University of Miami

Mark Pope keeps improving. And a possible development with Manny Diaz on defense.

Mark Pope’s first touchdown as a Miami Hurricane will long be a memorable one. As time expired in the first half of Miami’s 42-35 loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies on Saturday, N’Kosi Perry launched a Hail Mary pass into the end zone at Hard Rock Stadium and a mass of bodies converged on the ball.

Will Mallory was the first to get his hands on the ball near the back of the end zone and the tight end tipped it back into play. Pope was perfectly positioned to haul in a 38-yard touchdown for the first of his career. The Hurricanes cut a 28-0 deficit to 28-7, and no one was happier than Pope, a former five-star recruit who came to Coral Gables with massive expectations.

Dee Wiggins was probably a close second, though.

“When he scored a touchdown,” Wiggins said. “I felt like I was the happiest person for him.”

Pope and Wiggins have been friends since childhood and played together at Southridge before coming to Miami (2-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) as part of the Hurricanes’ highly touted Class of 2018. Wiggins, who was a three-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, started games almost immediately as a freshman in 2018 after he early enrolled, while Pope, a five-star prospect in the Rivals.com rankings, never found a consistent role.

The wide receiver is in the midst of a breakthrough, though, and it continued in the loss to Virginia Tech. In his past two games, Pope has five catches for 137 yards and one carry for 21 yards. Before this stretch, Pope had just three catches for 23 yards in his entire career.

In the summer, the sophomore admitted he struggled to grasp the playbook as a sophomore after he was unable to early enroll. He said he changed the way he studied, though, and now feels comfortable in the offense.

“I’m very confident,” Pope said. “It’s still a little more work I’ve got to work on, but I’m getting it, though. I’m getting it now.”

Pope’s breakout began last month when he compiled more than 100 yards from scrimmage in Miami’s rout of the FCS Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. He injured his foot in the game, though — Pope revealed Wednesday it was “basically” turf toe — which caused him to miss the Hurricanes’ win against the Central Michigan Chippewas a week later in Miami Gardens.

The injury didn’t seem to slow him down against the Hokies. Pope caught two passes for 45 yards and the crucial touchdown as part of a newly effective vertical passing attack led by N’Kosi Perry.

The redshirt sophomore, who led a near comeback Saturday, will get the start Friday against the No. 20 Virginia Cavaliers as fellow quarterback Jarren Williams deals with an “upper extremity” injury, coach Manny Diaz said. Perry flashed better arm strength than Williams, which helped give the offense a new dimension.

“It just gives us a better opportunity,” said Wiggins, who had a season-high four catches and 64 yards Saturday. “All our quarterbacks are great. Jarren Williams is great with his arm strength and his accuracy, and so is Kosi. We’re just going in the game with a new opportunity to win.”

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Manny Diaz doesn’t rule out calling defensive plays

Both Diaz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker downplayed Monday the importance of the Hurricanes’ defensive playcalling this year after the coach announced he would be taking on a larger role within Miami’s defense.

“Calling plays is not something I have thought about because that is the last thing of importance,” Diaz said Monday in Coral Gables. “It’s not a play-calling issue. It doesn’t matter what play you call if your ‘how’ is broken and right now our ‘how’ is not operating the way we know how. I’m much more concerned about getting the ‘how’ fixed than the play-calling.”

On Wednesday, Diaz was not so dismissive about the idea of calling plays Friday against Virginia. Instead, he declined to comment on the matter altogether.

“That’s not something that we’ll be talking about publicly,” Diaz said when asked whether he had made a decision as to whether he will call plays Friday.

After two days of Diaz spending more time with the defense than the offense, safety Amari Carter said the changes have been subtle. The safety noted a bit of an improvement in communication.

Diaz said his role has mostly been to be another source players can lean on when there’s any confusion.

“I’m living in the gray areas, and what that means is that if there’s anything where there’s a young man who’s got any confusion for whatever reason or isn’t entirely sure of the reason why we do something and the ‘why’ we do it, that’s where I strike,” Diaz said. “I’m starting to hear, ‘Well, what’s this?’ And here comes the gospel in terms of the why we do it and how we do it, and, again all of that was coming from our coaches.

“I’ve mentioned over and over again: I don’t think this was a coaching issue, but I think sometimes if you just don’t have the right combination of guys defensively where you have great leadership internally, which for whatever reason this year we just haven’t and you don’t ever know that until you get in the season, just until the guys play their roles and you see the way that the guys connect with each other and the leadership that they have, there’s been a gap there for that this year that didn’t exist really in the last three years. I’ve got to jump into that gap and that’s really what I’ve done in the last couple days.”

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