The Miami Hurricanes are about to face one of the nation’s hottest quarterbacks, and they’re going to have to do it without one of their best players on defense.
Hurricanes safety Bubba Bolden — a second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection last season — recently underwent shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of the season, the team announced this week.
That means the Hurricanes (3-4, 1-2 ACC) will start two true freshmen safeties — James Williams and Kamren Kinchens — when they visit 17th-ranked Pitt (6-1, 3-0) on Saturday afternoon.
“It was affecting his tackling and his overall play,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said of the injury Bolden played through the previous three weeks. “But it’s a tough loss for us because of his leadership.”
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Williams was the nation’s top-ranked safety in the Class of 2021 while Kinchens was one of the top 25 safeties in the class. Kinchens, a 5-11, 200-pounder, burst onto the prep scene with nine interceptions as a junior.
Both have been impressive in their limited chances with the Hurricanes, but now they face will one of the nation’s top passers, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.
The fifth-year senior has 23 touchdown passes and just one interception this season to garner Heisman Trophy buzz. Pickett also has the Panthers sitting atop the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Pickett is averaging 319.4 passing yards per game, and he leads an offense that ranks fourth in the nation with 45.3 points per game.
Wide receiver Jordan Addison, who is Pickett’s favorite target, ranks fourth in the ACC in reception yards per game (95.7).
However, Addison and Pitt’s No. 1 running back, Izzy Abanikanda, sustained concussions in last week’s win over Clemson. Both are questionable to play against Miami.
Abanikanda, who leads Pitt with 403 rushing yards (5.2 average), would be replaced by Vincent Davis and freshman Rodney Hammond Jr. if necessary. Davis has rushed for 263 yards but just a 3.3 average. Hammond, though, has 251 yards and a 5.8 average.
Still, those injuries and the presence of the Hurricanes — who have beaten the Panthers in three straight matchups — have Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi worried.
“I know what’s on the horizon,” Narduzzi said when asked why he’s not happy.
Pickett is 1-2 against the Hurricanes, and his only win versus Miami came in his true freshman season.
On Saturday, Miami will start a redshirt freshman quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke, who is only playing due to D’Eriq King’s season-ending injury.
Van Dyke, who is 2-2 as a starter this season, will face a third-year veteran safety in Pitt’s Brandon Hill, who leads the Panthers in tackles (46) and pass breakups (six). Pitt’s other safety is fourth-year junior Erick Hallett.
So Pitt has a veteran quarterback going up against two rookie safeties while Miami has a rookie QB going against two veteran safeties.
Fortunately for Miami, Van Dyke does have some experienced help in wide receivers Charleston Rambo (44 catches, 549 yards, four TDs) and Mike Harley (27 catches, 250 yards two TDs).
A wild card is running back Jaylan Knighton, a second-year player with game-breaking speed. Last week against North Carolina State, Knighton had 166 scrimmage yards (83 rushing, 83 receiving) and one score. The prior week, against North Carolina, he had 165 scrimmage yards (92 rushing, 73 receiving) and three TDs.
In addition, Van Dyke is coming off the biggest win of his career, completing 25 of 33 passes for 325 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions as Miami knocked off then-No. 18 NC State 31-30.