University of Miami running back Mark Walton said he looks around the locker room these days and can “smell it.’’
He wasn’t referring to dirty socks.
“He smells greatness,’’ All-American linebacker Shaquille Quarterman explained Friday. “He smells dominance. He smells a team that wants to get it on.’’
The voting won’t be revealed until Monday, the proof could be months away, but judging by national projections and talk among dozens of media members at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff, Miami is a strong contender — perhaps the favorite — to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship just a few blocks away on Dec. 2 at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
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“Of course’’ there’s a reason for optimism, Quarterman said. “We finished off strong with a five-game win streak. We won a bowl game that we hadn’t done in 10 years. ... We have all the pieces. Look at our team. We have really good athletes and with that, a great coaching staff.
“Our defensive line knows they’re one of the best, if not the best, in college football. We know what’s at stake. Miami wasn’t built to be average. Even nine wins, that’s not what we came here for.’’
The Hurricanes, who finished 9-4 and ranked 20th by the Associated Press and 23rd by the coaches in 2016 after rebounding from a mid-season, four-game losing streak, return at least 16 starters — eight apiece on offense and defense. They have three of the best young linebackers in the nation, a defensive line that is among the scariest, two top-rated cornerback transfers in Dee Delaney and Jhavonte Dean, a 1,100-yard running back in Walton, a sophomore All-American receiver in Ahmmon Richards and some undeniably talented true freshmen eager to bring back Miami’s former dominance.
What they don’t have: a starting quarterback, who coach Mark Richt, in his second season leading his alma mater, would preferably like to name after the second scrimmage of fall camp. Camp begins August 1.
The five-time national champion Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004 but have never won the Coastal, let alone the league. They have been projected to win the Coastal three times and finish second four times, not including the first year, when there were no divisions and UM was picked to finish second behind Florida State.
“It would mean a lot to our group, to be a part of something that’s never happened in Miami,’’ said Walton, the father of a baby girl born in February. “That’s going to be history. First group of guys that won the ACC championship — or Coastal heading into the ACC Championship. I’ll be happy about it.
“We’re getting one step closer each year.”
UM linebacker great Jon Vilma, who was part of the Canes’ last national title team in 2001, was at the Westin Hotel on Friday to represent Sirius XM Radio.
“I sure hope this year will be different,’’ Vilma told the Miami Herald, regarding the Canes living up to their improved status. “For the Coastal, I’m optimistic with the returning players we have. But you never know. Some of these kids start reading the newspaper clippings and all the preseason hype and they drink the Kool-Aid before they start playing games and then, unfortunately, lose a few games.
“Maybe they don’t pick us and that will give them a little chip on their shoulders to go out there and win. It’s because the information is so accessible now. They see it on Twitter, pull it up on their phone and they start thinking, ‘Oh, we’re this, this and this.’ If they had [quarterback] Brad Kaaya coming back, that would be a no-brainer.”
Richt said he believes his Hurricanes can finally win the Coastal. Beating the Atlantic Division’s Florida State on Sept. 16 is another matter.
“You’ve got to start there,’’ Richt said of the Coastal. “You can’t win anything else unless you win that. Win the Coastal, win the ACC, hope you’re in the [College Football] Playoffs, win two more games and then everybody is excited — for about a month or two.
“And then everybody wants to do it again.”
Richt said he and his team “expect to win every game we play. For us to be thinking about winning the Coastal, some people might think it’s a dream because it hasn’t happened. We think it’s a real possibility.’’