Barry Jackson

Richt riding wave of momentum and UM’s future looks bright

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt raises the Championship trophy after the University of Miami defeats West Virginia Mountaineers at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando Wed., Dec. 28, 2016.
Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt raises the Championship trophy after the University of Miami defeats West Virginia Mountaineers at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando Wed., Dec. 28, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

You can feel the momentum building now, and it simply feels different than anything experienced in the past decade around here. The five-game winning streak to end the season, dovetailed by a top 12-to-15 incoming recruiting class, and now an exceptional start to 2018 recruiting that has Rivals ranking UM’s group of 12 oral commitments third nationally, ahead of powerhouses FSU, Clemson and Ohio State.

On Monday, Miami picked up a potentially NFL-caliber cornerback in grad transfer Dee Delaney. On Wednesday, the Canes snagged their seventh 2018 oral commitment from a four-star player (and 13th overall) when Bradenton IMG receiver Brian Hightower chose UM over Mississippi and Clemson, giving the Canes the player rated as the No. 8 receiver and the No. 92 overall prospect in next year’s class.

And let’s not forget this, either: “The brand is very powerful,” UM coach Mark Richt said. “And it's only going to get stronger. I think when we reach a certain level of success, people will say Miami's back. It won't be Miami's having a good year. It's going to be Miami's back. There's a difference. It's back to what we used to be, which is five time national champions.”

Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt talks about the victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Wed., Dec. 28, 2016.

When Richt arrived, he knew at least three problems needing solving. He’s well on his way to doing it:

Finding more elite skill position talent, especially with high-end speed. At receiver, he landed one with Ahmmon Richards, potentially has two more in Jeff Thomas and DeeJay Dallas (and don’t overlook Mike Harley), and already has secured oral commitments from two high-end running backs who are ranked among the top 12 backs in the 2018 class: Lorenzo Lingard (No. 3 back, No. 16 overall player, per Rivals) and Camron Davis (No. 11 back, No. 49 overall).

So UM shouldn’t miss a beat if Mark Walton turns pro after this season, though Richt is still looking for the next David Njoku at tight end.

Augmenting an offensive line that was neither overpowering enough nor nimble enough in recent years. With Kai-Leon Herbert, Navaughn Donaldson and Corey Gaynor joining a half dozen veteran returnees, this stands to be Miami’s deepest line in years.

“That was big – big in size of the guys, big in the number of guys, and big in need,” Richt said. “We needed that class of linemen.”

Solving a defense that was too often pushed around. UM has done that, finishing last season fifth in tackles for loss, 13th in points allowed per game, 21st in sacks and 23rd in total defense, and adding to their front seven with several strong prospects, topped by Sacramento four-star end DJ Johnson and Lake Worth end Jon Garvin.

And defensive coordinator Manny Diaz believes Miami now will consistently lure the type of front seven talent that was somewhat lacking in the Al Golden tenure but was vital during UM’s glory years.

“This defense began establishing what a Miami defense should look like and how it should play,” Diaz said. “For all the talk about the young linebackers and the older DBs, our front play - just changing the schematic structure of how our defensive line plays - is, to me, what changed our entire football team.

“I think recruits see that. A guy like Jon Ford, he fits in with what guys have done on the inside. We have DJ and Garvin on the outside, throw them with the other guys we have coming back…you can dominate a football game with your front. And so, we feel like the way the Miami Hurricanes play defense every year, the system of play that we play every year, should attract great defensive linemen to the U every year.”

All the internal criticism of the way UM’s defensive front played under the previous regime is also long gone, and that’s big.

“The ‘16 class is the one that had no past, they had no history,” Diaz said. “So from day one, they have all done a great job of playing like what they think the Miami Hurricanes should play like. And now they want the [Class of] 17s and 18s to come join them. They were outstanding in recruiting.

“The ’16 class is special; I think everyone sees that. The ’17 class we really like. You stack the ’18 class on top of that, and we’re ready to go blow down anybody’s door.”

And Richt smartly has embraced everything about the program’s past.

“I don't think there's any other school in America that says we're the U and everyone knows who you are,” Richt said. “I love that about us. The history and tradition of our program is so powerful. The former players, the way they love this football program is so powerful in recruiting and everything and guys want to be a part of that. DJ Johnson got super interested for two reasons: one was the great tradition and his favorite player ever was Sean Taylor. And he also understood the reputation of [defensive line] coach [Craig] Kuligowski and wanted to be coached by him.”

Here’s what Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said this week:

“The Miami Hurricanes are now rolling in the recruiting department under Mark Richt. There's no arguing that Miami was hindered under Al Golden when it came to recruiting due to the university's Nevin Shapiro scandal. Now? The Hurricanes are rolling.

“Yes, Miami has started off high in our team rankings in some previous years, but that was mainly due to quantity and not quality as Golden stocked up on recruits early in many classes. This year feels a whole lot different. The Hurricanes are No. 3 in the 2018 Rivals.com Team Recruiting Rankings with an impressive average star ranking of 3.58, much higher than those previous Golden starts.

“Miami is landing prospects that many teams want and covet instead of reaching as it had in previous years. The 2017 Miami recruiting class finished No. 11 overall in the 2017 Rivals.com Team Recruiting Rankings with a solid 3.38 average star ranking. Perhaps more important than its final ranking, that Hurricanes class hit on some key areas of need like wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back.

“This year, at least early on, Richt and his staff have taken things to the next level. The recent backfield trio of commitments led by running backs Lorenzo Lingard and Camron Davis joined a few days ago by quarterback Artur Sitkowski is as good as it gets for the Hurricanes at those positions.

“Something feels much different in Coral Gables these days when it comes to recruiting. I expect the momentum to continue through the spring and summer and into the season.”

Well put, Mike.

Yes, UM still needs to figure out quarterback among three highly-regarded prospects (Jack Allison, Cade Weldon, N’Kosi Perry), another on the way next year (Sitkowski) and three others. And the secondary will be replenished in 2018 with the arrival of four-star corner/safety Josh Jobe and four-star safety Gilbert Frierson.

Richt’s and Diaz’s plan, so far, has been executed impeccably.

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