An inside look at how the Miami Hurricanes weathered Hurricane Irma

Running back Mark Walton runs toward the practice field on Sunday. (Matt Porter/The Palm Beach Post)

[UM returns to practice post-Irma with questions]

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Miami isn’t home, but at least, there’s green grass, whistles blowing and footballs flying.

Miami isn’t home, but at last, they’re practicing again.

After a 10-day break caused by Hurricane Irma, all players and coaches were present and accounted for Sunday — and that was no small victory.

The threat of Irma, one of the strongest storms on record, chased millions out of South Florida last week. Many UM athletes were among the refugees, scrambling with their families to ensure their safety, as well as eat well and stay in shape.

After such an ordeal, it’s impossible to know how the 14th-ranked Hurricanes will perform when they return to action Saturday against Toledo (3:30 p.m., ACC regional networks).

“It’s hard to say what it’s going to be like,” sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman said. “We don’t have time to think about what it’s going to be like.”

The last week and a half has been unlike anything UM players, coaches and staff members have experienced.

Some football players and many basketball players scattered to Atlanta. Some football players went further north. Some went to Jacksonville. Some remained in South Florida.

A couple went to California, at least one to North Carolina, one to Mississippi, and one — walk-on receiver Elias Lugo-Fagundo — returned home to Puerto Rico, to be with family on the storm-ravaged island.

When the campus closed and evacuated last Thursday, 20 football players, 15 more athletes from other sports and several coaches — including Mark Richt and his wife, Katharyn — took a 10-hour, overnight bus crawl to Orlando.

“I was in and out sleeping through the night, and it seemed like every time I woke up, we were sitting still,” Richt said.

That continued when the caravan reached Orlando. Richt said he was “sitting in the hotel, eating and watching The Weather Channel, just like everybody else.” Richt, who like most of Miami’s coaches lives near the water, said his home in Coconut Grove was not flooded, though some “water started rolling up the street.”

UM offered all athletes a spot in Orlando, and a bed in a hotel. About 80 athletes and 50 staff members showed up during the storm, UM Deputy Director of Athletics Jenn Strawley said.

“We wanted everyone to have time to get with their family and decide what was best for them,” Richt said.

Sophomore linebacker Zach McCloud, from Lantana, said he ate mostly “Nutri-Grain bars and apples” while riding out the storm at home. He stayed in shape by doing push-ups, chopping felled trees and hauling branches.

He saw an on-field analogue to that activity: “Lifting linemen and fullbacks out of the way to get to running backs,” he said.

Junior safety Jaquan Johnson went to Homestead to stay with his mother, where he “boarded up the house.” After Irma passed, he got a wood-based workout.

“The house is OK,” he said. “A couple trees knocked over, but for the most part it could have been worse. We’re blessed.”

Quarterman made the long drive home to Jacksonville, along with area natives Bradley Jennings and Derrick Smith, both freshmen defenders. “A lot of traffic,” he said, “but eventually I made it home.”

Left tackle Kc McDermott, from Wellington, said his family’s home lost power from Saturday to Wednesday, but after going through Hurricanes Jeanne, Frances and Wilma in 2004-05, they prepared well for Irma.

“It always helps to have a generator,” he said.

The team mandated each player make an action plan to escape the storm, and check in with his position coach. For all sports, Strawley said, “we had a spreadsheet of every player.”

McCloud said he “couldn’t reach anybody” during the storm, so he was glad Kerri Valot, the mother of sophomore running back Travis Homer, drove to his house to check on him.

By Saturday, every player on the football roster, including those who don’t typically travel to games, was at Hurricanes’ makeshift campus near Orlando: Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, an expansive, 220-acre property that had plenty of space to offer. They’re in Central Florida because many hotels back home are “used up,” Richt said, and the staff feels being on the road will help them refocus on the game.

This 21-day break between games is Miami’s longest since 1987, and that was a scheduling quirk, not a weather-related event.

They will practice there through Wednesday and return before Toledo visits Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ACC regional networks). The Rockets have a high-octane offense and a quarterback (Logan Woodside) who threw six touchdown passes last week.

One of UM’s first team activities in Orlando: watching Toledo beat Tulsa 54-51 last Saturday.

“They’ve got a really fast offense,” McDermott said. “Our defense will be ready for them.”

Quarterman, who said he “ran around my neighborhood” to stay in shape, tried to watch film “as the power was going in and out.”

His take on Toledo?

“They’re a really tough team to play, but they’re coming to Miami,” he said. “We’re going to give them a Miami welcome.”

Richt hopes his team will be fresh enough to do so.

“My goal when we got back started was to get these kids rest,” Richt said. “We needed rest, we needed nutrition, and then we needed to get back to focus on what we needed to do. To me, it’s dangerous to play football if your mind is somewhere else. … This is like going away to camp before the season begins.”

But the challenges may be greater than early-camp rust.

While fleeing the storm, Richt said, players had difficulty conditioning and eating properly. The storm caused an overwhelming number of power outages and felled trees across South Florida, which in turn affected how South Florida ate. Restaurants and food stores that had power may have been tough to access because of road conditions. Some who stayed, Richt said, “quite frankly, didn’t have a whole lot to eat for a day or two.”

Saturday and Sunday’s practices were shortened and heavy on conditioning. Players are regaining their strength and their wind, but returning to football shape is another matter.

“You’ve got to get used to contact again,” Richt said. “We’ve got to get used to tackling again, blocking again, being in the kind of condition you need to be in to play in the heat and humidity that we play in.”

A good sign: Friday and Saturday, Richt said, “they ran better than I thought they would.” He hopes they can practice full-speed by Tuesday.

At this point in the season, coaches typically have a handle on what their team can do, its strengths and weaknesses.

UM’s staff has been scrambling to get a grip.

“I know they’ll go hard” when they return to game action, Richt said. “But I don’t know how long we can go hard.”

* Richt said wide receiver Ahmmon Richards (hamstring) was unlikely to play against Arkansas State, but “has a much better chance” of facing Toledo.

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