University of Miami

From Roman Colosseum to Camping World Stadium, Canes-Gators opener already captivating

Miami Hurricanes discuss UM-UF rivalry

University of Miami defensive end Scott Pathcan (71), tight end Will Mallory (85), and wide receiver K.J. Osborn (2) talk about the excitement around playing the Florida Gators in this year's season opener.
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University of Miami defensive end Scott Pathcan (71), tight end Will Mallory (85), and wide receiver K.J. Osborn (2) talk about the excitement around playing the Florida Gators in this year's season opener.

Pro Football Hall of Fame legend and University of Miami great Michael Irvin promoted a Friday night party preceding this Saturday’s season opener between the Hurricanes and No. 8 Florida Gators with a video of himself shot from inside the Roman Colosseum.

Yes, the one in Italy.

The NCAA gave special permission for the game to be moved up a week to prime-time national television to kick off the season-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of college football.

Manny Diaz will mark his first game as the Miami head coach, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams will mark his first start as the Hurricanes quarterback, and Hurricanes and Gators fans will continue their intense and unfriendly relationship at 7 p.m. in the Camping World Kickoff in Orlando.

Think this game, the 56th installment in a series fraught with plenty of bitterness and captivating moments, is big?

“We’ve got an outstanding opponent,’’ Diaz said. “Pretty much a consensus top 10 team and for good reason. We’re obviously very honored to be opening up the 150th college football season a week ahead of everybody else. To have two of the marquee programs in this state open the curtains on the 2019 season is pretty cool.’’

UF coach Dan Mullen, for whom Diaz previously worked as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, knows that “everybody in the country is ready for college football.’’

“To me, one of the great things is not just the fans, but all the other teams [will be] watching us,’’ Mullen said. “What are they going to see? What’s our stamp? We have to go out there and live up to that on the field.’’

For one, the Gators (10-3 in 2018), led by the NFL-caliber arm of 6-6, 240-pound quarterback Feleipe Franks and some gifted receivers, are favored by a touchdown. But their defensive front, led by 6-4, 257-pound redshirt senior rush end Jabari Zuniga, is expected to be the Gators’ strength. They also have a talented but inexperienced secondary — not counting NFL prospect CJ Henderson, a 6-1, 191-pound junior who played with UM’s top cornerback, Trajan Bandy, at Miami Columbus High.

The strength of the Hurricanes (7-6 in 2018), as it has been since Diaz arrived in 2016, is also its defense, in particular the defensive line and three outstanding veteran linebackers. In 2018 UM finished fourth nationally in total defense, and first nationally in tackles for loss, passing yards allowed and third-down conversion percentage.

And like UM, UF’s offensive line is vulnerable — just likely not as vulnerable as the Hurricanes.’

With 6-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman John Campbell at right tackle and 6-5, 285-pound true freshman Zion Nelson protecting Williams’ blind side for Miami, the Canes could have a rough night. It will be hard enough for the 6-2, 210-pound Williams to get his first real college action (he played sparingly against Savannah State early last season) in a game of this magnitude.

Four Miami offensive lineman who started at times last season have departed from a lineup that had five different starting combinations in the first 10 games.

“There are going to be ups and downs,’’ conceded Williams, one of the nation’s top recruits when he came to UM last season from Central Gwinnett High in Lawrenceville, Georgia. “We know it’s not going to be easy and we’re going to have to fight every play. But if we have a bad play, we can’t harp on it. We have to get ready for the next play.’’

2592UMSpringGameOrlando042019.JPG
Miami Hurricanes quarterback Jarren Williams (15) greets fans after the Miami Hurricanes 2019 spring game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. Williams will make his first start in the season opener against the Florida Gators at the same site on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Enos has been drilling into Williams that he needs to focus on doing his job “one play at a time.’’

“If you let your mind wander to the crowd, the fans, the music, whatever these things are, you’re going to not be focused on your job,’’ Enos said. “These are things I’ve talked about to these guys from the spring to the summer, every time we’ve had a scrimmage, every time we moved the ball, period. Every time there was a distraction of some sort at practice, I [told them], ‘When you get into a game you’re not going to be able to just flip the switch and focus. You have to train yourself how to do it.”

“So, my message,” reiterated Enos, “is one play at a time.’’

Diaz knows the battle will be tough and that tackling or lack thereof, special teams and turnovers usually play a large part in season openers, let alone any game. What he wants to see is how hard his Hurricanes keep competing, no matter what the situation.

“The execution, I’m not worried about that,’’ Diaz said. “That will come. But can we compete? Can we play like Miami Hurricanes and sustain that for 60 minutes with our attitude, our demeanor, our toughness, all those non-negotiables that we [must] have?

“There’s going to be adversity. I’m almost waiting on it because I really, really want to see how we respond. I want to see a team that, if something bad happens — and spoiler alert, something bad will happen — that we can respond and get back off the mat and right back into the game, because that’s really been a big point of our offseason.’’

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Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.
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