CHARLOTTE — It took 12 seasons, but Miami may finally be in position to hold up its end of the bargain in delivering the ACC Championship Game everyone thought would become tradition.
The Hurricanes hype is real for a team that’s never claimed the Costal Division, but checks (nearly) all the boxes.
“People might think it’s a dream because it’s never happened, but we don’t think it’s a dream,” coach Mark Richt said during Friday’s second day of the ACC Kickoff.
In Year 2, Richt has an elite defensive line led by linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, a 1,000-yard rusher in Mark Walton and an All-American-caliber wide receiver with Ahmmon Richards. But what he doesn’t have — in a running theme in the Coastal Division — is a quarterback.
Had Brad Kaaya, who left Coral Gables with a number of program records — among them passing yards — returned for his final season, or even if one of his understudies had been primed to take over, the Hurricanes would be in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Instead, there’s an undecided position race between junior Malik Rosier, sophomore Evan Shirreffs and true freshmen Cade Weldon (an earl enrollee and son of ex-Florida State passer Casey) and dual-threat N’kosi Perry.
“If somebody had taken that job and said ‘this is my job,’ … and did exceptionally well, they’d probably be way out in the lead by the time Brad decided to go,” Richt said. “That didn’t happen. Not because nobody was trying, but because nobody really separated themselves from the pack.”
Miami enters the fall with a seemingly wide-open race, which makes the 6-foot-4, 185-pound Perry –a departure for the pro-set Richt — a legitimate threat to start right away.
Richt says he has a specific set of requirements for what he’s looking for out of those four contenders for the position.
“What am I evaluating? I’m evaluating, can I trust this guy?” Richt said. “Does he know the system? Does he make good decisions? Can he hit his target? Does he a little bit of ‘it’ factor’ as far as a leader, as far as an athlete. Will he handle the pressure of the job if he gets the job? You never know that until you start them, until you play them?”
Whoever wins the job will have the luxury of a operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters, and handing off to Walton. The ACC’s top returning rusher with 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns on 209 carries. Those TDs have him 13 from Stephen McGuire’s program record.
Walton is expected shoulder even more of a load given the transition at QB and that there’s not much experience behind him.
“(He) might be the best football player I’ve coached,” Richt said. “He can start on every special team, and he does. … he’s got great balance as a runner, he’s got great speed, he’s power, he’s got ball skills. He can run routes well. He’ll blast a linebacker in pass protection.”
Walton is also being vocal about what he wants to provide for the winner of that QB derby.
“You just want to let them know that me as a running back, I’m going to make sure I do my job picking up any blitz,” Walton said. “Making sure I hold my own blocking protection to give him enough time to make the right throws so he can be comfortable back there throwing the ball so he won`t have rush a decision and make a bad play. Just making sure he knows that I’m a trustworthy guy for him.”
Five of the seven teams in the Coastal are replacing starting QBs, with Duke’s Daniel Jones and Virginia’s Kurt Benkert the only returners, so from that end, Miami isn’t alone. But the Hurricanes are also the team where the question marks on the rest of the roster are fewer and far between.
Whether or not those are the ingredients to a division crown, it was pointed out to Quarterman that the main room at ACC Kickoff wasn’t full of tripods in the main interview room, but no cameras.
“Well, honestly I feel for our team when it comes to the media, we don’t really — I’m not going to say we don’t care, but we’re not really bothered by how the media feels or if they respect us enough to come and see us,” he said. “We’re just here to play ball and compete like we’re supposed to do at Miami.”