Richt’s first season offers positive signs moving forward

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Junior tight end David Njoku (86) scores a touchdown during the third quarter of the football game against Duke at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday evening. The Canes finished their last home game 40-21. Hallee Meltzer // Photo Editor

Junior tight end David Njoku (86) scores a touchdown during the third quarter of the football game against Duke at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday evening. The Canes finished their last home game 40-21. Hallee Meltzer // Photo Editor

It’s that time of year: evaluation time. Miami football has just capped off its regular season with a record of 8-4, sandwiching a four-game losing streak between two four-game win streaks. As the team awaits its bowl game announcement, the question arises: Was this season a success or a failure?

Despite the team’s obvious inconsistency, to use either of those words to describe the Hurricanes season would be unfair. Considering all the changes that have been made to the program in the past year, it was a given from the start that Head Coach Mark Richt’s first coaching campaign with Miami was going to be one to feel things out and see where the football team stands as it begins to bring the U back to national prominence.

“Hopefully we just keep getting better,” Richt said. “There’s no reason to believe that we can’t become one of the teams that every year is going to be fighting to get into that championship game.”

That’s what fans want: confidence. They want to hear the utmost belief that this season was only the beginning to what will be years of prosperity for the program. In order to make that a reality, the coaching staff and team must analyze what went well this season and build on it.

Possibly the biggest highlight of the season was how well the defense played in response to adversity. Due to dismissals of key players and injuries, the team was forced to start more freshmen than it would have liked, including a trio of freshman starting linebackers. They were up to the challenge and performed beyond their years, helping Miami boast the fifth-best total defense in the ACC and the second-best scoring defense in the conference.

“I feel like every week, we have challenged them to play like Hurricanes – to run to the ball, play fast and tackle well when we got there,” Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Twelve games in, we have done that all 12 games.”

Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya was on just about every watch list for top quarterback awards prior to the season. Though he suffered some struggles midseason, Kaaya fought through them and finished the year throwing for the most yards of his career, posting his best passer rating, and surpassing former UM-great Ken Dorsey for first all-time in yards thrown in Hurricanes football history.

“Just look at all the quarterbacks who come here … it’s just a huge honor,” Kaaya said after the game against Duke. “It just feels great. But all credit to the guys who have made plays for me the past three years.”

Kaaya had some weapons on offense who rose to stardom this year. Sophomore running back Mark Walton was given the nod to be the starter at the beginning of the season. He flourished in the position, rushing for 1,065 yards (No. 4 in the ACC) and 14 touchdowns. Junior tight end David Njoku came into his own and had a breakout year, catching 38 balls for 654 yards and seven scores. Freshman wide receiver Ahmmon Richards showed he is a quick learner, breaking the record for the most receiving yards ever by a first-year UM wideout with 866.

“Coach Richt and Coach [Todd] Hartley, for the tight end group, just said, ‘Stick together. Focus on every play. Don’t give up,’” Njoku said. “I guess we did that, so we’re happy about that.”

There were positives in Coach Richt’s first year, now UM must build on them in years to come. One thing is for certain, a record of 8-4 won’t cut it two to three years down the road. Expectations will be high.

“For me, and I guess every coach would say this, I don’t think our best game has been played yet,” Diaz said.

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