The 2017 Miami Hurricanes were very good. The 2018 team hopes to be great

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt observes the team during warmups before the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Saturday, December 30, 2017. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

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MIAMI GARDENS — Players know it, and in the locker room after the Orange Bowl, some expressed it.

They underestimated Pitt, couldn’t share the stage with Clemson, were a notch below Wisconsin. They know Florida State — which unlike that trio, they beat — was down this year.

The 2017 Hurricanes were very good, but not great. After finishing 10-3 with three straight losses, there will be soul-searching. But Miami felt this season was more evidence they’re on the right path.

“I told the defensive players, can you imagine two years ago, this team wins 10 games and we end up disappointed?” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “But what we saw was Wisconsin is an elite team. Clemson is an elite team and we can play with those guys but we’ve got to do a few more things to really compete at this level. I think we responded better tonight than in Charlotte, so I think there is some learning with that.”

The Canes lacked the depth and maturity needed to compete with the best programs in the land. Injuries – to star tailback Mark Walton, receiver Ahmmon Richards and tight end Chris Herndon – hurt the offense, as did inconsistent blocking and shaky quarterback play. A high-caliber defense was asked to get too many stops, and faltered down the stretch.

“We had a great start. We had a crazy season,” sophomore defensive end Joe Jackson said. “The way we ended, it’s not what you want for your program. It’s something in the back of our minds. We’re focused to come in with an edge next year.”

Expectations will always be high in Miami, and this season gave thirsty fans a taste of the sweet success that was once so familiar. Mark Richt wants to be in the College Football Playoff conversation for longer than a month. He wants people talking about the Canes every weekend.

“We will get better,” Richt said. “I can promise you that.”

That means competition in his offseason program, which begins in a couple weeks, and in spring drills. UM will be looking for answers at quarterback, tight end and along both lines, especially if starting tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton turn pro. During the early signing period Dec. 20-22, UM landed all but a few players of what could be a top-5 recruiting class. The traditional national signing day is Feb. 7, and more talent could be coming.

Players like Jackson, safety Jaquan Johnson, linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, and running backs Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas will be key players for next year’s team. In March, spring drills will feature a hot competition for the quarterback spot, as Malik Rosier tries to hold off redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry and incoming freshman Jarren Williams. In recruiting, UM upgraded in a major way at running back, fullback, receiver, tight end, offensive line and in the secondary. The team that takes the field against LSU next Sept. 2 will undoubtedly be deeper and more talented.

“I think we have unfinished business,” Johnson said. “I want to get my degree and win a national championship with my brothers.”

As the calendar turns to 2018, Miami salutes seniors like Braxton Berrios, who had 55 catches – more than his first three years combined – 679 yards and nine touchdowns and was ultra-reliable as a punt returner. They’ll toast to Herndon, a versatile weapon at tight end; to happy-go-lucky kicker Michael Badgley, UM’s all-time leading scorer (403 points); and to durable offensive linemen Kc McDermott and Trevor Darling. Canes coaches sang the praises of heart-and-soul defensive end Chad Thomas (team-high 12.5 tackles for loss), the eternally underrated Trent Harris (team-high 8.5 sacks), reserve tackle Anthony Moten and one-year cornerback Dee Delaney. They’ll miss Walton, the passionate, productive tailback who declared for the draft.

Miami’s 2014 signing class improved in went 6-7 in their first season, and endured an 8-5 season and coaching change in 2015. In Richt’s first year, they went 9-4, won UM’s first bowl game since 2006 and finished in the top 20 for the first time since 2009. This year, they continued UM’s longest winning streak since 2000-02 (15 games), reached 10 wins and the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2003, reached the ACC Championship for the first time since joining the league in 2004.

Clear progress this year, and clear motivation for the next.

“I’m proud of the way we turned this program around and reestablished The U,” McDermott said. “I want the young guys to understand they’ve got to keep working hard. Just because you won the Coastal this year, made it to the ACC championship game and the Orange Bowl doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to keep winning.”

 

 

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