BOCA RATON — University of Miami coach Mark Richt said he expects receiver Ahmmon Richards to be fully fit by the fall following an injury-shortened sophomore season.
“He’s going to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go by the time the fall rolls around and we hope and expect big things from him,” Richt said Wednesday morning at the YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s 16th annual Inspiration Breakfast at the Office Depot Global Headquarters.
Richards set a school freshman record with 934 receiving yards but was limited to 439 yards last year because of hamstring, ankle, Achilles and knee injuries.
“He was battling injuries all year last year, even when he was in there,” Richt said. “He just never seemed to be 100 percent. He gave us all he could and we were as patient as we could be.”
Richt expects a huge contribution from Richards in 2018.
“If he just plays normal for him, he’ll be one of the best receivers in America,” Richt said. “He’s that talented.”
“He’s been an inspiration to me in how he’s handled everything,” Richt, the University of Miami football coach, said of Kelly, 58. “He doesn’t ask for pity, but he does ask for prayers, because he knows (the power of faith). That’s what’s most important right now.”
Richt discussed Kelly’s health to reporters following his keynote speech for the YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s 16th annual Inspiration Breakfast at the Office Depot Global Headquarters.
During his speech, Richt said that in his younger days, he referred to Kelly as “Lucky Jim” for having won the starting job at UM. The nickname became a joke, of course, because Kelly went on to become a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
“In my story, he’s Lucky Jim, but he hasn’t had a lot of luck with what’s happening with his cancer and even the things that happened with his young child, Hunter,” Richt said, referring to Kelly’s son, who died of Krabbe disease, a degenerative disorder, at age 8 in 2005. “But part of my talk was about faith and Jim’s faith is very strong. (Wife) Jill’s faith is very strong and they truly trust God with this thing.”
Richt added, “When you know where you’re going and you know who you belong to, you can have peace in the toughest times and I don’t think Jim would mind me mentioning that.”
BOCA RATON — When they introduced Mark Richt as the keynote speaker at the 16th annual YMCA Inspiration Breakfast, they ran down his list of accomplishments — the number of games he has won, his coach of the year honors, how often his teams have finished in the top 10.
Then it was Richt’s turn at the microphone, and considering he was speaking at the Office Depot Global Headquarters, just up the road from his childhood home, the memories came rushing back of his long road to his current position as football coach at the University of Miami.
Only they weren’t exactly the kind of memories you’d expect.
There was the time he got fired from one job. And the time he got fired from another. And another and another, with each failure punctuated not with regret, but a self-deprecating wisecrack.
And that was just his efforts to find his place in the real world. As a quarterback, he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, cheated out of his dream by guys with names like Jim Kelly, John Elway and Dan Marino — or as Richt likes to call them, “Lucky.”
Why, it got so bad that at one point, even Richt’s agent wanted nothing to do with him.
“True story,” Richt said. “I was fired from my agent.”
That, too, drew laughs, with some in the audience undoubtedly wondering when he’d get to the part when, rather than making sure the door didn’t hit him on the way out, he was kicking it open on the way in.
It was about the time he was scrubbing down Rhett Butler’s bar in Delray Beach — the coveted 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift — that he decided to write to coaches asking for a chance. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden hired him as a graduate assistant, but not for the usual reasons.
“I found out later, because the arch enemy of Florida State is Miami, he figured I knew the Miami system and I might have a Miami playbook and if I came and brought my Miami playbook, maybe it could help them beat Miami,” Richt said. “So Coach Bowden, the first day I met him when I got on campus, he said, ‘You got that playbook, Buddy?’ I said, ‘No, sir. They don’t let us keep them.’ And he looked so sad. So I’m thinking I’m about to get fired, right now. I was thinking quick. I said, ‘Coach, I got it all right here,’ ” and pointed to his temple. “So I survived Day 1.”
Bowden later inspired Richt to become a born-again Christian, far removed from the “cocky jerk, truthfully,” he was at Boca Raton High. When Richt committed to the Hurricanes, he was certain he’d be starting as a freshman, would be a star within a year or two, and bolt for the pros. But one day he was in then-coach Lou Saban’s office and glanced at a newspaper that reported UM also was landing a Pennsylvania kid named Jim Kelly. He quizzed Saban, who had been assuring Richt that he was the only QB they were pursuing.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Somebody’s got to back you up,’ ” Richt said.
