Won’t take long to figure out if the Miami Hurricanes have anything going this season.
The first game of 2014 is an instantaneous do-over on the worst game of 2013, that demoralizing 36-9 loss to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Win that Sept. 1 game, an ESPN Labor Day special, and Al Golden’s makeover of the Miami tradition may finally start getting some traction. Lose it and, well, you know the drill. The Hurricanes, still striving for that first ACC title, would get pushed down in the pecking order once more, with Louisville the latest addition to the league.
So is the Miami staff taking advantage of this motivational slam dunk, this rematch, this irresistible rallying point for every training-camp drill and weight session? The answer is no, or at least that’s not how they were selling it at media day on campus.
“I don’t think our guys are focused on Louisville right now,” said defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, whose unit yielded an astonishing 426.4 yards per game last season.
“We’re focused on whatever point that we’re at. The off-season program is the off-season program, regardless of who the opening opponent is, and the summer is the summer. We’re not at that point right now.”
Relentless, this river of coach-speak, and it comes from the top. Golden is entering his fourth year at Miami. He’s ready for the “U” on that helmet to stand for “Unbelievable” again, and not “Under Construction.” There is so much work to be done, however, even coming off a 9-4 season that included a win over the Florida Gators.
The defense, as mentioned above, is too easily and frequently dented. The offense, rocked by an off-season knee injury to Ryan Williams, will be directed either by grad student Jake Heaps, who already has tried his hand at BYU and Kansas, or true freshman Brad Kaaya.
Amazing things can come from cloudy forecasts like this. Bernie Kosar, after all, started the 1983 Miami season as a redshirt freshman quarterback and ended it as the MVP of a classic national-championship victory over Nebraska.
Rather than dreaming of past glory, however, Golden is churning through August just as he once did at Temple. The talent is better at Miami, especially with wonders like freshman defensive end Chad Thomas added to the mix, but the need to steadily build and bolster confidence is the same.
“We’re really trying to be a different team this year,” said Golden, who took the NCAA’s long-threatened probation punch last year and came through it fine. “We want to be in that same position where we were at the middle of last year, but we want to handle it better.”
Miami was off to a 7-0 start, remember, and slotted in the BCS top 10, when a prime-time match with FSU stopped the party. Duke Johnson, the Hurricanes’ excellent running back, broke an ankle in that game. Blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Duke in the next two games pretty much broke Miami’s spirit, too.
Johnson is back in business now, ripping off a long touchdown run in the most recent controlled scrimmage, and senior linebacker Denzell Perryman, who might have tried the NFL draft, remains in the middle of the defense. There are good things happening here. Easy to miss when measuring this team against FSU, but it’s true.
Another promising trend is the collection of so many top South Florida recruits. Without Golden, too many would be slipping off in other directions.
Freshman Kc McDermott, for instance, is in the running for a starting spot on the offensive line alongside his big brother Shane. Kc was a Palm Beach Central High School student when the Hurricanes lost that December bowl game to Louisville.
“It’s a huge advantage getting Louisville in the opener because we have the upperclassmen that were here last year that really want to get payback,” Kc McDermott said. “Then you’ve got young guys like me that want to win one for the guys that didn’t.”
Hey, it’s the truth. If Miami’s coaches weren’t wound so tight, they’d be saying it, too.