Let’s be frank: UM, with depleted depth at multiple positions, didn’t need a top-flight coaching staff to dispatch Florida A&M and FAU, but it will needed that for what awaits: an experienced, skilled Appalachian State team Saturday and then a daunting stretch of October games: at Georgia Tech, FSU, North Carolina, at Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame.
And now we’ll begin to get a greater sense of the value of Mark Richt, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and this staff, which, early on, have done most of what they set out to do.
Such as: Extracting more from returning players (Mark Walton and Richard McIntosh are among a bunch who appear appreciably better); developing freshmen quickly (the three starting linebackers and receiver Ahmmon Richards have been given the nurturing they need to contribute immediately); putting the infrastructure in place for better conditioning and diet, which shouldn’t be understated; implementing an attacking defense that is 11th overall and tied for first in sacks and tackles for loss; and teaching a rugby-style tackling approach that has made a weakness into a potential strength.
And UM scored more points than it ever has in its first two games (128) while showing just "20 to 30 percent" of its offense, Brad Kaaya said.
One UM official who observed practices under the former staff and the current one noted how impressive Richt’s practices have been, the amount of individual instruction and teaching witnessed.
Receiver Braxton Berrios agreed with UM voice Joe Zagacki’s remark on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline last week, that this staff has an answer for any problem that arises.
"Everything is different and we all like it," Berrios said. "The whole culture has changed the last six months. We’ve underachieved for a long time, way too long. You know coach Richt will do whatever it takes to win and that winning culture will be here for a long time… It’s incredible playing for a coach you truly want to win for."
Richt is very detailed in how he wants players to do things; this summer, he spent a half hour going over something as simple, but important, as the quarterback/center exchange.
"I like to teach things a certain way; I’m very meticulous about it," Richt said. "Certain guys even resent that, say, ‘This is the way I’ve done it my whole life, I’ve had success, so why are you trying to change this, that or the other.’ Brad Kaaya hasn’t done that."
The new strength program, with Gus Felder replacing Andreu Swasey, places more emphasis on building durability and stamina and explosiveness and Felder’s program is more comprehensive, one player said.
Besides Richt reducing the amount of music in practice (which distracted from teaching), practices are run at a much faster tempo, "to make us tired," as safety Jaquan Johnson said.
After every sequence, players run off the field to the sideline as if they’re pursued by a pack of wolves. It’s eye-opening, but it’s going to pay dividends.
"It’s going to help us with stamina and finish games and take over in the fourth quarter, which is something we weren’t very good at last year," Kaaya said.
Beyond the fact that several players loathed Mark D’Onofrio’s defensive system and love this one, several have said the coaching on the lines is considerably better, thanks to offensive line coach Stacy Searels and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.
Of Searels, offensive lineman Bar Milo said earlier this year: "I actually like coach Searels' form better [than Art Kehoe’s]. It's really bringing the attack to the D-line. That's something we didn't do last year."
Offensive tackle Tyree St. Louis says Searels is "more of a technician" than Kehoe (who was loved by some of his former players) "and I feel a lot better because they’re open to teaching."
Defensive end Demetrius Jackson said the past staff didn’t help him with use of his hands – key for a defensive lineman. This one does.
It’s common for players to praise a new coaching staff, but there is something more than that going on here. This is a celebration of being unshackled, of being able to play the style they played in high school, of being treated like men.
"We all love it," McIntosh said of Diaz’s defense. "Everything is simpler. It plays to our talents [defensively]. You're not out there second guessing. Once you see something, you're going. A lot less thinking."
Unlike the past staff, Richt has experts at the positions they’re coaching. As one UM official noted, Golden had coaches coaching out of position, such as former UM safety Hurlie Brown, who coached running backs and linebackers.
One UM official said Richt has made a point to keep simple what he asks of the players, as opposed to Golden, who had posters and lists that were a lot more elaborate. Those posters were taken down from restrooms and walls.
Richt doesn’t have a lot of rules. He asks players to be on time, be respectful, be prepared and do their best. "Really simplified it for the kids," as one holdover UM official said.
"We act like adults; he'll treat us like adults," McDermott said. "We're a much more mature team because of it."
Richt still must fix a few corrosive problems, such as penalties (9 for 90 against FAU). "We will start trying to discipline them where they won’t want to do it again," Richt said. "If it persists, playing time is the next thing [to be taken away]."
But the coaching and the infrastructure are finally there now to make this a better team in difficult games, such as Saturday. Whether UM has the depth remains to be seen.