The cynics will fast point out that it’s only two games into a new season—but those who know, know. D’Eriq King is the winner, leader and alpha dog the Miami Hurricanes have lacked under center, on the practice field and in the locker room for upwards of 15 years.
The eventual result; a long-running broken culture is on the brink of being fixed by way of 23-year old Houston transfer—who was luckily (and inexplicably) redshirted last fall, paving the way to this one-year Band-Aid to pay big time dividends.
For all the talent in South Florida and Miami’s backyard over the years—it took a mature, veteran gunslinger from the Lone Star State to be the building block for the Hurricanes’ ascension to contender in the coming years. Imagine that.
The sports media has already stared their self-serving, “Is Miami back?” early season narrative—as it plays well to outsiders who loathe the Hurricanes; college football enthusiasts who hate to see a polarizing national brand like UM built up, but can’t wait to celebrate when this little private school from down south hits some speed bumps on their road back to prominence.
The premise of Miami being “back” also has a stranglehold on the Hurricanes Nation, fans of this once-great program both tired-of and embarrassed-by years of irrelevance—to the point where they’ll blindly buy into the hype, while trying to fast-track any successful one-off moment, making more of it than should be made.
After a decade-and-a-half of riding this up and down roller coaster—Miami fans finally have a modicum of a reason to believe—as King is all that, and then some.
CANES CAN FINALLY FIND FOOTING AFTER YEARS OF TURMOIL
This will be a special season for the Hurricanes and a small step forward that will pay dividends on the recruiting trail, serving as proof Miami is moving the right direction under Diaz—but one great player under center isn’t a cure-all for years worth incompetence and lack of proper depth and talent across the board.
A revolving door of head coaches either under-qualified (Randy Shannon), off-brand (Al Golden) or past-their prime (Mark Richt) has plagued Miami football ever since Larry Coker couldn’t build on, or maintain the juggernaut Butch Davis handed him two decades ago.
All of this turnover ultimately led to the hiring of Manny Diaz; the Canes’ fifth program face and new regime in 14 years—a reminder how much a lack of stability has been a real issue in Coral Gables and the biggest reason Miami has become a middle-of-the-pack ACC program with a 105-77 record dating back to the 2005 Peach Bowl curb-stomping (40-3) the Canes took from LSU.
Those who want to case-build against Diaz can easily go to a 6-7 run last year, an embarrassing kicking game (which cost Miami a season-opening win against Florida, and then some), no-shows against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech—as well as a general team immaturity and pointless big-headedness after wins against average Florida State and Louisville squads, which led to a three-game losing streak against Florida International, Duke and Louisiana Tech to end the year.
To Diaz’s credit, he went head-down and started making moves immediately after getting shut out in the lowly Independence Bowl—starting with firing wrong-fit offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and an equally as incompetent offensive line coach in Butch Barry.
Enos’ promise to run a hybrid offense that featured some pro-style and spread, proved to be an utter, basic, prehistoric disaster—one so egregious that Diaz completely bought in on a conversion to the spread, leading to the hiring of Rhett Lashlee to play-call, Garin Justice to get the o-line spread-ready and King to be the maestro who too Miami from zero-to-one-hundred over the course of eight quarters.
One can only imagine what these Hurricanes would look like in 2020 without the addition of King—N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell battling it out for the starting job, with true freshman Tyler Van Dyke. (Even without King, Jarren Williams would’ve transferred out as his welcome was worn out with the staff.)
Instead, King hit the ground running—literally—locking in the starting job and under center for a 31-14 victory in Miami’s opener against University of Alabama-Birmingham two weeks back. King tossed for 144 yards, going 16-of-24 on the night with one passing touchdown—while rushing 12 times for 83 yards and a score, against a stingy little Blazers’ defense.
ROAD WIN AT LOUISVILLE; SOLID BUILDING BLOCK
The next challenge; this past weekend’s road trip to Louisville for a crack at outlasting a feisty Cardinals’ offense—one that was vocal about seeking revenge for last year’s 52-27 loss in Miami and expecting to take a step forward under second-year head coach Scott Satterfield.
The Hurricanes rolled into Papa John’s Stadium a whopping 3-23 against ranked opponents dating back to the 2005 season—Miami’s last regular win against a ranked foe coming by way of an eight-lateral game-ending play at Duke in 2015.
