Any loyal Hurricanes fans that watched Miami play No. 9 Notre Dame on a cold, October night in 2012 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, has two excruciating plays emblazoned in their minds:
Phillip Dorsett, alone and in stride at the Irish 25-yard line, dropping a gorgeous 47-yard pass from Stephen Morris on UM’s first play from scrimmage.
Dorsett, alone in the end zone on the same drive, muffing a 43-yard beauty, this time the ball bouncing off his body.
“Yeah, I was in disbelief,” he conceded afterward.
These days, the disbelief likely lies more in the eyes of college football fans who appreciate explosive plays made by explosive players.
Dorsett, a senior, now leads the nation with an astounding 34.4 yards per reception and is on pace to shatter the NCAA record of 31.9 yards per catch by former Tulsa receiver Brennan Marion in 2007.
“I just try to take advantage of every opportunity I get,” Dorsett said after Miami’s last victory over Cincinnati, in which he had 143 receiving yards and two touchdowns — including a 79-yarder. “They don’t come a lot.”
That’s for sure.
Dorsett, who also is one of the fastest players in the nation (he ran a UM all-time best of 4.21 seconds in the 40-yard dash in the offseason), has fewer catches — 16 — than five of his teammates, including running back Duke Johnson. But he leads the team with his 550 yards, six touchdowns and a 78.6-yard-per-game average in seven games.
“He’s gone from talented to skilled route-runner — skilled with the ball in his hands and after the catch,” UM coach Al Golden said. “His leadership has been awesome. He won the offseason program and then dominated the summer. He’s a strong, positive presence.”
As the Hurricanes (4-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepare to play at Virginia Tech (4-3, 1-2) in a Thursday-night, Coastal Division showdown, Dorsett knows how crucial his performance could be against a Hokies’ team that ranks 20th nationally in total defense (an average of 326 yards allowed) and 27th in passing yards allowed (202.7).
Dorsett watched last Thursday night’s Virginia Tech loss at Pittsburgh, calling it “a pretty sloppy game.”
“We know they’re going to come back and play us hard.”
The last time UM played at Virginia Tech, Dorsett was a freshman and UM lost 38-35 — but not before Dorsett, on a trick play, took a lateral from quarterback Jacory Harris and threw a 16-yard touchdown to Lamar Miller.
“My first touchdown,” he said. “It was great.”
In the three games UM has lost this season, all on the road, Dorsett has not scored. But his catches, win or lose, have been impressive.
Of the 16 receptions, nine have been more than 30 yards. Against Arkansas State, he scored two 63-yard touchdowns and caught a 51-yarder, in addition to the miniscule 24-yarder that gave him a career-high 201 yards.
“Obviously, those are the best plays in football, big passes,” he said. “It just ignites your team and makes everybody play better.”
Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, the man on the giving end of this dynamic duo, couldn’t agree more.
“I had no doubt going into the season that he’d have the kind of numbers he’s having,” Kaaya said. “Every day in the summer he’d be out there working extra. Our team is really inspired by him.”
Does Kaaya ever just fling it up there for Dorsett to gobble like a new-age Pac Man?
“No doubt,” Kaaya said with a grin. “I can just leave it out there for him, like my last [79-yard] touchdown against Cincinnati. He was covered at the time and I was about to get hit and threw it. But I knew he’d be wide open by the time the ball got there.”
Added cornerback Tracy Howard: “He’s one of those guys that really cherishes the moment. He’s got a next-level mentality.”
Of Miami’s 25 plays of 25-plus yards from scrimmage, 10 have been passes to Dorsett. He now is ninth on UM’s all-time receiving list with 1,811 yards and needs 21 yards to surpass Andre Johnson’s 1,831 (in three seasons), and 81 yards to surpass Allen Hurns’ 1,891 (2010-13).
“Yeah, it’s great,” UM offensive coordinator James Coley said of Dorsett’s success. “We want to go to him. He works hard, man. He deserves it.”
Given his march toward the NCAA record books, Dorsett was asked how he balances the idea of team concept and winning with being on pace to do something amazingly special.
“There’s not really a line to me,” he said, noting again that he has to take advantage of every play, that there are “a lot of playmakers” for UM and that helping his team win “of course” is paramount.
“I’m going to play my heart out even if the ball is not going my way,” Dorsett said. “It’s 100 percent about the team. It’s not about me at all.”