CORAL GABLES – After a near decade in college football abyss as well as the past two years in purgatory, the fog seems to be lifting at the University of Miami.
If it’s true that it’s the darkest just before dawn, it appears to be about 6 a.m. in Coral Gables. We don’t have daylight yet but it’s not far away.
Breaks not only showed up in the Hurricanes’ 21-16 victory over the dreaded Florida Gators, where they took advantage of five turnovers, but breaks showed up in recruiting season, in offseason news and in Miami’s schedule.
Now if the NCAA would decide to take away a few scholarships and state that the school’s self-imposed, two-year bowl ban is enough postseason punishment, then Miami would catch the biggest break of all. There would be closure. Foes no longer would be able to use forthcoming penalties to affect the Hurricanes’ 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes.
“Once that burden is off the program, Miami can get after recruiting even more so,” said Matt Shodell, who follows the team’s recruiting closely for Canesport.
One of the great benefits of having that kind of game against Florida – and one of the reasons the Gators may never schedule Miami again in the regular season – is that the Hurricanes coaches can invite players from the 2015 and 2016 classes (as well as 2014) to the game. They can arrive early and talk to the coaches, go on the field, take in the atmosphere, see a rare sellout crowd at Sun Life Stadium and go in the locker room afterwards and celebrate the victory with them.
“It’s like an advertisement,” said Shodell who said he talked to a lot of recruits since that game. “The benefit isn’t so much short term. There were no immediate commitments and no players switched. What effects it has is on these kids who will be part of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 classes.
“If Miami finishes in the top 10, it’ll have a huge impact on recruiting. They need a statement season to say, ‘We’re relevant again.’”
Things began to turn for this program in February. Despite dealing with negative recruiting, Miami had a top-20 class and brought in 10 four-star players, as well as defensive end Ufomba Kamalu, a junior college player.
Three weeks later, the NCAA’s findings in the Nevin Shapiro scandal revealed he didn’t lavish millions of dollars to Miami players, but more like $170,000. When compared to the scope of reported improprieties at Oklahoma State – player payments, grade fixing, paper and test taking, players taking drugs, players having sex with female hostesses – as well as the incidents at Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M with Johnny Manziel, Vanderbilt, SEC players getting money from agents - it’s beginning to appear the perception is that stuff is happening at every BCS school.
If a scandal were to break out at Stanford, Northwestern or a service academy, the fingers will start to be pointed more at the NCAA, increase the volume that the system is broken and lessen the impact of what happened in Coral Gables over a 10-year stretch.
Defensive Additions Key
More good news has come in the ensuing months. Miami brought in fifth-year seniors Justin Renfrow from Virginia and David Gilbert from Wisconsin because they could play right away. They gave needed immediate help.
Fortifying the defensive front seven was crucial for Miami against Florida. The Hurricanes kept the Gators off the scoreboard for most of the day despite their defense being on the field almost twice as long as the offense.
Because of the increased depth, the only Miami defensive lineman on the field for more than 50 plays was end Anthony Chickillo (71).
Kamalu said in the days leading up to the Florida game, he spent an hour or two every night studying tape with veteran defensive lineman Shayon Green.
“The guys last year took the younger guys under their wing and show us how our job is supposed to be done,” he said. “I knew I’d be in the game but I wasn’t sure when I’d be called. I was following the ball, following the ball, watching every call and staying focused. I was watching guys out there make mistakes and seeing how I could learn from it.”
Another defensive weapon who joined Miami in the offseason was punter Pat O’Donnell. A second-team all-conference pick at Cincinnati, O’Donnell filled a void where Miami had little experience.
Yes, he did have his first punt blocked, but he averaged 43.6 yards on nine punts while doing a great job of flipping field position.
“We’re grateful for Pat O’Donnell, that’s all I’m gonna say,” said the other No. 17 on Miami’s roster, Tyriq McCord. “He averages about 100 yards in practice.”
McCord quickly became a media favorite – not just for his sack of Florida QB Jeff Driskel, forced fumble and fumble recovery inside the Gators 4 but his postgame antics, which included clearing his throat before his opening comments.
“You dream of making plays and you wake up and it’s a reality,” he said.
Miami can be dreaming about making a run at a national champion, although Golden cautions, “Miami is not back. Miami is building.”
Instead of thinking of the past bye week, he wanted his team to think of it as process week.
The Hurricanes also can have visions of playing for an ACC title.
For years, the league didn’t do Miami any favors with early-season road trips.
Four years ago, the Hurricanes opened the season with a heart-stopping win at Florida State and followed that with a resounding victory over Georgia Tech, a loss at Virginia Tech and a home win over Oklahoma.
It was just too much.
This season, the league nearly gift-wrapped Miami’s schedule.
A Friday night game with FAU gave it an extra day of prep for Florida.
Besides the bye week after the Gators’ game, Miami next has a home game with Savannah State, then a road game with a South Florida team struggling mightily in coach Willie Taggert’s first season. This will give the Hurricanes time to absorb the Florida win and avoid a letdown and trap game.
Then comes eight straight ACC games. Because of expansion, the Hurricanes got a home game with Virginia Tech for the second-straight season and a road game with Duke for the second-straight season, a trade they’ll take any day. Miami won’t travel out of state until Oct. 7, and it won’t play Clemson. The toughest stretch is Nov. 2 – at Florida State before the game with the Hokies.
Yes, it’s one win and yes it’s a team building its confidence. But wins over the likes of Florida do wonders for a team’s psyche.
When that happens, the potential can be endless.