It was hard to tell who had more fun Saturday at the University of Miami’s annual installment of football media day — the players or reporters.
After saying freshmen wouldn’t be available for interviews until they played in a game, UM coach Al Golden gave the thumbs up for a one-day reprieve on that rule.
So, off rushed reporters to interview every freshman they could find, as the upper classmen ate pizza, clowned around, videotaped each other and, in general, thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
Theme of the day: local youngsters who grew up adoring the old-school Canes in the early 2000s and now dream of leading a resurgence.
“Coming in we knew the expectations,” said nationally heralded running back Duke Johnson, a Miami Norland alum who also returns punts and kickoffs. “That’s why we all decided to come here and join the other guys, so we could reach that goal.”
Johnson, the subject of effusive praise by coaches and teammates this camp, said he was taught by his mother, Cassandra Mitchell, to be humble.
“But somebody said you were flexing in the mirror,” a reporter offered lightheartedly.
Johnson laughed. “Coach [Andreu] Swasey is doing a great job at strength and conditioning,” he said. “I feel myself getting bigger, and from time to time I like to look in the mirror, see how I look.”
Offensive line coach Art Kehoe insisted he didn’t want to talk about Johnson’s talents.
“I want to hold back on saying how good he looks,” Kehoe said. “But I swear to God he looks good, man, you know? Oh my God, he looks good.
“He’s so nifty and he has so much vision, and he’s such a little dude. I kept looking at him and going, ‘What’s the big deal about him?’ Then [I] go out and watch him. Doesn’t matter if it’s open space. He likes the closed spaces, too.”
The freshmen receivers were especially popular Saturday. Jontavious Carter, 6-2 and 203 pounds, had an on-field skirmish with five-star cornerback Tracy Howard as Howard covered Carter on a pass by Stephen Morris. Some choice words flew back and forth.
“We got a little competitive because [receivers] coach [George McDonald] tells us if the cornerbacks hold us we can hit them in the gut because they’re not going to get any better from holding us,” Carter explained. “He held me on my route, so I just hit him in the gut, and we got in a little scuffle. But everything’s still love — nothing serious.
“We were just caught in the moment.”
Howard, a Miramar High graduate considered the nation’s No. 1 freshman cornerback, is the only newcomer on defense who has earned the coveted black jersey that goes to starters.
“I set high expectations for myself,” Howard said. “It wasn’t too much of a surprise to me. … The playbook, that’s the main thing — and compete to the best of my ability.”
Howard was asked what surprised him the most since arriving. “We have guys … who aren’t really selfish,” he said. “A lot of people tried to tell me coming to college people were going to be selfish and just worry about [themselves].
“But it’s more of a team aspect at UM. Everybody is willing to help each other.”
Howard agreed that the comfort level of playing with teammates he already knows has already accelerated the learning process. “We had chemistry even before I came in,” he said. “Some of us grew up together, like me, Duke Johnson, Malcolm Lewis. … We already had trust.”
Lewis, a freshman and Howard’s former Miramar teammate, wore the orange jersey Saturday given to first-teamers on offense, though offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said offensive tackle Ereck Flowers is the lone freshman as of now slated as a starter.
The Old Canes “had a lot of energy and swag,” said Lewis, who threw up the U for fans and TV viewers after scoring a touchdown in the state championship game. “I want to bring the program back and make a big impact. It would make me real proud.”
Receiver Herb Waters, from Homestead High, echoed Lewis in his commitment to the future. “The competition level, it’s tremendously off the roof,” he said.
Freshman defensive end Dwayne Hoilett was born in Miami Gardens and moved to Vero Beach when he was 11. He still considers himself a South Floridian.
“I was always a big Hurricanes fan,” Hoilett said. “But whether you’re from South Florida or not, if you’re in this class we have a bond. We all want to make something happen this year.”
Miami has its first fall scrimmage Sunday — closed to the media and public.
Golden could announce the starting quarterback early this week, unless he waits to do it shortly after the second scrimmage next weekend.
Morris, a junior with considerably more experience in this offense than redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams, is the favorite.