CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — The starting quarterback, gone. The team’s most productive runner in a decade, gone. The top two receivers, gone. The best defensive player and unquestioned locker-room leader, gone.
Still, somehow, hope is not gone at Miami.
Even after a 6-6 season, and even with the NCAA investigation into compliance practices that overshadowed last season still unresolved — sanctions aren’t expected to be handed down until early next year — the Hurricanes are heading into Al Golden’s second year on the sideline insisting they have enough talent to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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“For us to get back to where we want to be in the college football world, we can talk about everything and what the expectations are and anything on the outside,” Golden said. “But the reality of it is, for us at the University of Miami, right here, right now, there’s only one way out, and that’s the (ACC’s) Coastal Division.”
If that’s the case, the Hurricanes might still need some more time to get things on the right road.
Miami has not won an ACC title since joining the league, and hardly anyone expects that to change in 2012. The Hurricanes finished in a tie for fourth in the Coastal last season at 3-5, and were picked fifth in the six-team division in this year’s preseason poll. That would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, though this team has serious questions to answer, and last year’s team wasn’t exactly world-beaters to begin with.
“We want to set our mark,” said freshman defensive back Tracy Howard, a highly touted recruit who signed with Miami despite the looming NCAA issues and may wind up starting right away. “We want to be known as the guys who brought `The U’ back.”
On offense, there are new faces in key roles.
Stephen Morris starts the year having assumed the quarterback role from Jacory Harris (2,486 yards, 20 touchdowns as a senior in 2011). Mike James becomes the featured running back now that Lamar Miller (1,272 yards, nine TDs in his final college season) is with the Miami Dolphins — though freshman back Randy “Duke” Johnson will likely see tons of carries by the time the season ends. Tommy Streeter left early and Travis Benjamin graduated, a duo that combined to catch 87 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns, last season.
Defensively, Sean Spence was widely considered Miami’s best player for the past two seasons. He’s now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving the Hurricanes with a gaping hole at both linebacker and leader. So it’s up to players like James to assume the role, and he said the Hurricanes are clearly not the same time they were a year ago.
“It feels different,” James said. “It has to feel different. It looks and feels different. Guys have a real competitive edge to them. They know what we have to get done and they’re doing that.”
Of all the newcomers, Johnson might be the most talked-about. He was Florida’s high school “Mr. Football” award winner last season, after leading Miami Norland to a state championship and piling up 266 all-purpose yards in the title game. Johnson had 208 carries as a senior; he averaged 10 yards on each of those.
“We do have to game plan and scheme for him to get some touches and we have to figure out how, whatever he’s able to handle,” Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said this summer. “But he’s not coming in here in a capacity where he’s being given a job. He has to earn it. We don’t give jobs based on high school production.”
Morris beat another South Florida native, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams, out for the first-string quarterback role. The offense — and really, the direction of the season — is on Morris’ shoulders, and he said he welcomes having that sort of responsibility.
“Everybody knows we’re not trying to have another 6-6 or 7-6 season,” Morris said. “It’s not just what this program was built on. We can’t be happy with another season like that. Our job is to try to continue to do better.”
Miami imposed a bowl ban last season because of the ongoing NCAA investigation that started into claims made by a former booster and convicted Ponzi scheme architect who said he provided extra benefits to athletes and recruits over an eight-year period. The hits have kept coming since: A number of underclassmen left early, and not long ago safety Ray-Ray Armstrong — one of the players linked to that investigation — was dismissed from the program.
On top of that, this year’s schedule is daunting.
In the season’s first four weeks, Miami goes on the road to Boston College, Kansas State and Georgia Tech. The only home game in that stretch is against lower-division Bethune-Cookman, a team that gave the Hurricanes fits a year ago. Miami heads to Chicago to face Notre Dame on Oct. 6, rekindling one of the college game’s top rivalries.
And the only homestand of the season hardly shapes up as easy — North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech to kick off the second half of the schedule.
Golden said the “football intelligence” of where the Hurricanes are now is superior to a year ago. Time will tell if that translates into more wins.
“I believe the system is better than 6-6 right now,” Golden said. “I just think we have to all be on the same page.”