­what mixed.

With­out Thomas — and with all four of their schol­ar­ship tight ends nurs­ing var­i­ous in­juries — the Hur­ri­canes went with a start­ing re­ceivers group of Dar­rell Lang­ham, Lawrence Cager, Mike Har­ley and Brian Hightower.

While Cager has started ev­ery game for the Hur­ri­canes this sea­son, Satur­day marked Lang­ham and Har­ley’s third starts, while it was Hightower’s sec­ond start of the year.

The Hur­ri­canes re­ceivers strug­gled, drop­ping six passes from red­shirt fresh­man N’Kosi Perry, who fin­ished the day 6 of 24 for 52 yards.

Har­ley, a for­mer stand­out at St. Thomas Aquinas, had three of those drops, while Cager, Ev­i­dence Njoku and Lang­ham each had one.

“I just let [the re­ceivers] know we’ve got to work on it,” Perry said. “Not just right now, but af­ter prac­tice, we have to put in more time. It’s not all on them. A lot of those were on me. We’re go­ing to get bet­ter at it.”

Thomas had been Mi­ami’s lead­ing re­ceiver, with 35 catches for 563 yards.

On spe­cial teams, though, Mi­ami didn’t seem to miss Thomas too much.

Sopho­more run­ning back Dee­Jay Dal­las, who had han­dled six punt re­turns for the Hur­ri­canes com­ing into the game, took over as Mi­ami’s start­ing punt re­turner af­ter Thomas’ de­par­ture and had an im­pact early.

Dal­las re­turned a sec­ondquar­ter Pitts­burgh punt 65 yards for a touch­down that helped stake the Hur­ri­canes to a 10-0 lead.

Dal­las’ re­turn came a week af­ter Thomas notched a 51-yard punt re­turn touch­down in the Hur­ri­canes’

38-14 win over Vir­ginia Tech.

It’s the first time since

2005 the Hur­ri­canes have re­turned punts for touch­downs in back-to-back games. That year, Devin Hester and Quadtrine Hill had punt re­turns against Tem­ple and North Carolina, re­spec­tively.

Spe­cial teams de­liv­ers: Dal­las wasn’t the only one to put to­gether some solid play on spe­cial teams.

The Hur­ri­canes — who have strug­gled to win the field-po­si­tion bat­tle through­out the sea­son — got some solid punts from Zach Fea­gles.

Fea­gles, who al­ter­nated punts with Jack Spicer, av­er­aged 42.8 yards on his five punts, with three of those pin­ning Pitts­burgh in­side its own 20-yard line. Fea­gles also had a sea­son-long

56-yarder.

Spicer, mean­while, av­er­aged 35.5 yards per punt.

Mi­ami’s other spe­cial teams high­lights in­cluded a bone-crush­ing block by Travis Homer on Dal­las’ touch­down re­turn and a

37-yard field goal from fresh­man Bubba Baxa.

“I felt that block when I ran by it,” Dal­las smiled. “You know how you can feel wind? I felt that. I was like, ‘Dang.’ … He’s a phys­i­cal dude. That’s just what he does.”

Se­niors hon­ored: Be­fore kick­off Satur­day, the Hur­ri­canes hon­ored 26 of their se­niors and red­shirt ju­niors that played their fi­nal home game at Hard Rock Sta­dium.

Ma­ligned quar­ter­back Ma­lik Rosier, who was Mi­ami’s starter last sea­son and strug­gled at times this year be­fore be­fore be­ing re­placed by Perry in the start­ing lineup, re­ceived some of the loud­est cheers when he was in­tro­duced. Also re­ceiv­ing loud cheers were pre­sea­son All-Amer­i­can safety Jaquan John­son, corner­back Michael Jack­son, safety Sheldrick Red­wine and de­fen­sive tackle Ger­ald Wil­lis, all of whom have been stal­warts for the Hur­ri­canes’ fourth-ranked de­fense.

Also hon­ored Satur­day were re­ceiver Chad Allen, kicker Marco Baeza, snap­per Jor­dan But­ler, kicker Ale­jan­dro Car­de­nas, corner­back Jhavonte Dean, full­back Danny Dominguez, cen­ter Tyler Gau­thier, full­back Tray­one Gray, de­fen­sive end Demetrius Jack­son, of­fen­sive line­man Ja­hair Jones, Lang­ham, line­backer Terry McCray, re­ceiver Tyler Mur­phy, de­fen­sive line­man John O’Boyle, de­fen­sive tackle Tito Odenigbo, line­backer Mike Smith, punter Jack Spicer, of­fen­sive line­man Tyree St. Louis and long snap­per Sam York.

MICHAEL REAVES/GETTY

Dee­Jay Dal­las was called on to fill for­mer Hur­ri­canes punt re­turner Jeff Thomas’ spot on Satur­day against Pitts­burgh and de­liv­ered a 65-yard touch­down.

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