Many of the Hurricanes’ road losses over recent years; the product of slow starts and an inability to find their groove until it’s too late—neither of which was the case for the King-led Canes in prime-time this past Saturday night.
After an opening drive quickly stalled, Miami’s defense held Louisville to a long field goal—followed by a five-play, 75-yard answer capped by a 17-yard strike to tight end Will Mallory on 3rd-and-1.
Cam Harris busted off a 38-yard run, putting the Canes just outside the red zone after two plays—the first, a quick 11-yard strike to Dee Wiggins, who was relatively quiet after some early action.
The ensuing possession, a 31-yard strike to Mark Pope on 3rd-and-14—a huge bounce-back play for the Canes after a 74-yard hook-up with Mallory was called back on a ticky-tack false start.
King found Mike Harley for nine yards on first down and Harris tore off an 18-yarder to get Miami back in striking distance. Two 13-yard connections with Brevin Jordan—the first on 3rd-and-11—set up a three-yard punch-in from Jaylan Knighton that put the Canes up, 14-3 in the waning moments of the first quarter and a convincing 20-6 halftime lead.
Equally as exciting as the explosive Miami offense—a sound kicking game. Jose Borregales belted an early second quarter 48-yarder when a Canes’ drive stalled. Later in the quarter, stuck in no man’s land, facing a 4th-and-5 from the Cards’ 40-yard line—Diaz trotted Borregales out to attempt a 57-yarder, which he sent down the pike.
Beyond exhilarating, especially considering Miami kickers struggled with 5.7-yard field goals last fall.
Louisville responded to the 14-point halftime deficit with a 75-yard drive to open the third quarter, cutting the Miami lead to 13—but a 75-yard touchdown run by Harris proved the perfect punch in the mouth just as the home time was starting to show some life.
The Cardinals answered with a 74-yard scoring drive—the Canes again stole their thunder in one play; this time some veteran head movement and eye contact from King sell the play, leaving Knighton wide open for a quick dump-off that led to a 75-yard untouched rumble towards pay dirt.
Two more Borregales field goals extended the Miami lead after Louisville was forced to punt. The Cards did find the end zone with another lengthy 75-yard drive, but damned if the Hurricanes didn’t answer again—this time King finding a wide open Jordan for a 47-yard score, pushing the lead to 47 -27 with just over five minutes remaining.
Louisville scored one final time and recovered an onside kick attempt, but on the fourth play of the series Zach McCloud was in the backfield, stripped quarterback Malik Cunningham and recovered the Cards’ third turnover of the night. Ballgame.
FIRST CHALLENGES OF KING ERA PROVE SUCCESSFUL
Miami’s first two challenges are in the books and a season after starting 0-2 against Florida and North Carolina, the Hurricanes are now 2-0 with wins over UAB and Louisville—with Florida State on-deck in this quirky new season.
ESPN’s College GameDay as on hand this past weekend and will make its first trek back to South Florida since Miami pasted Notre Dame back in 2017. Should the Canes push to 3-0 with a win over the Seminoles, following the bye week Miami could again catch some ESPN love the weekend of October 10th for Clemson’s biggest home game of the season.
Translation; the King effect, as well as the timing of these early season match-ups—it’s something Miami must capitalize on as it can pave the way for one of those program-defining types of classes in 2021.
Diaz and the Canes wound up with the No. 16 class in 2020—a smaller haul with only 21 commits—but still good enough to be third in the ACC, with some immediate action from guys like Knighton and his counterpart Don Chaney Jr..
Miami’s 2021 class is already 22 players deep and ranked No. 8 in the nation—Diaz and staff with two 5-Star prospects in defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, the crown jewel of The Palmetto Five, as well as American Heritage’s James Williams—who comes in as an athlete and will land somewhere on the defense.
Defensive tackle Savion Collins and wideout Brashard Smith—both highly-touted teammates of Taylor’s—also chose the hometown team. In fact, 18 of these 21 players hail from what Howard Schnellenberger dubbed The State Of Miami all those years ago; up north to Daytona Beach, over to Tampa and everything south of I-4 deemed “Hurricanes Country”.
