University of Miami

UM football freshmen embrace task of changing program’s downturn

Brad Kaaya celebrates a touchdown during against North Carolina at Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 1, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Brad Kaaya celebrates a touchdown during against North Carolina at Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 1, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Getty Images

Miami Hurricanes freshmen want the program’s run of mediocrity to end with them.

January will mark 13 years since UM last played for a national championship, and 11 since it last went to a major bowl game.

Mediocrity has become the norm in Coral Gables. Let’s count the ways:

▪ Counting Miami’s 6-5 record heading into Saturday night’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh (5-6) at Sun Life Stadium, the Canes have lost at least four games every season since 2006. That happened only three times at UM from 1983 to 2003.

▪ Miami hasn’t had a double-digit win season since 2003. Meanwhile, rivals Florida and Florida State have had four double-digit-win seasons each and won three national titles combined.

▪ Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, the Canes are 81-55 overall. That’s fewer wins than six other teams in the conference: Virginia Tech (104), Florida State (103), Clemson (93), Louisville (92), Georgia Tech (87) and Boston College (82). Meanwhile, perennial also-rans Wake Forest and Duke have each won division titles while the Hurricanes simply tied for one and had to vacate it because of impending NCAA sanctions.

When will UM become a real threat for a national title again? Al Golden’s youngest Canes have talked about that.

“Me, Brad [Kaaya], Chad [Thomas], Braxton [Berrios], we talk about [national championships] a lot, saying that next year we have to turn things around, do what we’ve got to do to get to that spot,” said freshman running back Joe Yearby, who went 53-5 and won three state titles in four years at Miami Central High.

“We’ve got to shoot higher than [the ACC Coastal Division title],” Yearby continued. “We’ve got to take everything day by day to accomplish everything we have to do. But we believe we can be champs again. That’s still very much a goal.”

Thomas, a five-star recruit who won a national title at Miami’s Booker T. Washington last season, has said in the past that he expects the Canes to win a national title while he’s here — and that he hates losing.

Before Miami’s 30-13 loss at Virginia last Saturday, Berrios said the Hurricanes should win the remainder of their games. He said UM’s three-game win streak following its loss to Georgia Tech — and close loss to Florida State — was a sign the Canes are getting closer to what they want to be.

Kaaya, UM’s brightest young star, spoke this week about what it has been like losing five games. Kaaya went 26-4 and won a state title in high school in California.

“I see it all as a part of the whole progression,” Kaaya said. “It’s all a test; every single game is a test. I don’t know if God is testing me or something like that, but I take it all as a trial or a test just to get better.

“College football, the way it’s going now, it’s almost like every game is a playoff. You win one game two weeks ago, and the next game you lose, everyone is [ticked] off so you’ve just got to keep playing. It’s week-by-week warriors.”

Golden this week said he doesn’t “think anybody will ever get used to losing” at UM and that he’s glad his young players are talking about winning national titles.

“Nobody likes to lose, nobody wants to lose,” he said. “Saying that is one thing. The other thing is addressing the things we need to address individually and collectively, charting a course and getting it fixed in the time span we have.

“I want them to be winners. I want them to be champions. I want them to scratch, claw and compete. Joe Yearby is one of those guys that I’m glad he feels like that because when he practices it looks like that. We want everybody in the organization to think like that.”

Restocking the roster with the kind of talent it once had hasn’t been easy. UM had 10 first-round picks and 18 top-100 picks on the last team that played in the Orange Bowl (drafted between 2004-07).

Randy Shannon coached Miami’s last first-round pick, safety Kenny Phillips, in 2008. Shannon had nine players drafted with top-100 picks during his tenure and another four taken in 2012 that he recruited to the program.

Golden had four top-100 picks that were Shannon recruits his first year at Miami (Olivier Vernon, Sean Spence, Lamar Miller, Travis Benjamin) but has had just one other top-100 pick (Brandon Linder) during his tenure.

That could change next May. Scouts believe UM could have as many as five players (Ereck Flowers, Duke Johnson, Denzel Perryman, Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford) taken among the first 100 picks if Johnson and Flowers leave school early.

NFLDraftScout.com listed four Hurricanes as top-100 picks this week (Dorsett not among them). Only Florida State (10) and Oregon (5) have more than that. UM is tied for the third-most with Louisville, Washington, Alabama and Baylor. Only Washington has as many losses as UM. The other teams are all ranked in the Top25.

“Miami has dynamic NFL talent, and everybody can see it,” said Rob Rang, a writer for NFLDraftScout.com. “They also have a very talented but inexperienced freshman quarterback. To me, they’ve just had some trouble late in games they could have won. That’s been the difference.”

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