“My whole life, my whole identity, was football. But what happened was Jim Kelly started living my life. He’s the one who started as a freshman. He’s the one that became All-American. He’s the one that became the first-round draft pick. … He was lucky.”
Richt ended up signing a free-agent contract with the Broncos. The ink hadn’t dried when Richt saw a news flash on the TV in his Denver hotel room.
“Here comes Lucky John Elway,” Richt joked.
Richt was so naive, he didn’t know what it meant when a few days into practice, he was told coach Dan Reeves needed to see him and he should bring his playbook.
“Dan Reeves proceeds to cut me and I broke down crying, I’ll be honest with you,” Richt said. “And then Coach Reeves started crying a little bit with me. I was the first guy that got cut that year. He goes, ‘I hate this part of my job.’ ”
Heading out of the elevator, bags in hand, “snot bubble still on my face,” Richt encountered veterans who were just arriving, one of whom looked in wonderment and said, “Dang, man, you got cut already?”
Thus began a recurring chore when he arrived home. He’d pick up The Boca News, check the want ads, and take the first reasonable thing that came along. The gig as an insurance agent wasn’t bad until the day he arrived to find crime tape lining the parking lot and his boss getting handcuffed and hauled off. “So that was the end of my insurance career.”
He sold gym memberships. Parked cars at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, which had him dashing to the parking lot to retrieve so many vehicles for $5 tips that he knew he was in great shape, so he managed a free-agent deal with the Dolphins.
“I hung around like a month,” Richt said. “It was amazing.”
Then Don Shula told him he’d rather have Marino, Don Strock and Jim “Crash” Jensen as his quarterbacks.
“What do you think I called Dan Marino?” Richt joked. “Lucky Dan Marino. I think I was the fourth-best quarterback in the world. I just never got my chance.”
He picked up The Boca News. Got hired as a bartender. Got fired as a bartender.
Finally, Bowden opened the door to a whole different world.
All Richt had to do was not get fired his first day.
FORT LAUDERDALE — The puns and metaphors don’t require much thought. They virtually write themselves when it comes to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.
Here’s a guy who almost didn’t wind up in Madison. Because he seriously considered going to Harvard. He’s a big admirer of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He sheepishly admits he just received a telescope, the ideal Christmas gift for a guy who wants to go into astronomy and physics.
Now add that to the fact that Taylor finished fourth in the nation — as a freshman — with 1,847 rushing yards.
So if you want to talk about a guy on a meteoric rise, a shooting star, a guy who constantly in need of space or whatever other parallels there are, have at it.
All the University of Miami Hurricanes care about is whether they can bring him back down to earth in Saturday’s Orange Bowl, when all eyes will be on No. 23.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Hurricanes defensive lineman Joe Jackson said. “So if you don’t wrap up, we’re going to look like idiots.”
Taylor is a 5-foot-11, 214-pounder from Salem High in New Jersey who has made plenty of opponents look something other than smart for years. In high school, he had 4,642 career rushing yards and 51 touchdowns. He was the state 100-meter champion. Plenty of recruits have those kind of credentials, and even Wisconsin wasn’t sure what it was getting until his senior season of high school football rolled around and the “stuff” he was putting on film, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said, “was ridiculous.
“So coming in, you felt good.”
After a few plays in the team scrimmage, Rudolph felt more than good.
“He made a play on a screen pass, he made a play on an outside zone,” Rudolph said. Right then, the coaches knew Taylor was not redshirt material.
“You’re like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get this guy ready to go,’ ” Rudolph said.
You’ll never get Taylor to admit he too had visions of an extraordinary year.
“My expectations were just to be ready if or when my number was called,” Taylor said.
Ask about his staggering rushing total or his 6.8 average or 13 touchdowns and he’ll go on and on about his linemen, the defense, his coaches — everything but himself.
“I know what got me here,” he said.
Said Michael Deiter, one of his blockers: “It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here, if this is where he starts.”
Whether Taylor’s eventual future is in pro football is a long way off. He said he chose Wisconsin over Harvard because of the balance between athletics and academics. He’s an honor roll student hungry to learn more about the unknown.
