Ten Takeaways from Miami's Season-Opening Win over UAB

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – For months, they had no idea whether they’d even get to play.

But Thursday night, on a stage that looked vastly different than it did last fall, the Miami Hurricanes kicked off a new season in front of a limited group of fans at Hard Rock Stadium.

Miami’s new-look offense made its highly anticipated debut. So, too, did graduate transfer D’Eriq King, kicker Jose Borregales and veteran defensive ends Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips. Running back Cam’Ron Harris put on a show. Linebackers Bradley Jennings Jr. and Waynmon Steed, both of whom dealt with traumatic injuries last year and endured painful recoveries to get back on the field, returned to action for the first time in more than a year.

Ultimately, all of that helped the Hurricanes pick up a morale-boosting 31-14 win over UAB in a season opener none of them will likely forget any time soon.

“Ball is ball. Once the game started, you’re so wrapped up in the game,” Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz said of how it felt to play a game during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Certainly, the environment was a little bit different. But I’ve got to say, it was great to see the fans that were able to come to the game, come to the game. This was the first major sporting event in Dade County since mid-March and just to have that sense of community and have our players see people supporting them and stuff like that again [was great]. This was not promised to us, so we were happy to have the fans we had and thought they did a great job during the game.”

With their season opener behind them, the Hurricanes will now turn their focus to their ACC opener next week at Louisville. But before that, here’s a look at some of what they can take from their win over UAB.

1. Miami’s sacrifices and dedication paid off

In March, when spring football was canceled and Miami’s campus was closed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, there was still hope that, come fall, football would return.

But this summer, as coronavirus spread across the country and South Florida emerged as one of the pandemic’s global epicenters, there were no guarantees any games would be played.

Still, after working with Miami’s administration and the countless doctors and public health experts at UHealth, the Hurricanes established a series of safety protocols that allowed them to return to offseason workouts with the hope of playing this fall.

Schools across the ACC did the same and after weeks of testing, practicing social distancing and mask-wearing, Miami became the first conference team to play.

And after the win, before he even addressed how his team had performed on the field, Diaz lauded what it had done all summer to make Thursday’s game possible.

“Couldn’t be more proud of our players. Just, number one, everything that they did to get us to this day. Starting back June 15th, the first workouts, [they] did everything we asked them to do in the summer, kept each other safe—just gave us the chance to play today,” Diaz said. “And then our performance, it’s a season opener [and] there’s a ton of stuff to correct, but [I liked] just our demeanor, our temperament on the sideline, the way the guys supported each other and the way we just stayed after that UAB team.”

2. Miami’s new-look offense showed its potential

One of Diaz’s off-season priorities was finding a way to revamp Miami’s offense, which struggled during last year’s tough 6-7 season.

To that end, he hired a new offensive coordinator – Rhett Lashlee, who last season, presided over a top-10 offense at SMU that averaged 489.8 yards and 41.8 points per game.

Together, Diaz and Lashlee recruited King, one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in college football who was coming off a redshirt season in 2019.

Thursday, Lashlee’s offense delivered on its promise to operate quickly and move the ball.

Miami outgained UAB 492-285. The Hurricanes outrushed the Blazers 337-80 and ran a total of 78 plays. In the third quarter, Miami put together a pair of quick, impressive scoring drives, one that went 71 yards on seven plays and took 2:16 off the clock, the other going 75 yards on seven plays that took 2:42 off the clock.

And while UAB had already played a game, the Blazers couldn’t keep pace with Miami’s tempo.

“Give them credit. They have a lot of great athletes on their side of the ball and they tempo’d us,” UAB coach Bill Clark said. “I think we might have gotten worn down a little bit.”

Added Diaz, “I thought our guys really looked relentless. There’s some things, again, we have to correct, but I thought those three-and-outs in the first half allowed our offense to get the ball back and those snaps just start wearing down on the opposition. You could just see that cumulative effect of the snaps and the tempo in this humidity.”

3. King’s debut proved memorable

Lashlee’s offense wasn’t the only thing Hurricanes fans wanted to see Thursday night.

The season opener gave those fans – and the rest of college football – a look at King, who hadn’t played since deciding to redshirt at Houston last fall.

In assessing his performance postgame, the quarterback conceded there are things he’d like to continue to work on moving forward. But his first game at Miami was still plenty memorable.

King completed 15 of his 23 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. He rushed 12 times for another 83 yards and a score. And he extended his FBS record to 16 straight games with at least one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown.

The numbers weren’t the only thing that told the story of King’s night, though. The quarterback also threw a block that helped Harris pick up a big gain. And when King scored on a 12-yard run in the second quarter and was presented with Miami’s new Touchdown Rings, the quarterback handed the jewelry to his offensive linemen.

His leadership was on as much display as his athleticism and that’s not anything the Hurricanes take for granted.

“You saw how special he was today, running on foot. That guy is amazing,” Harris said of King. “Coming into the game, he was being a great leader. He didn’t have many mistakes and was just being a smart quarterback and I think that’s what we need.”

