They came to Miami like every freshman class comes to Miami: with big dreams and ideas, none weightier than rebuilding the once-great ‘U.’
Many were raised as Hurricanes fans. But they had little first-hand knowledge of the program’s greatness. They learned of it through stories, documentaries and YouTube clips.
This group of seniors, which signed in 2014, was of kindergarten age when Miami last won a national title. But they didn’t listen to recruiters from other programs who told them that the Canes, in the middle of an NCAA mess, were headed for even darker days.
They dealt with scholarship sanctions, the worst loss in program history, a coaching change and all kinds of ugliness swirling around the team. As they head into their final home game, noon Saturday against Virginia (ABC), they reflected with pride.
“I think about it every day,” said defensive end Chad Thomas, a five-star recruit in 2014. “You know, when I got to the ‘U’ it wasn’t so good. You know, still under probation and everything. Now where we’re at, I just got to thank God for it.”
This season, third-ranked Miami (9-0, 6-0 ACC) snapped its seven-game losing streak to Florida State, won the ACC Coastal Division, and earned revenge for all four games it lost last year. But there are plenty of bars left to clear.
A win Saturday would make 10, a mark Miami hasn’t hit since 2003. Only six Hurricanes teams have finished the regular season unbeaten: 2002, 2001, 1992, 1991, 1987 and 1986. Wins over Virginia, and Pittsburgh next Friday, would put the 2017 team in that elite company.
But why stop there?
Beating Clemson on Dec. 2 in Charlotte, winning the program’s first ACC title and reaching the College Football Playoff is the next bar to clear. The five-time national champions haven’t won it all since 2001.
That’s the way to go out.
“I don’t want to leave without it,” said wide receiver Braxton Berrios, who is motivated to “return Miami to where it should be. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve always been here. That’s why I always wanted to come to Miami.”
Left tackle Kc McDermott of Palm Beach Central High, whose brother Shane (2010-14) was UM’s starting center, refused to listen to those who told him he was making a mistake by staying home.
“It proves that we don’t quit,” he said. “There were plenty of times, and I’m sure people can look back to our sophomore year when we played (and lost 58-0 to) Clemson, and thought that senior class isn’t going to do anything. We came out this season and said, ‘Let’s prove people wrong and go win some games.'”
His father, Randy, hopes fans show up early — a senior-day program begins at 11:30 a.m. — to offer a salute.
“We’re going to miss it,” he said. “Super proud of the boys, proud and excited for the seniors. They had the courage to commit to Miami during a down time, basically going into probation. We had other coaches tell us that Miami wouldn’t play football anymore, that they were going to face some serious penalty. When you think back to that, the seniors that are left had a great deal of courage to ignore that and go with their hearts.
“What’s happened this year is a very fitting reward for them.”
Of the 27 players who signed in 2014, about half (14) remain. Others left mostly because of transfers, dismissals, injury, or greener NFL pastures. No one from the 21-member 2013 signing class, who would be redshirt seniors, is still around.
“We really committed to the ‘U,'” said Thomas, from Miami’s Booker T. Washington High. “And you committed to the plan that each coach came in and gave us. Since I’ve been out here, I’ve had three D-line coaches so you just commit to what the coach is doing. You know, be coachable. You see where we made it. We made it here.”
Saturday is a celebration of four-year players like McDermott, Thomas and Berrios, who blossomed under Mark Richt’s coaching staff. Of kicker Michael Badgley, the happy-go-lucky holder of UM’s all-time field goal record (74 makes). Of quietly productive tight end Chris Herndon (a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, his position’s highest honor), defensive end Trent Harris, left guard Trevor Darling and defensive tackle Anthony Moten. They will run through the smoke for the final time.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Berrios, from Raleigh, N.C. “I say it and people say it to me and it registers but it doesn’t. I truly don’t know what it’s going to feel like — at least, very bittersweet. I’m not ready to be done here.”
This is their last regular-season game at Hard Rock Stadium, where they are 20-5 in the last four seasons. If they go all the way, they could have up to four games after that.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Badgley, from Summit, N.J. “We just want to keep going and have some more fun.”