Miami Hurricanes running backs off to a blazing start in 2016

Mark Walton (1) and Joe Yearby (2) reached the 100-yard mark against Florida A&M, and Gus Edwards (7) did too. (Getty Images photos)

Mark Walton (1) and Joe Yearby (2) reached the 100-yard mark against Florida A&M, and Gus Edwards (7) did too. (Getty Images photos)

[Hurricanes are back in the top 25]

[What we saw at Tuesday’s practice]

[Miami’s defense has a ‘million things to fix’ this week]

[Canes thankful for true freshmen in opener]

[Willis on UM’s FAU-week depth chart]

One was a misty, chilly night in 1987 on the unadorned Astroturf of Cincinnati’s cookie-cutter Riverfront Stadium.

The other was a warm, humid night in 2016 on the immaculate, expertly-bred grass of a newly renovated, $500 million Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

What do those settings have in common? In both, the Hurricanes put up record rushing numbers.

For the first time in a generation — about two months shy of 29 years, to be specific — three Miami running backs rushed for 100 yards or more in Saturday’s 70-3 win over Florida A&M. Mark Walton, Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards combined for 327 of Miami’s nation-high 384 yards on the ground, and four of Miami’s five rushing scores.

“That was pretty impressive,” said offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, who also coaches running backs. He tried to “roll Joe and Mark pretty evenly throughout the first half,” and when he put in Edwards, he got more of the same.

Walton (116 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown) and Yearby (105 yards and touchdowns of 1 and 64 yards) did their damage in most of the first three quarters, before Edwards took his second carry of the game 74 yards for a touchdown. He finished with 106.

They had the blocking of an offensive line that returns intact from a struggle-filled 2015, willing tight ends and receivers, and of course, 6-foot, 280-pound fullback Marquez Williams, who scored the game’s first touchdown. Quarterback Brad Kaaya was encouraged by all that and the fact Miami committed one penalty in the first half (five total). UM led the nation in penalties per game last year.

Miami, which earned the No. 25 spot in the AP poll on Tuesday — their first ranking since 2013 — is in a different place than it was on Oct. 25, 1987 when Melvin Bratton (116), Warren Williams (101) and Leonard Conley (120) carried the third-ranked Hurricanes to a 48-10 win at Cincinnati. Miami would go 12-0 and win the national championship that year.

No one outside Greentree Practice Field expects that from these Canes. Still, while it ran well against an FCS opponent in the opener, Miami thinks it will be able to remain productive in the tougher weeks to come. That would help Kaaya and the passing game, as well as take pressure off a baby-faced defense reeling from injuries, suspensions and dismissals.

“It’s very encouraging for us, for the whole team,” Kaaya said. “If the offense can put together good, long, well-executed drives, it makes it so the defense doesn’t have to be on the field for as long. Less three-and-outs means the defense has more time to rest, guys can catch their breath and recuperate and don’t have to get right back out on the field. That part is huge.”

Reliable rushing production would certainly be an improvement over last year, when Miami ranked 112th in yards per carry (3.68).

“The more guys we can have be productive for us helps out,” Brown said. “And obviously the running back position is very demanding physically wise and we want to keep guys as healthy and fresh as possible, by rolling guys throughout the whole season.

“I know how fast you can go from having some depth to having one or two guys playing for you. So I think it’s important to keep all those guys in the game and keep them fresh.”

That’s fine with Yearby, who at Miami Central High worked in tandem with future Heisman Trophy candidate Dalvin Cook, Duke Johnson his freshman year and gained 1,002 yards last season with Walton as his first-year backup.

In the opener, Yearby said, “I think all of us just wanted to come out and compete.”

No doubt that was the case for Walton, who has not been available to speak to reporters since last season, after his legal trouble last summer. Same with Edwards, who missed all of last year with a broken foot.

“I think it meant a lot” to Walton, Brown said. “Mark is one of those guys who plays like he practices. He shows up every single day and runs that hard in practice. He pushes the entire group.

“All those guys do that. Joe busts his butt every day, and it showed on game day. I thought he looked quicker and faster than he did in the past. The touchdown run, being able to separate from guys, showed some of the stuff he can do. Getting Gus in there, back healthy, Gus has leaned up. He’s 6-2, 235 pounds of solid muscle and pretty darn elusive when he gets in the open field.”

* Brown on true freshman Travis Homer (five carries, 35 yards, a fumble and some excellent work on special teams): “He’s an extremely focused, locked-in individual and he is very relentless. If you watch him on special teams all day, I think he’s probably our best special teams player of all throughout the game, being able to hustle down. The cat doesn’t get tired. He doesn’t quit. Obviously has to do a better job of holding onto the football. That was a young man’s mistake there. Hopefully he’ll learn from it.”

* Kaaya revealed one reason for UM’s drop in penalties on Saturday: the cadences he calls are more “rhythmic, so it allows [the offensive line] to know when I’m about to say, ‘Down, set, hut.’ It’s easy for them to time up and jump off the ball.”

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