University of Miami

UM spring football opens with uptempo practice, praise for Richt

UM coach Mark Richt looks on as quarterback Brad Kaaya prepares to throw during the opening day of spring football practice Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at Greentree Field in Coral Gables.
UM coach Mark Richt looks on as quarterback Brad Kaaya prepares to throw during the opening day of spring football practice Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at Greentree Field in Coral Gables. adiaz@miamiherald.com

In his first full practice coaching his alma mater, Mark Richt ushered in a new era of Miami Hurricanes football Tuesday, presiding over a session that was both uptempo and intense.

“Little bit of butterflies going into day one,” he said afterward. “It’s a little bit surreal. I didn’t sleep hardly at all [Monday] night. I didn’t think I would be that way. Got to sleep sometime after midnight. Up at 5. A lot of anticipation. A lot of things running through my mind, making sure all the drills were right.”

But the biggest takeaway was how Hurricanes players have responded to Richt and this new staff, after weeks of participating in a grueling conditioning program and starting to learn new schemes and terminology.

Yes, they’re still in the honeymoon period, but players seem rejuvenated by this coaching change, a genuine joy apparent in their smiles.

“We embraced [the change],” defensive end Al Quadin Muhammad said, before raving about Richt.

Enthusiasm is natural after a coaching change, but why to this extent? Let them explain:

▪ Linebacker Jermaine Grace: “Everyone is having fun. I feel like I’m back in high school, having fun. The coach is letting us play.

“There’s no yelling and screaming. [In the past], we got a lot of that, yelling and screaming, expecting us to know everything right then and there. Coach allows the mess-ups and we’ll correct it later. This is as energized as I’ve been since I’ve been here.”

▪ Offensive lineman Kc McDermott: “The very first thing coach Richt said to us [was]: ‘If you guys want to be men, act like men, I will treat you like men. If you guys want to act like children, I will treat you like a child, take things away from you, make sure you guys don’t go out.’

“We were like, ‘Wow, he considers us grown men!’ He’s not going to come in and say, ‘You have 10 o’clock curfew the night before practice.’… Everyone feels that they can be themselves around here. It’s awesome.”

▪ Receiver Stacy Coley: “We’re having fun. Last year, we didn’t have fun. Playing with more swag, talking more, going at it every play. We’re talking trash to each other. We did [talk trash before] but it was limited. We’re looser. Coach Richt,… everything he said was truthful.”

In many ways, Muhammad is the embodiment of this roster’s excitement about the coaching change, partly because he said new coordinator Manny Diaz’s attacking defense is “beneficial to everyone [and] great for me.”

When he was deciding whether to turn pro, Muhammad met with Richt shortly after he was hired.

“He’s so relaxed, so straight-forward,” Muhammad said. “He sees more in me than I see in myself. What’s better than that? It was a no-brainer [to return]. I love it here.”

Everyone is having fun. I feel like I’m back in high school, having fun. There’s no yelling and screaming. Coach allows the mess-ups and we’ll correct it later. This is as energized as I’ve been since I’ve been here.

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As for the first practice, Grace said it was more intense and run at a faster tempo than early spring practices under Al Golden, but “everyone adjusted to it.”

During the 20 minutes that reporters were permitted to observe practice, Diaz pushed his players hard, having them do up-downs (similar to push-ups) immediately before pursuit drills, in which they chased down receivers and ball-carries.

“I expect you to make every play! Got it?” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski shouted during one drill.

On the adjacent field, Richt stood behind the quarterbacks, watching intently and offering instruction as they threw to receivers.

“I missed it and now I’m having a chance to do it again, not only coaching the QBs but heavily involved in the installation of the offense, calling the offensive plays,” Richt said. “It’s going to be fun and a challenge, but that’s kind of what got me here to begin with.”

But Richt and his coaches are also still working on learning this roster. Players have their names displayed twice on their uniforms, and that’s by design.

“I’m sitting here trying to learn a hundred of them,” Richt said. “It does take a while to memorize all those guys. I know I love them all, even though I can’t recognize them all.”

▪ Center Nick Linder missed practice with what was reported as a shoulder injury, and linebacker Darrion Owens (knee) and offensive tackle Sonny Odogwu (knee) were limited. Running back Gus Edwards, who missed last season with a foot injury, was full-go, Richt said.

▪ Offensive linemen Trevor Darling and Jahair Jones, arrested last week and charged with resisting arrest without violence, practiced Tuesday.

Barry Jackson: 305-376-3491, @flasportsbuzz

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