Newest RedHawks join 17 returning starters for start of spring football

The Miami RedHawks will open their seventh spring practice under coach Chuck Martin on Sunday.

Ironically, that’s exactly the number of early enrollees who will be on hand for the drills.

Offensive linemen Dominic Collado, Reid Holskey and Caleb Siech, linebacker Cam Rogers, defensive backs John Saunders and Jacquez Warren and quarterback Aveon Smith will join the returning RedHawks for the 15 practices.

“Aveon will be limited,” Martin said Friday morning. “He hurt his knee his senior year, so he won’t be full go. He’ll be able to do some things. Cam Rogers is coming off an injury, too. He’ll be limited, but we’ll have five of the seven out there.

“That’s easily the most we’ve had,” Martin added about early enrollees. “It seems like more kids are doing it every year. It just continues to grow.”

The newest RedHawks will join 10 returning offensive starters and seven on defense from a team that last season finished 8-6 overall and won its first Mid-American Conference championship since 2010 before losing to Louisiana in the Bowl. Among the returning starters is quarterback Brett Gabbert, who was named the MAC Freshman of the Year after starting all 14 games for the RedHawks. Gabbert, like the early enrollees, will be participating in his first spring practice.

“That is kind of unique,” Martin said. “That’s true for a lot of the guys on the team who weren’t here last spring and ended up making significant contributions.”

Among them were Rusty Feth, who started the last six games at right guard, Caleb Shaffer, who started the last seven games at left guard, linebacker Luke Bolden, a key special teams performer, wide receiver James Maye, whose average of 25.3 yards per catch led MAC freshmen, and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., who finished 2019 with a team-high seven sacks.

Gabbert threw for 2,411 yards and 11 touchdowns last season while operating an offense that was limited because of his inexperience. Martin is looking forward to putting more on his plate.

“He still lacks experience,” Martin said. “He’s not been through spring ball. We’ll give him as many (repetitions) as he can get and get him to see as much as he can see. There were things we didn’t try to do last year because he was a true freshman. We were trying to protect him as best as we could as far as game-planning and what we called last season, and he still showed tons of growth.”

Senior running back Jaylon Bester, who led Miami in rushing last season, will be sidelined for the spring with a heel injury, but Martin expects him to be ready for fall practice. Bester is among what the coach described as a “few” players with injuries.

Not returning are quarterback Jackson Williamson and defensive lineman Isaac Hampton, who were third-year sophomores last season before entering the transfer portal.

One area that will draw some interest is special teams. Lost to graduation were second-team All-America kicker Sam Sloman, first team All-MAC punter Kyle Kramer, long-time long-snapper Evan Crabtree and All-MAC punt returner Maurice Thomas, who graduates as the school’s career kick-return yardage leader. Martin doesn’t anticipate making any decisions about any of those positions until, perhaps, the beginning of the conference season at Akron on Sept. 26.

“We’ve got a really good kicker-punter coming in with this class,” he said, referring to Dom Dzioban. “Who knows? Somebody might have that type where we will make a decision. I’m not concerned about who starts at any position until, really, the conference season. We’ll use the non-conference schedule to sort things out. Look at last year. A lot of guys who didn’t even play much in the non-conference games ended up being big contributors.”

Practices are scheduled for March 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19 and 31 and April 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14 and 16, all leading up to the Spring Showcase on April 18 at 1:30 p.m. Every practice is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. except April 4 and April 11, which are set to start at 10 a.m. Each session is expected to last about two hours.

Miami opens the 2020 season at Pittsburgh on Sept. 5. The home opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff is set for Sept. 12. Kickoff times have yet to be established.

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