CORAL GABLES — Travis Homer may not be the most accomplished ball-carrier in Saturday’s game. Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall, a junior, turned heads in his team’s season-opening loss to Tennessee when he set school records for most rushing touchdowns (five), carries (44) and rushing yards by a quarterback (249).
Marshall is making his first start on the road, running coach Paul Johnson‘s tricky option offense. But Homer will be in a brighter spotlight.
He is now the No. 1 running back for Miami, and his good health and high performance are critical if the 11th-ranked Hurricanes (4-0, 2-0 ACC) are to challenge for the ACC Championship. The long-held goal of a Coastal Division crown and title-game appearance in Charlotte seemed to take a hit Sunday when star junior Mark Walton was ruled out for the season with surgery on his right ankle.
Not if Homer, a sophomore from Oxbridge Academy, has anything to say about it.
That’s metaphorical, mind you. Homer is the “let his play speak for him” type.
“I just know I need to step up to the position,” he said.
It has been a season of firsts for Homer, who mainly served as a special-teams ace last year as a freshman.
He rushed for a career-high 103 yards on 11 carries against FCS Bethune-Cookman, scored the first two touchdowns of his career the following game against Toledo, and posted a career-long, 40-yard rushing touchdown Sept. 29 against Duke.
He played 18 of 76 snaps at Florida State, including the final 11. He was on the field for UM’s winning scoring drive, rushing for back-to-back first downs to get the Hurricanes in scoring territory and helping block for quarterback Malik Rosier.
Now, he’ll be UM’s lead back, with redshirt junior Trayone Gray (35 touches in three seasons), true freshman DeeJay Dallas (a converted receiver who has been mostly a special-teamer) and junior Crispian Atkins (a walk-on) competing for backup reps. True freshman Robert Burns, struggling with injuries, remains on scout team.
The Hurricanes’ running game also includes Rosier (126 yards, two touchdowns on 37 carries), who can pick up a first down with his legs.
In Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-0 ACC), the 11th-ranked Hurricanes (4-0, 2-0) may be without starting right guard Navaughn Donaldson (right ankle sprain), who didn’t practice Tuesday. Richt called him “questionable.” He didn’t address the status of star wideout Ahmmon Richards (hamstring), cornerback Dee Delaney (right knee) and safety Sheldrick Redwine (undisclosed). Wide receiver Braxton Berrios was limited because he was “sore,” Richt said, after an exhaustive effort against FSU.
Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Thomas Brown said Homer is in “phenomenal shape” and ready to handle the workload. He called him “tough and physical” and said he pays attention to details, like pass-protection.
Gray, who missed last year with an ACL tear, has “earned the right,” Brown said. “He’s looking better than he’s ever looked, which in some ways kind of makes you mad a little bit. … He’s a (6-foot-2 and) 235-pound man who can move really fast when he wants to.” Gray (four carries, 34 yards this year) has seen most of his action late in September blowouts.
UM’s coaching staff expects Homer to take on Walton’s workload — about 15 carries per game, dating back to last year’s 1,117-yard, 14-touchdown season — so they have reduced his special teams duties.
That didn’t go over well against Florida State.
“We’re trying to give him a break,” coach Mark Richt recalled, and Homer told coaches, “‘No, I’m covering this kick,'” Richt said. “Homer is one of those kind of guys.” The staff named Homer, who made one solo tackle, its special teams player of the game. Going forward, instead of both kick and punt coverage and return teams, he will now serve on kick and punt coverage.
As a rusher, Homer, listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, likes to “lower his shoulder,” linebacker Shaq Quarterman said, rather than dance around opponents.
“He’s not small,” Quarterman said. “But he runs big.”
What has Homer shown coaches so far?
“I hope I’ve shown them I’m ready to come do what I need to do,” he said.
Brown said he’s quiet with the media, but not in the meeting room.
“He doesn’t get nervous. If he does, he does a great job of disguising it,” Brown said. “On the field, he’s a different guy.”
His new role dictates he may need to be more of a presence.
“I haven’t been too vocal in the past,” he said, “But I’m going to try.”
“Travis is a very serious young man,” Richt said, calling him fast, “agile,” “tough” and “smart” with “a lot of stamina.”
“He takes practices very serious,” Richt said. “He takes his assignments very serious. He’s very businesslike. He knows what to do, he knows how to do it.”
He has said similar about Walton, who was arguably UM’s best all-around player and now faces months of rehabilitation for an unspecified injury.
“Mark’s doing good. He’s in high spirits,” senior left tackle Kc McDermott said. “He’s such a leader on this team. You can see it in the way he runs and all the passion that he has and the way he does everything on and off the field. He’s a complete package as a human being and a running back.”
It’s a difficult assignment, but Quarterman said Homer has “taken it with honor.”
“I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do, stepping into Mark’s shoes,” Quarterman said. “He’s a great athlete. We all believe he can do it. He’s doing the work. We’re all behind him.”
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