Linda Robertson

UM begins season ready to play like it used to — fast and violently

Former Canes' running back Edgerrin James, and Canes' coach Mark Richt during practice at the University of Miami's Greentree Field, Coral Gables, Florida on Aug. 12, 2016.
Former Canes' running back Edgerrin James, and Canes' coach Mark Richt during practice at the University of Miami's Greentree Field, Coral Gables, Florida on Aug. 12, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The new coaches of the University of Miami football team don’t mince words. They bludgeon them. Probably in hopes that their players will do the same to opponents.

It’s a refreshing vocabulary for a program trying to remake itself after years in the doldrums.

Coach Mark Richt and his staff want the Hurricanes to play “violently.” They want their young starters to be so hyped up and psyched up that they’ll be “puking” in the locker room at game time. They have not been shy about telling the older players that “they’re not as good as they think they are.” They’ve been forthcoming about eradicating the “virus” of complacency.

Richt will get the first indication of whether his tough-love revamp is working in UM’s season opener against Florida A&M at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Richt knows that as a former Hurricane and projected savior, he can expect a generous honeymoon period. But he’s taking nothing for granted. He comes from the Southeastern Conference, where the fans are a lot more demanding and the football is a lot more rugged. He required his Hurricanes to follow an arduous conditioning regimen because he wants them to be fast and strong enough to handle his steep, accelerated learning curve.

The 2016 season promises to be a fascinating one, if not a dreamy one. The 180-degree turnaround isn’t going to happen in a year. With a schedule that builds precipitously in difficulty, UM will be fortunate to win eight games.

But it’s going to be fun to watch — unlike recent seasons, when it was exasperating to watch.

What Richt and his assistants bring is a sense of urgency that was missing during Randy Shannon’s tenure and a sense of ferocity that dissipated during Al Golden’s tenure. Those fans longing for the “It’s a Cane thing” attitude that was trademarked during UM’s maverick glory days won’t get it under Richt. He is cut from a more tailored cloth than his predecessors of that tumultuously successful era, when UM was such a reflection of Miami, the country’s rogue city.

Leave those snapshots in the scrapbook. College football is a different game today. If UM is to return to the top 10, it needs a coach who understands what it takes to belong because he resided there himself.

It’s a grand time to be optimistic in South Florida, where football has floundered for years. With Adam Gase in charge of the Dolphins and Richt installing his philosophy in Coral Gables, the teams could become relevant again in the NFL and FCS.

Not immediately, though. Ex-coaches Joe Philbin and Golden were remarkably similar in the regression they caused. Their players must take the blame, too, but it was stunning how both the Dolphins and the Hurricanes became passive. They played hesitantly, made mistakes, failed to make pivotal plays, couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. All of the big games got away from them.

What was most maddening about the Hurricanes was their inability to tackle. That single flaw encapsulated all that wasn’t going right. There was so much “scheming” that they misplaced the feeling of playing with instinctual abandon. It’s almost like they forgot they were playing football, a game — whether you love it or hate it — where you must hit, smash, sack and subdue your opponent more forcefully and frequently than he does you.

Now Richt has to adjust to the dismissals of defensive starters Jermaine Grace and Al-Quadin Muhammad due to rental-car benefits involving a sports agent — a situation UM must disassociate itself from given its history and probation on the Nevin Shapiro case.

He’s dealing with injuries to Trent Harris and Anthony Moten. Three freshmen will start at linebacker. But he has viewed these early setbacks as opportunities for his players.

“I talked to the team about how football is a game of attrition,” he said. “From that standpoint, everybody gets, ‘Hey, the next guy has to be ready.’ All you can do is react and try and make it positive for the future.”

Just listen to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who doesn’t expect his players to “wear a cape” but does want to see them “fire off the ball” and “play a hundred miles per hour.”

“Everyone just play, and play fast and play violently and we will like the outcome,” Diaz said.

What’s different about this revival of UM football? Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski boils it down to the essence, and the essence is exactly what UM has been missing.

“We will get to the locker room and see if they are puking or not, and then we will go from there. I had one of my freshmen last year, he came up to me before the game and said, ‘Coach, I feel like I am about to throw up,’ ” Kuligowski said. “And I said, ‘Go ahead and throw up. Once you hit somebody, it’s all football.’ 

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