“It’s definitely going to be tough, dealing with the academics, but that’s one thing that I wanted,” Taylor said.
He’s intrigued by deGrasse Tyson, saying, “I just respect the way that he talks about space and his studies. He talks about it not as ‘I know this’ or ‘I know that,’ but, ‘This is exciting’ and ‘This is what I love to do.’ So I really love his passion about it.”
The Hurricanes have had plenty of studying to do, too, and have been impressed with Taylor’s speed and ability to run through tackles.
“Speed vs. power,” UM linebacker Shaq Quarterman said. “I think we’ve got the upper hand. I mean, speed — I think speed has been known to always win. But even with the way we play against the run, and the way that they run the ball, it’s going to be a battle.”
Whether UM can keep Taylor grounded will go a long way toward determining the Orange Bowl champion.
“I don’t think it’s a secret: They’re going to run it,” UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Everyone knows it. You’ve got to stop the run, but it’s easier said than done. But you’ve got to love doing it because it’s going to happen over and over again.”
Taylor takes a philosophical look at the matchup, recognizing that both teams are coming off disappointing results in their conference championship games.
“We know that this is going to be a home game for them, so they’re going to be fired up,” Taylor said. “They’re coming off a big loss; we’re coming off a big loss. So they’re definitely going to come out swinging, just like us, to prove themselves and end up right.”
FORT LAUDERDALE — When trying to determine his career path, University of Miami safety Jaquan Johnson took a cue from someone once in his shoes.
And not a bad person to take a cue from at that.
“I’m not going to compare my years to Ed Reed, or how Ed Reed came back, but I thought about that,” Johnson said Wednesday in confirming he will return for his senior year. “That was a big part of it.”
Johnson was freshly minted as the Hurricanes’ MVP with a junior season in which he led the Hurricanes in tackles with 85 and had four interceptions, four pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.
Reed played four seasons at UM, returning for a senior season in which he had a career-high nine interceptions. And it paid off as he was selected 24th overall by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002 to begin a Hall of Fame career.
UM’s losses to Pittsburgh and Clemson may have a long-range benefit for UM, because Johnson said he’s “wanting to finish the season on a high note my senior year.”
Johnson said he had gotten an earful of advice along the way, including many who said he should go pro.
“I could sort of sense it in people’s voice, that they wanted me to just leave, but I make my own decisions,” he said. “My dad taught me that. My mom taught me that. They tell me to make my own decisions. I knew I would do four years as soon as I came here and I’m going to get my degree and play for a national championship.”
As you’d expect, UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is delighted with the decision.
“That’s great to hear as a coach,” Diaz said. “I think what coach (Mark) Richt is trying to do is you want to build a program where the players want to stay. I think Jaquan loves Miami. I think he loves our program and where it’s going and wants to be a part of it.”
FORT LAUDERDALE — We’ve all known about The Rock. And Michael Irvin. And Ed Reed, who was on the UM sideline Saturday night.
In addition to longtime Hurricanes supporters, it seems the University of Miami football team is getting bandwagon fans from unexpected places.
The latest to climb aboard? Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake.
Or should we say former Alabama running back Kenyan Drake?
“I can be whatever I want to be,” Drake said of his split fandom.
It’s significant, of course, because Alabama and Miami are contending for the national championship. The latest College Football Playoff rankings have the Crimson Tide No. 1 and the Hurricanes No. 3 behind Clemson. There’s still a long way to go — and there can be no doubt where Drake’s loyalties would ultimately fall should it come down to Alabama and UM — but still.
“I’m a Hurricane fan, too,” Drake said. “So I’m down here in Miami. It is what it is.”
Drake spoke after going through the checkout line at a Publix in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday night at the 15th annual “Kids and Fins Shopping Spree.” Current and past Dolphins took 125 students from the tri-county area to shop for Thanksgiving meals.
Hard Rock Stadium’s season-long battle for a decent playing surface paid off Saturday night as the University of Miami mowed down Notre Dame 41-8 on what looked like pristine grass on national television.
The Hard Rock field had taken a beating from both players and the media all fall, causing the grounds crew to re-sod multiple times. Last week, analyst Phil Simms blasted the playing conditions on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.” It became a source of frustration for the Dolphins, who recently changed vendors in an effort to get higher-quality grass that was properly treated to quickly take root.
