Barry Jackson

Miami Hurricanes’ thoughts, notes, lots of reaction after win against Duke

Miami Hurricanes running back Mark Walton reacts after running the ball inside the five yard line in the first half as the University of Miami hosts Pittsburgh at Hard Rock Stadium on Sat., Nov. 5, 2016.
Miami Hurricanes running back Mark Walton reacts after running the ball inside the five yard line in the first half as the University of Miami hosts Pittsburgh at Hard Rock Stadium on Sat., Nov. 5, 2016.

Thoughts, postscripts and notes from UM’s 40-21 victory against Duke in the Hurricanes’ regular-season finale at Hard Rock Stadium:

• If this was Brad Kaaya’s final home game, it was quite a way to go out. Kaaya was at his absolute best, throwing for 396 yards on 22 for 35 accuracy, including several magnificent deep balls, and breaking Ken Dorsey’s record for most career passing yards by a UM quarterback.

Kaaya closed the regular season with 10 touchdowns and just one pick in four November games. His final numbers for the season: 3250 passing yards (his highest total in three seasons), 23 touchdown passes, 7 picks.

Against Duke, he threw touchdowns of 30 yards to Mark Walton (who made a terrific lunging catch), 3 yards to Stacy Coley and 76 and 58 yards to David Njoku.

“It’s just a huge honor; I’ve had a chance to play with extraordinary players,” Kaaya told WQAM’s Don Bailey, reflecting on breaking the record. “Of all the seasons I’ve played in, this has been one of the most physically bruising. A couple of injuries I had to play through. I finished strong and did my part for this offense.

“David had a phenomenal day. They were trying to mess around with some of their coverages and disguise stuff…. [On that first touchdown, I said] to hell with their coverage.”

And now looms the biggest decision of Kaaya’s life: whether to turn pro.

One associate who has regular contact with Kaaya said his instinct is that Kaaya is more likely to turn pro than stay, but that is merely speculation and we are NOT reporting that Kaaya is leaving (or staying, for that matter).

Asked what his thinking is about the issue at this point, Kaaya said he doesn’t know and will mull the situation and speak with those close to him. Richt and Kaaya will discuss the matter between now and the bowl game.

• Njoku has a decision, too, following a game in which he averaged an absurd 67 yards per catch (albeit on two receptions). Multiple UM sources say UM is VERY concerned that Njoku will turn pro. Mel Kiper doesn’t have him listed among the top 10 tight ends in the draft, but he clearly has an NFL skill set.

“He’s been a big play guy lately,” Richt said.

Regarding the possibility of turning pro, Njoku said he will “focus on the bowl game now and figure it out afterward.”

• Richt, afterward, on WQAM and at the stadium: “Thankful for the seniors first and foremost, how they really bought into [everything] in January. It’s hard to buy into it when you’re a senior. They could have fought the system. They didn’t. They bought in. Thankful for them and the rest of the team, too. Been a lot of fun to coach these guys. Been a year since I knew I would be the [coach here]. It’s still sinking in. I feel like I’m at home.

“I don’t think we are the same old Miami, whatever that means. There was a stretch where things weren’t going the way we want them to go. We challenged them at halftime. They want to be great….

“All the things you want to hear about your team, I’ve been hearing. How good we look, how hard we play, how it looks like we’re organized.…

“The QBs in this place are amazing. We’re right up there with anybody in America [with QB tradition]. [Kaaya has] always done it with team first attitude. Really appreciate that about him....

“I thought we were going to run the ball better than we did. Duke did a good job. I really felt like we could win the Coastal when the whole thing started.”

He said he will begin “recruiting like mad” immediately.

• Walton, who averaged 3 yards or less in 12 of his first 16 games against Power 5 conferences, topped 4.0 yards per carry for the fourth game in a row, finishing with 13 for 60.

Walton averaged 8.9, 6.9, 6.3 and 4.6 per carry in his final four games and now has 24 TDs in 25 career games, remaining on pace to break UM’s touchdown record.

