In a perfect world, the Hurricanes would still be riding off the emotional highs of their 52-47 win over the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday afternoon. They’d be preparing for the first ACC Championship game in program history against hated rival Florida State.
Instead, the Canes will get a head start on the 2013 season.
With Miami’s 2012 season officially wrapped up, the team will now focus all its efforts on next season and beyond. The Hurricanes (7-5, 5-3 ACC) finished the regular season tied for first place atop the ACC Coastal Division with North Carolina, but Miami isn’t eligible for the championship game or a postseason bowl due to a self-imposed ban by the university.
Still, a season after being projected to finish fifth in the ACC – far behind other conference powerhouses – coach Al Golden sees the progress his team has made since the beginning of the year.
“I’m excited about moving forward. It was a little tenuous at the beginning there – you’re lining up a lot of young people, and it can get scary,” he said. “I’m proud of the way they held together. A lot of our upperclassmen really grew up and were leaders and embraced the young guys and developed a team unity and chemistry that could withstand the schedule we went through.”
Though the team is ineligible for postseason play, Golden mentioned how he regrets not being able to play in a championship game with quarterback Stephen Morris, who is coming off a 369-yard, three-touchdown performance against Duke. Morris finished the season with 3,345 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“We have maybe the hottest quarterback in America right now over the last four games. He’s white hot,” Golden said of Morris. “We would have had a chance to bring a hot quarterback into a championship game. He has been spectacular … I know he’s excited to come back and get all those wideouts and young guys, get them moving forward.”
With the team waiting for the NCAA to finish its investigation and dole out sanctions, it remains to be seen how much, if at all, the looming punishments will affect the team during the recruiting process. It is expected that the NCAA will enforce a scholarship reduction over the next few seasons to go along with the two bowl bans UM has already self-imposed.
The key, Golden said, remains honesty with potential recruits.
“I think they know exactly where they stand. If they’re looking for any disparity between what we’re saying and what we do, that’s being nullified by our current student-athletes,” he said. “I think they’re our greatest ambassadors. In a lot of ways, they are our litmus test, for, ‘Hey, what they said in recruiting actually happened.’”
One of the many storylines that played out during the past season was Miami’s defensive struggles. Inexperience and injury were the main detriments to the unit in 2012, as the defense ranked 84th in the nation in points allowed with a 30.5-point average.
Golden gave defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio a ringing endorsement, noting his previous track record at Temple University and the situation he was brought into this season.
“We’re going into the spring with all the same guys we just had. We’ll have symmetry finally after two years, which is something we haven’t had at all,” he said. “We had [cornerback] Brandon McGee backed up by someone coming out of high school. That’s not good business; it’s a hard position to play with the schedule we had. I have complete confidence in Mark, the defense and the young men on this team. We’re going to get it fixed and they’re going to go back to work.”
Amid rumors of his name being mentioned in other potential coaching opportunities around the country, Golden maintained his desire to stay in Miami and build the consistency the program has lacked over the past few years.
“I know my wife would cry if I said we were moving out of town,” he said. “I hope if that’s the case [his name being mentioned] it’s because of how we’re operating through a very tumultuous time, and how we’re being steadfast with our plan and not flinching. I hope people respect how we’re doing and how we’re going about it. I guess in that sense it’s flattering.”