Miami running back Joe Yearby spent a month training daily on his own this summer, tending to personal issues and visiting with his 3-year-old son Joe Jr. and daughter Tinijah, now 7 months old.
Word of his absence spread like a bad infection among panicked Hurricanes fans, who posted on message boards their fears that he was: A. Gone for good, or B. Suspended.
Neither was true.
“It helped a lot,” the soft-spoken Yearby said of his time away from the athletic facility. “I had to take care of some things. I’m good now.”
Yearby, previously suspended for the spring game for violating an undisclosed team rule, was dealing with some problems he declined to disclose publicly. He returned to the team for the 7-on-7 tournament his teammates had the last week of July.
Two days later he passed every conditioning test necessary to begin fall camp.
“He needed to take care of some personal things and some family things, and we gave him that space and he rewarded that trust incredibly,” Miami coach Al Golden said last week, then reiterated Monday that Yearby was “doing great” and had “a great mentality.”
“His conditioning is really good,” Golden said. “And he’s big … over 200 pounds. We gave him a goal weight of 195, and he just kept lifting and getting stronger and bigger. He’s moving really well at that weight.’’
The Hurricanes will need every ounce of the 5-9 sophomore to help compensate for the loss of all-time Miami rusher Duke Johnson, a third-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns.
Johnson ran for 1,652 yards last season, ninth best in the country, with his 6.83 yards per carry also ranked ninth.
Together, the three returning tailbacks — 6-2, 238-pound junior Gus Edwards, 6-2, 220-pound sophomore Trayone Gray and Yearby — combined for 882 yards, though Gray contributed only 24 yards of that.
When the season kicks off Sept. 5 against Bethune-Cookman, they’ll add the skills of former four-star Miami Booker T. Washington High recruit Mark Walton to form what the Canes hope will be a four-headed monster.
“I’m dying to see what happens in camp,” offensive coordinator James Coley said. “Because a year later, everybody is different. They’re bigger and stronger and faster. It’s going to be really interesting. And to be honest with you, the term committee is kind of positive because it means you have more than one.”
Yearby, who rushed for 509 yards and a touchdown last season on 5.9 yards a carry, said, like his teammates, his first goal is to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division.
“Anything else after that will fall in place,” Yearby said. “We’ve been down for a long time, so now it’s time to get on the top.”
Though sometimes he’s barely audible in a casual conversation, Yearby said he’s “a lot louder” on the field.
“I’m not too much a big speaker off the field,” he said Monday. “But on the field, I’ve got a big mouth. Anything ain’t going right I speak up and talk about it.’’
Backup quarterback Malik Rosier has noticed the difference.
“He knows the playbook more,” Rosier said. “There were times last year he wouldn’t talk, but now he’s saying, ‘I want the ball.’ ”
Edwards, who rushed for 349 yards and six touchdowns last season for a 5.7-yard-per-carry average, said the team will do “just fine” without Johnson.
“Every guy brings something great to the run game,” he said. “I’m way better at pressing the hole. My patience is a lot better. My football IQ has improved a lot, and I credit that to the coaches always being able to push me — criticizing me on every little run, even if it’s a good run.”
Unlike Edwards and Yearby, the 6-2 Gray, who played quarterback at Miami Carol City High, has shed six pounds to get to 220.
“Great running back group,” Gray said. “We’re going to miss Duke, but we’ve got to keep grinding, got to keep pushing forward. … This year, we’re ready to run.”