Upon his introduction as Miami's new coach, former Hurricanes player, assistant and hometown favorite Mario Cristobal said he coudn't wait to "compete for championships." The Hurricanes flopped in his debut, however, finishing 5-7 for the worst season since 2007. Hoping for a Year 2 leap like he had at Oregon, Cristobal is pressing the reset button on his tenure with a pair of pivotal coordinator hires.
Defensive coordinator Lance Guidry arrives from Marshall to replace Kevin Steele, who left for the same job with Alabama. Houston offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is reportedly not far behind after the Hurricanes moved on from Josh Gattis. For Cristobal to surpass recent standards in Coral Gables, the three of them will need to mesh quickly. Not since the arrival of Howard Schnellenberger in 1979 has a second-year 'Canes coach failed to reach at least seven wins. (Schnellenberger's predecessor, Lou Saban, went 6-5 in his second and last year in 1978.)
If Cristobal can't reach that modest threshold, then it will raise serious questions over whether competing for championships is truly in the cards for the program under his direction.
Cristobal led Oregon to a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl victory with a final record of 12-2 in his second season in Eugene. He is also precisely 67-67 over 12 seasons at three different jobs, but that 2019 effort stands out as a beacon of hope on his résumé that perhaps good things are ahead for Miami.
New identity on offense?
A Broyles Award winner in 2021 as Michigan's offensive coordinator, Gattis guided the Wolverines to a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff appearance. Those credentials seemingly made him a rockstar hire for Cristobal, but Miami's offense flopped in 2022. The Hurricanes finished 86th nationally in total offense and 96th in scoring offense. In fact, its 23.6 points per game were inflated by a 70-13 season-opening win over Bethune-Cookman; the 'Canes would have averaged fewer than 20 points per game otherwise.
Most concerning was the regression of quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who struggled as a sophomore after enjoying a breakout 2021 season under former head coach Manny Diaz and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The loss of leading receivers Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley didn't help Van Dyke, but neither did Miami's new scheme.
With Dawson arriving from Houston, Van Dyke gets a chance to regain his prior form. As a longtime assistant of Houston coach Dana Holgorsen -- Dawson also worked for Holgorsen at West Virginia -- Dawson brings experience with Air Raid schemes to Miami. For reference: Houston quarterback Clayton Tune passed for 4,074 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2022 during his third season working with Dawson.
But how much autonomy will Cristobal grant to Dawson?
The Cougars threw the football about 55% of the time last season; Miami's run-pass split was much closer to 50-50, and the Hurricanes actually ran it a tad more. And during Cristobal's time at Oregon, the Ducks were known far more for their ground game. That runs counter to the traditional Air Raid ethose.
Cristobal is a former offensive lineman who cut his teeth as an offensive line coach. Historically, running the football has been his priority. Gelling philosophically with Dawson's Air Raid roots will be a critical challenge for Cristobal to navigate over the coming months. If the 'Canes do move toward a more pass-oriented approach, the next question will be whether they have enough pass-catching talent to make it work.
What about recruiting chops?
There is inherently less potential for conflict between Guidry and Cristobal given that Cristobal's background is on the offensive side of the ball. Guidry likely would not have left the position at Tulane, which he'd just accepted, for Miami without assurances that he will have freedom to direct the Miami defense as he sees fit.
At Marshall last season, Guidry guided a unit that ranked first in third-down defense, sixth in scoring defense and eighth in total defense. Clearly, he was pressing the right buttons for the Thundering Herd. This is Guidry's first Power Five gig, however, and that presents some unique challenges.
In particular, both Guidry and Dawson will be tasked recruiting at a higher level than ever before. While Dawson spent time at Power Five programs like Kentucky and West Virginia many years ago, Miami looks to recruit a different caliber of athlete than those programs.
Gattis was a seasoned veteran of high-level recruiting battles, having served as offensive recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt and Penn State under James Franklin. He is also credited by 247Sports for helping Alabama and Michigan land four- and five-star prospects during his tenures there. Similarly, Steele knew the upper rungs of the recruiting business as well as anyone, having worked at Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Auburn over the years.
Ultimately, Cristobal is an elite recruiter in his own right. It's arguably his best skill. But breaking in two new coordinators only increases the pressure on Cristobal and his position coaches to deliver on the talent acquisition trail.
The Hurricanes' 2023 class finished No. 7 overall in the 247Sports Team Rankings and first in the ACC. It was a great start for the program under Cristobal and something for the program to cling to following a rough start. However, Diaz enjoyed his share of recruiting victories, too, and they translated to only modest on-field triumphs.
Other Power Five hires such as Sonny Dykes at TCU, Lincoln Riley at USC and Brian Kelly at LSU reached conference title games in their first seasons -- and Dykes' squad played for a national title. In Cristobal's own conference, Duke's Mike Elko completed a remarkable first-year turnaround by leading the Blue Devils to a 9-4 mark after a three-win 2021 season.
Cristobal's recruiting acumen and status as a program icon help his standing at Miami. Still, the early successes of many other coaches from the 2021 cycle only increase the pressure for Cristobal to compete for championships -- just as he pledged to do upon accepting the job.
Doing so with two new coordinators in 2022 won't be easy, but Cristobal's willingness to go outside his own coaching circle and offensive comfort zone is a sign that he understands the stakes and may be willing to adapt to replicate the Year 2 jump that built his reputation at Oregon.