Those efforts paid off Saturday as the field bordered on a putting-green feel before the game and hardly a divot was kicked up once the Hurricanes kicked it into high gear.
The Dolphins will give the grass a stiff test Nov. 19 when Tampa Bay visits for a makeup game from the opening weekend when Hurricane Irma struck. The reason it will be a good test: UM plays Virginia at Hard Rock the day before.
At least by midnight Saturday night, the field looked just fine.
MIAMI GARDENS — It’s not enough that the University of Miami keeps swiping the ball from opponents. It’s not enough to see the turnover chain getting passed around faster than a baton in a relay race. It’s not enough that Ed Reed is hanging around all week and letting everybody know how big-time players show up in big-time games.
No. This has to be done with a certain panache, just like the old University of Miami teams did it.
And so, by the time the deafening noise inside sold-out Hard Rock Stadium was history and the No. 7 Hurricanes had blown out No. 3 Notre Dame 41-8, all that was left was to learn how this night was even more perfect than it appeared.
By late in the first half, if there was any doubt where this thing was headed, freshman Trajan Bandy returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown and a pinch-yourself 27-0 lead. Given the final score and that it was just one of four interceptions by UM, it could have gotten lost in the shuffle.
But here’s the thing: The play was by special request from one UM coach. And it was predicted by another coach over the headsets just seconds before it occurred.
Apparently, when you’re completing your fourth consecutive game with at least four takeaways, things like this happen.
Coach Mark Richt, who calls UM’s plays, normally is on the offensive coaches’ line on his headset but happened to flip his switch to eavesdrop on the defensive guys just before the play.
“Trajan’s going to intercept this pass,” Richt heard those coaches say.
“And lo and behold … ,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “But the credit goes to Mark, because Mark walked into our defensive staff room during the week and said, ‘Isn’t it about time you guys score on defense?’ And I told him, ‘You know how hard it is to go all this way and not score on purpose, just to save it for a big game like this?’
“So really, Mark gets the credit for reminding us to score.”
Who could blame the Hurricanes for feeling giddy? Notre Dame came in averaging 41.3 points and 324.8 rushing yards per game. It left with 109 rushing yards, averaging 3.0 per carry (well under its 7.0 average) and with 261 total yards, narrowly averting a shutout. Against an offensive line that has NFL scouts hovering every week, the Hurricanes had nine tackles for 29 yards in losses.
“I knew it was going to be magical,” said linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who had five tackles. “That’s exactly what it was.”
In the end, it was hard to decipher what was more impressive: UM’s run defense or its pass defense. The four interceptions led to 24 points.
“They were struggling blocking our guys,” Richt said.
“I think they took offense to the assertion that we would have a hard time stopping the run game,” Diaz said. “I think that’s where it all began. I think early on, that was what set the tone, making us hard to run on. It’s always a formula — make it hard to run on, force the quarterback into making mistakes, and that’s what happened.”
It’s not anything pro football fans in Baltimore didn’t get used to back when Reed and another ex-Hurricane, Ray Lewis, were running the show for the Ravens. Reed attended practice last week and delivered a speech to the team Friday night. On Saturday night, he was right there on UM’s sideline, egging on players and fans to keep this thing rolling.
“Ed Reed is standing there,” Diaz said. “How does that not make everyone want to improve their play?”
By now, the nation has figured out that as soon as UM grabs a takeaway, out comes the “turnover chain,” a gaudy, 5 1/2-pound, 10-karat gold chain that has proven to be nothing short of a stroke of genius by Diaz. The Irish began the night with those gold helmets polished to a blinding luster, but the Hurricanes still shined brightest. Jonathan Garvin, another freshman, had an interception. Jacquan Johnson, who led UM with eight tackles, grabbed one. Malek Young? Step right up and claim yours.
“I think most people see our kids are just having fun with it,” Richt said of the chain. “They’re not trying to be anything but enjoying, celebrating something. People have a different way to celebrate a turnover. We’re not the first ones to do that. We’ve just got the best one.”
Diaz, a native Miamian who grew up seeing the Hurricanes beating a lot of teams by four touchdowns, will take it.
“To me, national order is restored,” he said. “This is the way a Saturday night in Miami should be.”
