True freshmen safeties likely to start at No. 17 Pitt as UM endures another major injury

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Just when it seemed the Miami Hurricanes could take a breath between season-ending injuries, University of Miami coach Manny Diaz announced another one Monday.

Starting redshirt junior safety Bubba Bolden will undergo surgery for a shoulder injury he sustained Sept. 30 against Virginia, Diaz said, and will miss the rest of the season. This likely is the end of his college career, as he was expected to enter the upcoming NFL Draft.

Diaz announced the news after saying that second-year freshman cornerback Isaiah Dunson, listed as a backup to Tyrique Stevenson on the depth chart, “may have to move to safety.”

Last week it was starting tailback Cam’Ron Harris out with season-ending knee surgery. Before that it was quarterback D’Eriq King, starting offensive guard Jalen Rivers, starting center Corey Gaynor, offensive lineman John Campbell Jr. and second-year freshman tailback Don Chaney Jr.

Second-year freshman quarterback Jake Garcia has been sidelined after injuring his left ankle against Central Connecticut State and undergoing surgery.

The Canes (3-4, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to No. 17 Pitt (6-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) for a noon kickoff at Heinz Field. Expected to start against Pitt, which has one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in Kenny Pickett, are the freshman duo of James Williams and Kamren Kinchens.

‘Tough loss’

“I actually meant to mention this: We’re going to lose Bubba Bolden for the rest of the year,’’ Diaz said. “In the Virginia game he hurt his shoulder. He’s tried to play with it the last two or three weeks. It’s affecting his tackling, it’s affecting his overall play and he can’t be the player out there and help us at that position. It’s unfair to have a guy kind of playing with half an arm, so he’s gotta get an operation to get it fixed.

“Tough loss for us with the leadership he brings, and the communication he brings to us on the back end But it’s an opportunity for some of the young guys to step up and claim playing time.”

Bolden was named to the 2020 All-ACC second team last season when he was a Thorpe Award semifinalist, but he has struggled at times this season with missed tackles and in run defense. He ends 2021 with 42 tackles. He has 2 1/2 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. He had one interception in each of 2019 and 2020, but none this season. He said last week he was hoping to make more big plays and get some picks.

“Love me or hate me.. I gave my all to this program and can’t no one tell me different,’’ Bolden posted Monday evening on Twitter. “Wasn’t the way I wanted this to end but it is what is. God got me!’’

Bolden, considered a team leader who also helped the younger players, never mentioned to the media that he was injured, but said last week he wanted “to improve every game.’’

“That’s the main thing,’’ he said. “I never want to stay stagnant, I never want to regress. But one thing I really want is to get some interceptions. Hopefully, that ball comes my way or hopefully I can put myself in a better position to make a play.”

Bolden played his freshman year at Southern Cal and transferred to Miami before the 2019 season. Last season he had a team-leading 74 tackles, four forced fumbles, a sack, interception and three pass deflections.

Shoop on Bolden

UM defensive quality control analyst Bob Shoop, a longtime, highly regarded coach who was a two-time finalist for the Broyles Award that annually goes to the nation’s top college football assistant, is an integral part of UM’s defensive planning. Monday after Diaz spoke, Shoop said the Canes would miss Bolden’s “valuable experience for sure,’’ but were in good shape for the future with their young safeties.

“Here’s a guy who has played a lot of football at the highest of college football levels,’’ Shoop said of Bolden. “He has a high football IQ. Bubba was a good, solid player. He’s kind of a polarizing player — [there were] people who were really, really high on him and others who questioned some things. But he was the glue back there, a solid communicator, always on point in the game plan, he was somewhat like a coach on the field and was pretty productive.

“I said this before: Experience beats talent till talent gains experience. The more Kam [Kinchens] and James [Williams] and some of these other guys continue to develop, we have a chance to have a really good secondary this year and into the future as well.’’

Youth movement

James Williams, a physical, aggressive 6-5 and 224 pounds, has shown why he was a five-star prospect at Plantation American Heritage before he came to UM and began dominating immediately. He got his first start Sept. 25 against Central Connecticut State and already has 18 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups. He played 56 snaps Saturday against then-No. 18 NC State, according to Pro Football Focus.

Kinchens, 5-11 and 200 pounds, played as a backup to Bolden and made the game-saving tackle Saturday against the Wolfpack on fourth-and-8 from the NC State 46. Miami took over with 2:49 left and ultimately sealed the 31-30 victory. Kinchens played a season-high 49 snaps against NC State. He has 20 tackles in seven games, a pass breakup and forced fumble.

“It’s a routine play,’’ Kinchens said of the game-saver. “I do it every day in practice. I make it all the time.’’

UM’s other safeties include former starter junior Gurvan Hall, who has struggled and seen his playing time diminish to where he played special teams this past week; and second-year freshman Avantae Williams (no relation to James), another former No. 1 safety prospect who got his first career playing time against NC State after being suspended the first six games.

Avantae Williams

Miami Hurricanes safety Avantae Williams (15) joins teammates on the field during game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, October 23, 2021. Cornerback Isaiah Dunson (29) will be converted to safety after a season-ending injury to starter Bubba Bolden.
Miami Hurricanes safety Avantae Williams (15) joins teammates on the field during game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, October 23, 2021. Cornerback Isaiah Dunson (29) will be converted to safety after a season-ending injury to starter Bubba Bolden.

Avantae Williams played mostly in third-down situations, and Diaz said his role will continue to grow.

“He actually probably got in a little more than we thought he would on Saturday,’’ Diaz said. “Avantae is drinking out of a fire hose right now trying to get up to speed with the rest of the guys. I’m going to say this in the best way possible: We didn’t notice him on Saturday. And sometimes DBs are like offensive linemen. If you don’t notice them it’s actually sometimes a good thing. That just means more often than not he was where he was supposed to be, he did his job.

“We say around here, when talented guys do their job, usually the talent will come out. Proud of him for that.”

Diaz said Avantae Williams will gradually get more playing time as he catches up to the college game.

“He has a bright future,’’ Shoops said. “You earn your playing time... He missed some time [and] he’s got a lot on his plate right now. We were all very, very excited to see him in his first action in the green and orange. ... He provided some energy and juice this week and got between eight and 12 snaps of defense and was in on that last play.

“We’re all looking forward to his play the second half of the year here.”

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