In January, Mark Richt had his staff put nameplates on players’ helmets and workout gear so he could remember who they were.
He got to know most everyone’s name by August, but the first-year coach still didn’t know how his players would handle the ups and downs of the season.
Especially the downs, like four straight losses in October, all of them painful in their own ways.
“I think you always get concerned,” Richt said Monday. “You know these guys are young, they’re 18-22, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their life, you don’t know what they’ve been through here as a player. You just don’t know how guys are going to react.”
The Hurricanes (7-4, 4-3 ACC), which went from 4-0 and No. 10 in the nation to 4-4, rebounded with a Nov. 5 rout of Pittsburgh, then beat Virginia and North Carolina State on the road the last two weeks. Heading into Saturday’s season-finale against Duke (3:30 p.m., ESPN2), they’re feeling positive about their turnaround.
“I’m so excited and thankful about how they handled things,” Richt said, adding that he told his team after the Pitt game that he was proud of them for not giving up, because “everybody was kind of waiting to see what was going to happen, whether we were going to fold up our tent and start to fall apart.”
Given the recent trends, those onlookers would have good reason. In the last six years, Miami is 3-15 against Florida State and the next two opponents on the schedule. A loss to FSU started four-game losing streaks in 2014, and in October. Miami has lost seven in a row to its archrival, and still hasn’t played for an ACC title since joining the league in 2004.
But it has a chance this week to reach 8-4, which would match Georgia’s record in 2001, Richt’s first season. His Bulldogs lost four games by a combined 30 points, and upset No. 6 Tennessee in Knoxville on Oct. 6. That game moved them into the rankings for good.
They were 13-1 and SEC champions the following year, and beat FSU in the Sugar Bowl. From 2002-05, Richt went 44-9 with two SEC titles.
It’s far too early to project how Year Two of Miami’s Richt Era will go, but we know this: Miami will lose three starters on defense (cornerback Corn Elder and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter) and two on offense (right guard Danny Isidora and wide receiver Stacy Coley). Quarterback Brad Kaaya and tight end David Njoku could declare for the NFL draft, but they have not decided. Richt said he would meet with them between the end of the regular season and Miami’s bowl game.
Among the enticing pieces returning: a full linebacker two-deep including starters Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud; a full group of defensive linemen including Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh; star wide receiver Ahmmon Richards and 1,000-yard running back Mark Walton, three offensive linemen in their third years starting. Miami also hopes to sign a top-15 recruiting class.
Richt was asked Sunday how his first Georgia team compares to his first group of Hurricanes.
“I’ll just say I feel like we’re going to compete very well in the future,” he said. “In that way, there’s some similarities.”