CORAL GABLES — The fans are fired up for UM-Notre Dame. The players are fired up, too. But, Hurricanes left tackle Kc McDermott was asked, how can this be a rivalry when these teams no longer meet regularly? When the Hurricanes and Irish have played only four times in the past 27 years?
Faced with blasphemy, McDermott could hardly contain himself.
“There’s absolutely a rivalry,” McDermott said. “This is Miami-Notre Dame, dude. They did a ’30 for 30’ about this. This is a rivalry — there’s no questions about it.”
McDermott is right, dude. ESPN did do a “30 for 30” special on this rivalry entitled “Catholics vs. Convicts,” and if you’re too young to recall the meaning behind that phrase, just know that the Hurricanes weren’t the guys with the more flattering label of the two. And you should also know that to hype Saturday night’s UM-Notre Dame game at Hard Rock Stadium, ESPN is replaying that special so many times this week, you can’t avoid it regardless of how many Hail Marys you say.
UM offensive coordinator Thomas Brown will try. Having arrived at UM last season, he’s new to this rivalry but not ignorant to it. Although he managed to avoid mentioning the “convict” label specifically, he made it clear how much he takes exception to any derogatory terms about his players.
“I get irritated hearing some comments that people make about our players, historically, our players, currently, using the words like ‘thug,’ ” Brown said. “That’s idiotic people. You don’t know our kids at all. Because they enjoy it, they show up and have a good time in a respectful way. We don’t get flags. We don’t do disrespectful stuff outside the football field. Judge us by that, instead of giving your own notion about what you think a thug is — because I could direct your attention toward the true thugs around this country that aren’t our guys at all.”
Catholics vs. Convicts traces back to the heated 1988 meeting of these teams, when T-shirts with that slogan became a hot item in South Bend. The Irish won that meeting 31-30 but emotions ran so high that the schools decided to wipe the series from their schedules following the 1990 game.
At the time, no one would have questioned whether this was a rivalry. The schools had met for 14 straight years starting in 1972 and by the late ‘80s, the games were carrying extra meaning, not just in Indiana and Florida, but nationally.
UM coach Mark Richt needs no history lesson. He was a UM quarterback starting in 1978 and on Tuesday recalled memories of the rivalry.
Or at least he tried to.
“That’s a long time ago, when I was a player,” Richt said. “I got my heart broken in South Bend one time. Well, actually, one time I went there and got knocked out.”
Richt stayed upright for his final game in South Bend as a player. Not that he came away with a memory any more pleasant than before. Rather than a KO, Richt suffered something more akin to a 15-round split-decision defeat, 16-14.
“I think Blair Kiel was the quarterback and had, I think, a last-minute drive to set them in field-goal range to beat us. … Had a chance to win it. I remember checking to a quarterback sneak on third or fourth down and getting stuffed and gave them the ball and they got a chance to go down and score.”
That is how it played out. The Irish’s defensive alignment baited Richt into calling the audible. At the last second, the Irish defense shifted, which didn’t afford Richt a chance to kill the sneak call. Next thing Richt knew, Kiel was driving Notre Dame to the Miami 15, setting up the winning kick with 11 seconds left.
Today’s Hurricanes know little about those details. This is a need-to-know business, and with so many Hurricanes alums popping into town for this one, the most-pressing fact is being drilled into these Hurricanes.
“Once a Cane, always a Cane,” linebacker Shaq Quarterman said. “I know they’re looking down at us. Ed Reed was out here today, just watching practice. It’s a Canes family. So whenever it comes to Florida State or even the Fighting Irish, we have to win.”
Reed addressed some defensive players, so Brown wasn’t in the room to hear him speak. He didn’t need to be to know if the alums are “educating” the current players on the idea that Miami isn’t permitted to lose to Notre Dame.
“I can’t say personally I heard anybody say that,” Brown joked, “but I would doubt they didn’t mention a few words here or there.”
It’s a rivalry of streaks, like the 11 straight the Irish won from 1972-80, Miami’s four straight and six of eight starting in 1981, and Notre Dame’s current four in a row, including 30-27 last year in South Bend.
“It’s not a lot of great feelings between the two teams historically,” Brown said. “And I understand that. I understand why. But it’s a great matchup, two great football teams that take great pride in their programs.”