Although the Hurricanes garnered eight wins for the first time since 2017, Miami football’s 2020 campaign did not end on a high note.
Having suffered back-to-back losses in their final two games, the Canes got back to work with the added vigor of having their vital leaders return to Coral Gables for another season.
“We all came back for a reason, you know we want to win,” redshirt junior safety Bubba Bolden said. “The chip will always be on our shoulder no matter what and I feel like that’s just a Miami thing.”
Remarkable overall improvements were evident from refreshed offensive schemes and changed attitudes, but the Hurricanes knew they were capable of more. UM entered its final week of conference play with seven Atlantic Coast Conference wins and was ranked No. 7 in the national polls, until a mid-December calamity at Hard Rock Stadium and its spirited but short fallen comeback in a bowl battle derailed a stronger finish.
And seven months later, the Hurricanes retain their leadership core, relying on it more than ever in preparation for another season accompanied by loftier expectations.
“I think what set the tone of our offseason is when D’Eriq King and Mike Harley and Bubba Bolden and Amari Carter, and I could name so many more, decided to come back,” Miami head coach Manny Diaz said at the 2021 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte. “I think that’s the thing that had not been happening at Miami and it became the thing to do, and for the right reasons.”
“There had to be something in that locker room a year ago that guys wanted to be a part of, and I think that’s the reason they can maybe address it better than I, of why a lot of the players ultimately made the decision to come back to Miami, to run it back,” Diaz continued.
Dual-threat quarterback D’Eriq King dazzled in his first season at Miami, leading a revamped offense in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage, all while further developing his leadership skills and relationship with then new offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee. Senior receiver Mike Harley will continue leaping for King’s touchdown passes beside a wide receiver group that includes returning veterans and exciting newcomers.
On the other side of the ball, Bolden backboned the defensive backfield with a team-most 50 unassisted tackles (74 total), primed to set the tone once again at Miami’s deepest position.
“I think the biggest thing is just being instinctive, trusting my teammates, trusting the players around me,” Bolden said on his tackle efficiency. “I take pride in making tackles, I take pride in getting to the ball first.”
The defensive line has been forced to adapt in filling key absences of defensive linemen Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips, both of whom departed for the NFL in May.
“We lose two guys but two guys are going to step up,” Bolden said. “We got Jahfari Harvey, we got Zach McCloud, we got Deandre [Johnson], so new guys will step up to the plate and then you also got linebackers. You know, everyone on the team can get to the quarterback somehow, some way, and that’s just the way we play our defense and the play calls that coach Diaz calls.”
Miami managed to crack the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings in early December for the first time in three years, but soon after had its momentum eroded on Dec. 12. No. 20 North Carolina, the ACC’s leader in rushing yards, burned UM for 778 total yards, 554 of those rushing — each the most allowed in school history.
“We needed to be out of our comfort zone defensively at Miami because we weren’t proud of how we finished last year,” Diaz said. “It doesn’t matter what defense you call if the players don’t have that sort of bond and trust. That’s what makes all great defenses and I think the new staff, some of the great coaches we’ve been able to add that I’m honored to work with, but ultimately it comes down to those guys in that defensive team meeting room taking the ownership of it and playing with that Miami chip on their shoulder.”
Diaz emphasized how Miami’s defense took “a step back,” with additional help from defensive backfield additions in Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson and Fort Lauderdale, Florida native James Williams — the nation’s top-ranked high school safety.
“We’re going to be improved on defense this year and that is all going to be about the players,” Diaz said. “It’s fun to talk about the coaches and the play calling and this and that, but great defense is ultimately about the connection between the players on the field — the trust and the accountability. And that’s where I felt like a year ago, we just didn’t quite have that to the extent we had [multiple years ago]. I think our guys have a chip on their shoulder.”
Yet, an expected defensive resurgence hasn’t remained the Hurricanes’ only top concern.
“Obviously offensively, the big things we want to look at this year is we have to give up less negative plays in the run game, and that’s been a big point of emphasis in our offseason study, spring practice, and going into training camp,” Diaz said of the Hurricanes’ offense, whose scoring offense increased to 34 points per game after averaging 25.7 the season prior. “And then be more explosive down the field, so being more efficient in our run game and more explosive in our pass game will help us punt less.”
King, arguably Miami’s most athletically-gifted and versatile signal-caller over the past decade, is ready to overcome the setbacks faced, including an ACL tear in the Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 29.
“Being named captain of this football team, that shows the respect that your teammates have for you,” King said. “So, I think that’s the most thing: what the people think inside the locker room. It’s not what everybody else thinks but whatever they think inside the locker room…I think it’s one of my favorite honors. Ever since I started playing college football, I’ve been named the head captain at Houston, here [at Miami]. It’s one of the biggest honors you can earn as a player.”
The reality of Miami’s expected progress towards further postseason success will unfold almost instantly. Early–season trials will measure the impact of Miami’s upgrades both on the gridiron and the sidelines versus teams such as reigning national champion Alabama and a Michigan State team that has begun to construct a new era of defense.
Five weeks stand between Miami and its matchup versus the Alabama Crimson Tide in its season opener from Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The Canes have not opened their season against a national champion in over two decades, and remain 3-14 versus the Crimson Tide, with their most recent loss on January 1993, 34-13, in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.
“Some of the guys we brought with us here today for media day is the offseason. How do we go through spring practice, how do we go through the workouts, and guys that are experienced, but they came back for the right reasons,” Diaz said. “They want to see Miami win and they want to set an example for the younger guys coming into our program which to me at Miami, which we have not always had.”