What’s interesting is how Gus Edwards surpassed Joe Yearby as the No. 2 back in the past couple of weeks. Edwards had 11 carries for 55 yards, Yearby just one carry for two yards.

Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said he regrets not playing Edwards more earlier this season.

• Coley had a strong finale (9 catches for 118 yards) but also committed his 12th penalty of the season. How does a receiver commit 12 penalties in 12 games? Is this some kind of a joke?

He did finish with 58 receptions and a career-high nine touchdowns and deserves credit for that. He closed his UM career with 161 catches.

“Great to see him make plays and score TDs – last time in Hard Rock,” Richt said of Coley.

After coming off the bench the past two games, Coley started ahead of Ahmmon Richards – alongside Malcolm Lewis – as Richt opted to open the game with his two senior receivers.

“What a way for Stacy to go out,” Kaaya said.

• Richards, incidentally, caught 3 passes for 17 yards and finished the best freshman season by a UM receiver (ever) with 46 catches for 864 yards…. Lewis, in his UM regular-season finale, caught two for 33, and Braxton Berrios had a fabulous 38-yard catch in traffic.

• Trevor Darling, who has made 27 starts at tackle for UM before an injury earlier this month, got work at guard – something UM secretly unveiled in practice last week. Kc McDermott, a guard to start the season, opened at left tackle for the third straight game.

Darling would be an option at guard next season; LSU transfer George Brown becomes eligible and could start at tackle. And Miami Central oral commitment Navaughn Donaldson has the talent to be a Day 1 starter.

• Kaaya, on WQAM: “We got our identity as an offense as the season went on. Some were getting acclimated to operating this offense in a live game scenario. We clicked later on in the season. I think we peaked at the right time. There were times the future didn’t look too great and guys didn’t quit.”

• Defensively, the defense stiffened after a poor start, meaning a group that could have been a liability this season instead ended up playing well in 10 of 12 games, with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame their only poor performances.

That’s a credit to Manny Diaz and the defensive assistants, and admirable growth from a bunch of players – Kendrick Norton, Richard McIntosh, Corn Elder, plus all the freshmen linebackers and impressive end Joe Jackson and cornerback Malek Young, among others.

Jackson had two sacks today and finished his first regular season with 7.5. “Joe has done a fantastic job,” Diaz said. “Joe has done a phenomenal job of learning what to do within the framework of the defense.”

Gerald Willis deflected a pass and has given UM a very good No. 3 defensive tackle.

Diaz: “I didn’t like the urgency we started the game with. I don’t feel like we ran to the ball and tackled like Hurricanes defenses do. When we got going, the way we responded, getting stop after stop, [allow] the offense to take control of the game.”

• One reason why UM fans can feel good about this defense staff: They’ve consistently shown an ability to make second-half adjustments, a criticism of the prior staff.

“Coach Diaz does a super job of telling guys what has to be corrected,” Richt said.

“We made some adjustments at halftime,” safety Jamal Carter said of holding Duke scoreless in the second half until a late, meaningless Duke touchdown in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. “We see different things in the first half, come in at halftime and coaches make adjustments and go out second half and dominate.”

• Though Rayshawn Jenkins had some problems early in the game, he and Jamal Carter had solid senior seasons, showing growth under Ephraim Banda and Diaz. Carter had 13 tackles today.

• Richt said senior punter Justin Vogel “will be kicking in the pros for a longtime. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.” Junior kicker Michael Badgley kicked a 47-yarder and is now 20 for 20 in his career from 40 to 49 yards.

• UM outgained Duke, 568-395... Attendance was announced at 57,396. That means UM sold at least 50,000 seats to every home game for the first time.

• At 8-4, UM could go bowling potentially in Jacksonville, Orlando or New York. “A five-game winning streak would lay the foundation for the future,” Kaaya said.

“We’ve played our way into a pretty good situation,” Richt said of UM’s bowl situation.

Related stories from Miami Herald