CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mark Walton has a sense — several senses, actually — that this could be the year Miami finally lives up to the billing.
“I can smell it,” said Walton, the Hurricanes’ junior running back. “I see guys and hear guys that want to be great.”
They had a taste of success last year, going 9-4 and finishing with the No. 20 ranking in coach Mark Richt‘s first season. With a 1,117-yard, 14-touchdown rusher in Walton, a 934-yard receiver in Ahmmon Richards and a potentially dominant defense, they feel like they have what it takes to win the ACC Coastal Division. Yes, even with the quarterback spot up for grabs.
“Everybody’s buying in,” Walton said. “Everybody’s doing what’s right. Everybody wants to bring that championship to Miami. I don’t see one guy lollygagging in the weight room.”
ACC KICKOFF 2017
Championship talk is familiar with this team, as are the results: no Hurricane has ever put his paws on an ACC title, and since joining the league in 2004, UM hasn’t played in the championship game. Miami hasn’t won 10 games since 2003, hasn’t worn the national crown since 2001.
Sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who like Walton represented the program at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte on Friday, sees incremental progress. Last year, UM had its first nine-win season since 2013 and won its first bowl since 2006.
“We’re getting one step closer each year,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
Winning the Coastal is the next box to check, and that would likely put the Hurricanes in a rematch with rival Florida State — its Sept. 16 opponent — or fellow Atlantic Division powers Clemson or Louisville. To get there, they’ll need another monster season from Walton, last year’s team MVP. The Miami-Booker T. Washington grad would like to repeat that honor, along with two modest personal goals he shared Friday.
“I want to become a more vocal leader, which I think I’ve been able to do that,” said Walton, who enters the year 13 touchdowns shy of UM’s all-time record (35, set by Stephen Maguire. “Another is lead the team in rushing yards. I want to get 1,500-plus.”
Achieving those goals would mean he stays healthy. Walton, who is 5-foot-9 and said he’s 206 pounds, was crabby in the spring about being “babied.” The reason Richt limited his carries in practices: UM has four scholarship backs, two of whom are coming off serious injuries.
“As I look back on it now, it was the right decision,” said Walton, who also holds a key special-teams role. “I’m probably not going to be subbed out a lot. I’ve got to get ready for that.”
It shouldn’t be too hard. He is used to carrying a heavy load.
Walton, one of six children, was raised by his mother for most of his childhood after his father, Mark Walton Sr., was murdered. His mother, Kimberly Rogers, died in March after a stroke. Walton also has a 5-month-old daughter, Ma’Lani Nicole, who lives with him and his girlfriend in an off-campus apartment. She was born weeks before his mother died, so she got to meet her grandmother.
“I’m proud of her,” said Walton, 20, who, like most new fathers, struggles to get a full night’s sleep. “She’s starting to figure things out. It’s like she’s trying to get in my brain. At nights she’ll be killing me. Waking up at 3 in the morning. She wants to lay on you.”
Fatherhood, he cracked, is “good, until she ‘No. 2s’ all over the place.”
“Once I’m done with school and practice, I go straight home to get that time with my daughter,” he said. “It’s something I used to do to get naps in, but now I’m with her. It’s worth it.”
Walton, who is studying criminology at UM, had on-field backup from juniors Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards last year, but both players left the program on their own accord. Since UM’s efforts to recruit a graduate transfer back were unsuccessful, it’s up to three unproven players — redshirt junior Trayone Gray, who missed last year with an ACL tear, along with sophomore Travis Homer and true freshman Robert Burns — to spell Walton in brief stretches.
Walton feels good about his backups. Gray, he said, is “quick, fast and explosive. He’s powerful. That’s how he can hurt teams.” Homer is “a great runner, a great blocker. He’s got to get his pads a little lower when he gets in the open field, to break tackles.” Burns, who missed the spring with a shoulder injury, is a bit of an unknown but is a well-built 5-11, 215. Then there’s true freshman DeeJay Dallas, who played receiver in the spring but has been training at running back. Richt said Dallas (5-10, 200) would be a fifth option, if needed.
They may only need No. 1.
“If you give Walton some space, he’s going to get you the yards a great back can get,” Richt said. “If you don’t get him some space, he’ll battle his butt off for 40 or 50 yards.”
Richt doesn’t expect to name Brad Kaaya‘s successor at quarterback until after the second scrimmage of camp, which begins Aug. 1. Walton isn’t worried about opponents putting him in cross-hairs.
“They can game-plan for me. We’ve got dangerous receivers on the outside,” Walton said, name-checking Richards, “Braxton Berrios, two young freshmen [Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley] who are doing pretty good,” he said. “We’ve got Dayall Harris and Lawrence Cager [missed 2016 with ACL surgery] coming back.” He feels the offensive line, which returns seniors and juniors and adds standout freshman Navaughn Donaldson, has improved plenty. UM also one of the ACC’s top tight ends in senior Chris Herndon.
Pair that with a stout defense — which finished top-20 in a host of stat categories in 2016 and returns the most of the front seven — and the Hurricanes think their Coastal goals are within reach.
“Some people might think it’s a dream, because it’s never happened in 10 years. We don’t think it’s a dream,” Richt said. “We think it’s a real possibility, and we control that.
“Every year we’re going to expect to win it.”