Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt defends his play-calling
A week that began so sweetly for the Miami Hurricanes immediately turned sour when Miami announced Wednesday that sophomore star receiver Jeff Thomas was dismissed from the program.
Thomas, who had clashed with coaches, was so gifted that any time he touched the ball there was potential for a touchdown — as when he ran back a punt 51 yards last week in Miami’s 38-14 win at Virginia Tech.
But now, as the Hurricanes (6-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepare to kick off their regular-season home finale at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) against No. 24 Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh (7-4, 6-1), the question becomes: Can the Canes muster their resolve with a victory that would propel them to a better bowl while allowing the seniors to savor the last home game of their careers?
Entering their game at Virginia Tech, the Canes had lost four in a row, causing an uproar by fans and former players on social media and other platforms. Most have blamed Coach Mark Richt, saying he needs to stop calling plays and hire someone else to do it. Many have called for his ousting, though that’s definitely not happening in the near future.
“We’ve tried to build a team that is united,’’ Richt said during his weekly news conference Tuesday — before the Thomas news was revealed. “Usually, when you go through hard times, it reveals whether you have unity or you don’t. You don’t usually all of a sudden call a meeting and everybody gets united in tough times. You figure out if you’re strong or not.
“I thanked the team, when the game was over, in the locker room, for how they handled everything. It wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect, but I thought, as a whole, everybody hung in there together.”
The UM seniors and some juniors who won’t be back next season will be celebrated with their families on “senior day’’ before the kickoff at Hard Rock Stadium.
“It’s definitely been a long road,’’ senior left tackle Tyree St. Louis said. “It’s kind of hard just sitting here thinking about it. I’ve been through four years and so many games here in this stadium, just here with my brothers. I’m ready for it.
“I’m going to miss this place.’’
Senior safety Jaquan Johnson came back to win a championship, but is still gratified that he returned.
“It’s going to be a very emotional game — [the] last time playing with my brothers,’’ Johnson said of Pitt. The season didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, but I’m still happy I came back. I still got to see it through and play with my teammates.”
Last year, the Hurricanes were 10-0 and ranked second in the nation when they went to Pittsburgh to play the Panthers. But Pitt upset the Canes, who went on to lose their next two games, including the Orange Bowl to Wisconsin.
Coaches have reminded the Hurricanes of that loss several times this week.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” Johnson said. “I’ve been looking forward to playing these guys. They were riled up last year to play us [and] we’re going to be the same way.
“That game hurt. You still feel it. That could have been an undefeated regular season and who knows what [would have] happened in the ACC championship going in with that momentum.”
The Canes, who were favored by 5 1/2 points on Friday, not only won’t have Thomas as a weapon Saturday, they are without the only two scholarship tight ends who were healthy a week ago but got injured last Saturday: freshmen Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory.
After both were hurt by halftime at Virginia Tech (ankle for Jordan; knee for Mallory), Richt went with more of a spread-type offense with four receivers and a running back or three receivers and two running backs.
This week he will likely do it again, as N’Kosi Perry is set for the sixth start of his career.
“It’s been a great attitude from everybody,” Perry said Wednesday after practice, though some offensive players are undoubtedly upset about Thomas’ situation, and the chemistry on Saturday remains to be seen.
Pittsburgh, which will meet Clemson in the ACC title game on Dec. 1, has its own challenges offensively. Panthers center Jimmy Morrissey, who had started 23 consecutive games, was injured in last Saturday’s game and underwent ankle surgery Monday.
Pittsburgh has the nation’s No. 14 rushing offense, averaging 247.5 yards a game.
“Just win,’’ UM senior defensive tackle Gerald Willis said.
Whether UM can overcome the most recent drama to befall the program will be determined by Saturday night.
“This season didn’ t go exactly the way we wanted to,’’ St. Louis said, “but I’m glad we could get that sixth win... It’s definitely been tough. We’ve tried to stay together and stay as tight as we possibly could.’’