Greg Cote: National Signing Day brings freedom and pressure for Miami Hurricanes, Al Golden

02/05/2014 12:00 AM

09/08/2014 7:04 PM

That the cloud has lifted from the University of Miami football program finds its symbolism Wednesday in National Signing Day — the fresh start for any college team but for this one more than most.

This is the refresh button. Like the NFL Draft is for the pros, this is the annual influx of new talent and new hope.

Here is the thing about a cloud lifting, though.

It lets in the sun, but also the heat.

It removes the shade that has protected you.

Hurricanes coach Al Golden has worked under the thundering NCAA cloud he inherited for all his three seasons at UM. The Nevin Shapiro scandal that sucker-punched him shackled his hands, limiting him and allowing competing schools to tell recruits the Canes faced severe penalties, that Golden would leave and other dark rumors.

“We were a defenseless sitting duck the past three seasons,” as Golden put it Tuesday, carving out a few minutes for the media.

“In all the years these [latest recruits] were contemplating where they’d go to college, thinking about it, there was nothing but turmoil here.”

All of this has been a legitimate reason why the program hasn’t accelerated more than it has, but it is always a fine line between explanation and excuse. The NCAA probe has given Golden a sort of extended honeymoon here; with a legitimate caveat, a “yeah, but,” following any criticism.

Now Golden, 44, is finally beginning to work on a level playing field.

Now we begin to fairly judge him without shackles or excuses.

“It feels great,” he said. “But were not relaxing. We’re building. Growing.”

This is the cloud, lifting:

The severe past self-imposed penalties mean the ones moving forward won’t be.

Golden is staying.

The recruiting class that will be certified Wednesday is being touted as national top-10 caliber.

‘Full speed ahead’

All of it gives a heft and palpable tailwind to the program’s “Full Speed Ahead” marketing slogan.

Now it’s all on Golden to maintain that momentum, and Wednesday’s incoming bounty could be a huge first step.

Measuring the progress of this program from here will be easy. The progress itself won’t be, but the measuring will be because the national standard and the Atlantic Coast Conference standard are now one and the same: Florida State.

Progress will be the diminishing size of the gap between the two old rivals, a chasm that proved gaping last season in a 41-14 loss to the Seminoles.

You’ll recall that UM entered that game 7-0, ranked No. 7 in the nation — despite the shackles and cloud — and feeling great about itself. But with that loss, Miami went on to finish 2-4 down the stretch, including the 36-9 bowl loss to Louisville.

To his credit, Golden cautioned fans with a dose of realism even at 7-0. To the prevailing notion that the Canes were “back,” he said, accurately, “We have a long way to go.” Ensuing losses to the Noles, Virginia Tech, Duke and then Louisville were proof of that.

The injury loss of star running back Duke Johnson surely contributed to the latest skid. No excuses, though. UM simply wasn’t as good as it needed to be. Quarterback Stephen Morris had a solid career but not special. The defense continued to disappoint. And the overall depth was lacking.

Reinforcements

Wednesday brings the cavalry in an expected full 26- to 28-man UM recruiting class that ESPN as of Tuesday had rated No. 8 in the nation and Rivals.com ranked No. 11. A few who withdrew their commitments the past month knocked the Canes down a bit, but plenty of highly ranked talent is expected to arrive, including running back Joseph Yearby of Miami Central, offensive tackle Kc McDermott of Palm Beach Central, defensive end Chad Thomas of Miami’s Booker T. Washington, QB Brad Kaaya from West Hills, Calif., and offensive guard Trevor Darling of Miami Central.

Each is ranked in the national top 10 at his position by ESPN.

That UM was ranked as high as No. 7 last season but finished unranked in the final polls left conflicting indications of how close to “back” the program really was.

Golden’s three-year record of 22-15 is acceptable, all things considered. The same record over the coming three seasons might not be.

For sure, Hurricanes football remains seen as a major program. The residue of five national championships (the last in 2001) is strong. Past successes, notoriety and swagger linger as assets. Wednesday’s class, in the immediate wake of such a long NCAA investigation, will be further proof. So is the fact ESPNU cameras will be on 13 campuses Wednesday, and one of them will be in Coral Gables.

There is the sense that UM — free at last — might be poised now to accelerate the rise back to national prominence.

Now all Al Golden has to do is make it happen.

The cloud is lifting for the “defenseless sitting ducks” the Canes had become.

Now the sun, and the heat, will begin to beam down.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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