As 2017 slipped further into the distance Thursday and 2018 beckoned with the optimism that accompanies a new season, University of Miami coach Mark Richt seemed as relaxed as he’s been with the media in a long time.
No, cornerback Michael Jackson and junior defensive tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton, according to Richt, have not spoken to him about their futures — whether to stay in school or leave for the NFL Draft.
Yes, wide receivers coach Ron Dugans, believed by many to be on the cusp of leaving UM for a similar position at Florida State, is still on the UM staff — at least for now.
Quarterback Malik Rosier should not take nearly as much blame as he’s getting for those three back-breaking interceptions in the Orange Bowl, indicated Richt.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
And there is plenty of talent, underclassmen and veterans, ready to emerge as the new leaders for 2018.
After losing their final three games, including a 38-3 trouncing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship by No. 1 Clemson (12-2), and a 34-24 Orange Bowl loss Dec. 30 to No. 6 Wisconsin (13-1), the Hurricanes (10-3) are looking ahead.
“Long story short, Wisconsin did a great job,” Richt said during a season wrap-up teleconference. “They deserved the victory and we have a ways to go. But as far as overall, I think we’ve come a long way. We’re a team that got a taste of what it’s like to be in contention for the playoffs, and I think that’ll serve us well when it comes to the future and the offseason.
“I’ve already had guys texting me, excited about the future and wanting to take on leadership roles, so I feel really good about us moving forward.”
The Hurricanes Twitter account already let it be known that Adam Rittenberg of ESPN cited the Hurricanes as “heavy favorites’’ to “repeat as ACC Coastal Champions” and be among the “10 teams that should be in the mix for the College Football Playoff.’’
UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz posted his own reflective tweet on the recent campaign: “The sun has set on 2017,” Diaz said. “Not the finish we wanted, but we witnessed a fall that reminded us of the energy & passion in this city when the CANES are the big show in town. 2016 was a big leap & 2017 another major step forward; we got to the doorstep. Next year we don’t knock.”
Some of Richt’s comments Thursday:
▪ On Rosier’s three picks: “Two of those interceptions, I really don’t sit there and say Malik did a poor job on those. The third one, the ball was catchable. ... I know sometimes you’re looking for the bottom line of the interceptions, you blame them all on the quarterback. But I don’t feel that way about those.”
▪ On the future of 6-4, 285-pound redshirt junior defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, who took a leave of absence for an undisclosed reason and played on the scout team, with one year of eligibility remaining: “Very excited about Gerald getting back in position to play for us again. … I know he’ll be excited about having a big year. He was a terror on the scout team all year long. No one could hardly block the guy.”
▪ On how many early enrollees are arriving for the spring semester, and with it, spring football: “The number [has been] fluctuating throughout the whole recruiting process. A lot of kids think they’re mid-year guys and sometimes they make it academically, and sometimes they don’t. I think we’re somewhere around nine-ish.”
Expect the Hurricanes to start spring ball in late March.
▪ On how much it helps having the freshmen, especially quarterback Jarren Williams, arrive for spring ball: “I think it’s big in all positions. Just a couple years ago, we all know that when our three used-to-be brand new freshman linebackers showed up they had a chance to come in and compete right away and by the end of spring they were in pretty good shape for playing time. So definitely guys that come in early will benefit from it. But I’ve said this before, too: Now that guys can come in at the beginning of the summer, that’s a couple months before camp starts, so those guys, like [soon-to-be-junior] Ahmmon Richards,” that is beneficial as well.
▪ On how the recent sudden departure of four defensive players affects recruiting: “A lot of times when someone departs it turns into an opportunity for someone else. … Other young men sit there and say, ‘OK, this is more of a reason to go to Miami.’ I think it will all work out in the end.”
Richt named safety Jaquan Johnson, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, defensive end Demetrius Jackson, center Tyler Gauthier, tackle Tyree St. Louis, receiver Richards and freshman running back DeeJay Dallas as the players, among others, expected to emerge as leaders in 2018.
Dallas, he said, “stepped up his game’’ and “his leadership started to grow, or at least sprout. … The guy played big in some big games. He’s just got an energy about him that I think is contagious.”
At the end of the teleconference, Richt was told that the media is hearing a lot about Dugans possibly leaving for Florida State.
The coach chuckled.
“No, no news on that,” he said.
Is he staying with you guys?
“He’s, well, he’s still with us, so … Yeah, all right.”