University of Miami

Coastal title? Been there. UM stars confident they’re stacked enough for playoff bid

Miami safety Jaquan Johnson, shown answering a question during the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., before the season, refuses to give up or give in to a losing streak entering Virginia Tech.
Miami safety Jaquan Johnson, shown answering a question during the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., before the season, refuses to give up or give in to a losing streak entering Virginia Tech. AP

Miami Hurricanes fans might recall their favorite college football players in past years dreaming of that elusive goal of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.

That’s right: The Coastal.

Been there, so they say.

On Wednesday, two of the University of Miami’s biggest stars for the upcoming season were confident that the Canes, who lost their final three games of 2017, can finish 2018 in a much more satisfying way. The ACC title is what they want, followed, naturally, by a berth in the College Football Playoffs.

The national media aren’t exactly doubting the Canes, either, projecting them in preseason magazines as high as No. 6, (Athlon), No. 7 (Lindy’s) and No. 8 (Street & Smith).

Fall camp opens the first week of August.

“I always aim high,’’ safety Jaquan Johnson said at the Charlotte Westin, site of the ACC Football Kickoff, the league’s two-day media extravaganza to hype the coming season. “I talk about national championship to the team all the time. That’s all I’m thinking about, the national championship — winning the Coastal, winning the ACC and then going on to the playoffs. ...We’re bringing back the swagger, and that’s winning.”

UM coach Mark Richt told Miami Hurricanes beat writers on Wednesday that he expects quarterback Malik Rosier to be his starter, beginning Sept. 2 against LSU.

Johnson, a second-team All-American who was one of just four defensive players named among 15 semifinalists for the 2017 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, said last year “some people were caught by surprise’’ by UM’s initial success of 10 consecutive victories to start the season. “This year we’re not going to be caught by surprise when we win. We’re going to play each game like it’s our last, no matter who we’re playing. “

After rising to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, UM went into a tailspin late last year, losing its final regular-season game at Pittsburgh, its ACC title game in Charlotte to Clemson and its Capital One Orange Bowl game to Wisconsin to finish 10-3 with a final No. 13 ranking by the Associated Press.

Johnson said losing 38-3 to Clemson has haunted him—and motivated him— since that night.

“It’s tough still,’’ said Johnson, who led UM in tackles last season with 96, had four interceptions, three tackles for loss, one sack, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Described by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz as the “heart and soul of UM’s secondary,’’ Johnson told reporters he’s “been thinking about that [Clemson] game. ...Definitely, definitely. I want Clemson to come out on the other side. They’ve got a stacked house, so It’ll be good taking them down. ...We’re coming back this year with a new hunger and a goal in sight.’’

Across the ballroom, receiver Ahmmon Richards, in his low-key but confident way, said he, too, believes UM is primed for a breakout season. Richards, a 2016 freshman All-American who had 934 receiving yards that year, endured a severe hamstring injury in his left leg last season, then sustained a season-ending mensicus injury to his left knee on Nov. 29, five days after former senior tight end Christopher Herndon sustained a season-ending knee injury at Pittsburgh.

Richards, who underwent surgery to repair the knee, also said he had a high-ankle sprain last year but is 100-percent healthy and ready to go for fall camp. The Canes open the season Sept. 2 against LSU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“The guys, especially the young guys we brought in, we have a lot of depth this year,’’ said Richards, whose receiving corps is among the finest in the nation. “From last year to this year’s team, I see growth. I feel like those last three games, the way they ended, that just motivated us to be better, individually and as a team.

“Clearly, last year we didn’t do enough to finish the way we wanted to.”

UM coach Mark Richt ended his availability Wednesday by “putting in a plug’’ for season ticket sales. “I’m letting our season ticket holders know we’ve got like 500 season tickets left,’’ Richt said. “We’re about to sell out our season tickets for the first time at Hard Rock Stadium. And I know a lot of schools sell out for like the last 90 years, but for us it’s a big deal.

“If you don’t get your tickets now, you’re going to be in trouble.”

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