A strong run over the next nine games is crucial as the Hurricanes need to keep this crew in tact, while finding a way to add more crown jewel pieces. In years passed, a Miami skid down the stretch has resulted in decommits, while UM failed to mine any Signing Day gold.
When taking the Miami job, Diaz was quick to point out the biggest road block and conundrum he’d face as the Hurricanes’ leader—finding a way to win with the talent he had, in effort to lure in the talent UM needs to compete at the highest level.
The old mindset of loading up on 3-Star guys who have heart and love Miami—that doesn’t jibe anymore in modern day college football. Having some of those are the heartbeat of the team; it has a place, but when one looks atop the sport—Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia—these are powerhouses loaded with top talent and a two-deep that could beat a lot of team’s first stringers.
NO IGNORING IMPORTANCE OF TALENT IN TODAY’S GAME
Two games into this season for the Hurricanes, who physically looks the part more on defense and is making textbook plays better than safety Bubba Bolden and defensive end Jaelan Phillips—two former 5-Star recruits who wound up transferring to Miami from USC and UCLA, respectively?
In the 80’s, Miami lived by the “speed kills” mantra—dominating slower traditional programs and ultimately changing the game. It was a different era for the sport and the Hurricanes had a competitive advantage that helped propel the program to four national championships over nine sense, while everyone else played catch-up.
These days, the only competitive advantage is having as much, if not more talent than one’s counterparts—reloading at the highest level and just plugging-and-playing that next crop of superstars. There’s little mystery surrounding the why it’s the same handful of top programs in the thick of things every year; dominant players in the trenches, polished skills players, elite defenders and next-level quarterbacks.
It’s a completely different ballgame when one’s offensive line is giving their quarterback ample time to dissect defenses, while their own defenses are getting in backfields quicker than the competition and creating pure havoc.
2020 MUST SERVE AS STEP-FORWARD SEASON
This dive into the semantics of the sport; it’s simply to temper the expectation of what Miami has in King this fall, with the across the board holes that still must be filled for this Hurricanes’ program.
King’s athleticism can help mask some of the ongoing offensive line deficiencies against the likes of a UAB or Louisville—but when facing Clemson’s front seven and a Tigers’ defense that can rotate players in and out at the level Miami aspires to; a reminder that it’s going to take a few more classes and bodies for the Hurricanes to build a championship-caliber roster.
That’s not to say that UM can’t overachieve this fall—as both sides of the ball can raise their level of play on the King factor alone. It just means Miami isn’t consistently ready to take care of business week in and week out at a high level just yet.
The Hurricanes also can’t waste a would-be special season like this one, nor can it afford to not build on this year’s King effect next fall. The more time Miami hovers in irrelevancy, the harder it becomes to become a national force again.
Things seemed to be turning a corner under Richt in 2017 with that 10-0 start—capped off by a 41-8 home thumping of the Irish—but the air was let out of the balloon just as quickly as Miami was starting to look and feel “back”, with a regular season ending loss to Pittsburgh, a thumping by Clemson in the ACC title game and being outlasted by Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl.
Miami rode that 10-win season to an eighth-ranked class in 2018, only to stumble to a 7-6 season months later—prompting early retirement for Richt, where Diaz and staff scrambled to salvage an 18-player class that ranked No. 27 in the nation. Textbook example of the type of backslide the Canes can ill afford.
Florida State week is on deck, as is a battle for state supremacy in a season where Miami won’t face Florida, outside a potential bowl game. Bragging rights are at stake as the Hurricanes look for a fourth consecutive win against the Seminoles—who roll south off a bye week and a season-opening home loss to Georgia Tech—not to mention their own head coaching turmoil with Mike Norvell now in as their third head coach since the 2017 season. Norvell found some pre-season hot water with a social media gaffe months back and now he’ll remain quarantined in Tallahassee for his first showdown with the Canes, having contracted COVID-19 last week.
Getting to 3-0 with a win over Florida State, a bye week reset before Clemson and King living up to the hype—it’s all Miami can really ask for one month in the 2020 season. That, and “The U” finally finding a true offensive identity—after toiling in purgatory the past 15 seasons. King, Lashlee and an uptempo spread finding immediate success in South Florida—such a breath of fresh air.
Where it goes from here—the rest of 2020, and beyond— is entirely up to Diaz and these trending-upward Hurricanes
Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.