It was August 2016 when Michael Irvin II, fresh out of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High School, made a gorgeous, one-handed catch during the first day of fall camp.
Suddenly, an assistant coach screamed that Irvin ran a “horse-bleep route!’’
Was that his “Welcome to the U’’ moment? Irvin was asked later.
“No,” said Irvin, son of former UM star and Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. “The other day I got hit pretty hard. That was my ‘Welcome to the U’ moment. I got smacked catching the ball over the middle,” he said, noting that former fellow legacy Cane Jeff James, the nephew of running back great Edgerrin James, caught him in the air, and, wham!
“I got jammed,” Irvin continued. “I’m not supposed to let him get his hands on me like that… I knew it was a bad route... He pushed me into my route and then the ball was thrown and I had to try to make a play.”
Now, more than 15 months and only one start later — last Friday, no less, in a two-tight-end set with 6-4, 252-pound standout Christopher Herndon — Irvin will be trying to make many plays when the No. 7 Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) play No. 1 Clemson (11-1, 7-1) in the ACC Championship Game at 8 p.m. Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Hurricanes released the sobering news on Sunday evening that the ever-steady and dominant Herndon sustained a season-ending, and thus college-career-ending, knee injury at Pittsburgh.
So now, without the man who accounted for 40 catches, four touchdowns and 477 yards of offense, not to mention block after block after block for his fellow Hurricanes, the onus is on the young, much less experienced 6-3, 248-pound Irvin to pick up at least some of the slack.
Irvin, who has played in 10 games but only has five catches for 56 yards, will have to grow up in a hurry. The two scholarship players behind him, true freshman Brian Polendey and converted defensive end Scott Patchan, have no catches between them, and Irvin has struggled with maturity issues. He was suspended for the bowl game last year for violating team rules and wasn’t at the Syracuse game Oct. 21.
UM coach Mark Richt said the day after Syracuse that Irvin “just hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do off the field and until he does, we won’t let him play.’’
However, he was back at practice that week, learning behind Herndon.
“Chris has been such a great Hurricane for us his whole career, just doing well in school, behaves beautifully and he’s a guy that has been a great player for us,’’ Richt told WQAM on Monday. “He’s been an on-line blocker. He’s been a pass-protector, route runner, ball-catcher, does special teams. He’s just been very, very important in our successes. And we’ll miss him, there’s no doubt about it.
“But you hear it all the time: The next man up has got to do his thing, and that’s Michael Irvin [II].
“He’s a guy that’s just been a little bit up and down but more up than down lately and I think he’s grown into a good player. A lot of times when a guy becomes a starter and he knows everybody is counting on him from the very first snap it changes the mentality a little bit of how they approach things. Hopefully he’ll just let his level of play rise and help us win.”
Richt was asked if the absence of Herndon would mean he’d have to go with more wide receivers and use Irvin less.
“I think you’ve got to do a little bit of both,’’ the coach said. “You will have the ability to go with four receivers or three receivers, just like we’ve been doing all year long. We just haven’t done a lot of it because of the amount of snaps that Herndon could give us and then Irvin was there to back him up and give him some rest.”
The Canes have utilized 15 pass-catchers this season, though one was Herndon, one was quarterback Malik Rosier on a trick play and another was Dionte Mullins who has since left the program. Of Irvin’s five catches, two were in the past two games — a 10-yard catch against Virginia and a 7-yard catch at Pittsburgh. But Irvin’s blocking has not been his strong point, and that part of the game will be crucial against a Clemson defense that is ninth nationally in passing yards allowed (169.7 yards allowed per game), 14th in rushing defense (113.6 yards allowed) and fourth in scoring defense.
In late September, Richt told reporters that Irvin was “getting better” but “still has a ways to go...I’ll say this: He has performed in games. I see a little more juice out of him in a game than I do in practice, which is typical for young guys that aren’t mature enough to understand that you have to do it in practice every day. He does need to get more physical in the run game. Even some of the passes we ran, the bootleg passes, it was his job to pin a defensive end to create space for the quarterback to get outside and he didn’t do it as well as he could.
“He has to be more physical at the point of attack as a blocker and just keep growing. He’s certainly light years ahead of where he was a year ago.’’
▪ Ten Hurricanes were named to the All-ACC first, second and third football teams Monday. Kicker Michael Badgley was the lone honoree on the first team. Second team: Herndon, tailback Travis Homer, defensive tackle RJ McIntosh, linebacker Shaq Quarterman, cornerback Michael Jackson and safety Jaquan Johnson. Third team: receiver Braxton Berrios, left tackle Kc McDermott and defensive end Trent Harris.