4. Harris led a strong rushing attack

King wasn’t the only offensive player that put up impressive numbers against UAB.

Harris, a junior moving into his first season as Miami’s lead running back, finished with a game-high 17 carries for another game-high 134 yards. He scored a pair of touchdowns, including a 66-yarder that gave Miami its first score of the season and came on a 4th-and-1 situation.

His performance helped Miami total 337 rushing yards. That’s the second-most by a Miami team against an FBS opponent since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004 and the most since they rushed for 364 yards at Virginia Tech in 2014.

King contributed to those numbers, as did freshmen Jaylan Knighton and Donald Chaney, Jr.

Knighton finished with nine carries for 59 yards, while Chaney added eight carries for 52 yards.

“The mission today was that we were going to put the ball on the ground. We were going to run the ball, as you could see,” Harris said. “You saw Jaylan tonight, you saw [Robert] Burns, you saw Don Chaney eating. You saw the whole running back room eating. Once we pound the ball, we’re going to take shots.”

5. The defense was solid

Miami’s defense was put in a tough spot early when it was forced into a sudden-change situation after a muffed punt deep in its own territory.

But the Hurricanes rebounded after that hold UAB’s run game in check and consistently get the Blazers off the field.

UAB managed a meager 80 rushing yards, with 23 of them coming on a single Spencer Brown run. Additionally, Miami held UAB to just 3-of-13 on third-down conversions and forced the Blazers to punt 11 times.

The Hurricanes also combined for six tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and six QB hurries.

“For the most part, I thought the tackling for Game One was pretty good,” Diaz said. “Just there was one or two in space that bothered us. UAB kind of switched running schemes from last season. They became more of an outside zone team. Like you said, there was a lot of times where we got them for some tackles for losses and some negative yardage plays.”

Said Roche of Miami’s run defense, “It was stout. Great job by the defensive line, great job by the linebackers and the front seven in general, even the defensive backs. It was just the coaches having a game plan. Everything we game planned; we saw in the game today. Any time that happens, it is all on the players to execute, so I think we did a really good job.”

6. The kicking game could be an effective weapon this season

A season ago, Lou Hedley gave the Hurricanes a boost in their punting game.

Turns out, the Australian fan favorite is still really good at what he does.

Hedley averaged 47.5 yards on his six punts, had two of those punts land inside the 20-yard line and had a long of 55 yards.

Borregales, a transfer from FIU, joined the Hurricanes this offseason to help provide the same kind of spark Hedley provided last fall.

On Thursday, Borregales delivered. He connected on his only field goal attempt of the night, a 25-yarder in the third quarter, and connected on all four of his point-after attempts. He also averaged 65 yards on his six kickoffs, with all six going for touchbacks.

“We’ve seen the addition the last two years of [Lou] Hedley last year and then [Jose] Borregales this year. I think every kickoff was a touchback. We made our field goals,” Diaz said. “Hedley, it was like a bomb after bomb, 47.5 average, long of 55, always putting them on a long field.”

7. Brevin’s back

Tight end Brevin Jordan, who missed time at the end of last season because of a foot injury, returned to the field Friday and once again, showed why he can be among the nation’s top tight ends.

The preseason ACC selection and a 2019 Mackey Award finalist had three catches for a team-high 51 yards and his 4-yard touchdown grab on the final play of the third quarter gave the Hurricanes a 17-point lead that proved more than enough.

8. The newcomers made their presence known

More than a few of Miami’s newcomers made their presence known in Thursday’s win, starting of course, with King and Borregales.

Phillips and Roche were active in Miami’s pass rush, with Roche notching the Hurricanes’ only sack Thursday and Phillips collecting a pair of tackles and breaking up a pair of passes.

Meanwhile, Knighton and Chaney showed what a solid combination they can be for years to come, the freshmen totaling 111 yards between them to earn praise from their coach.

“I think what you saw tonight is what we saw during the preseason. And I’m sure they’ll look at some of their runs and see where they could have made some different cuts, but the name of the game is explosion,” Diaz said. “So, in addition to the fact they both got six yards a carry, a 25-yarder for Knighton and a 33-yarder for Chaney, where you can just really flip the field and just make big things happen.”

9. Jennings, Steed return to action together

It has been a challenging 18 months for linebackers Jennings and Steed who suffered devastating injuries within weeks of each other during spring practice in 2019.

For Jennings, it was a complicated hip injury and for Steed, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a knee that had already been surgically repaired once before.

But after more than a year of intense physical therapy and rehabilitative work, the former roommates were cleared to participate in preseason camp. Thursday, each played in their first games since the 2018 season.

Jennings, who made his first start as Miami’s middle linebacker, finished with a team-high six tackles and two tackles for loss. Steed, meanwhile, notched a tackle and was in on a tackle for loss.

Both linebackers’ dedication has made an impression on their teammates and coaches.

“I thought Bradley Jennings played really well. And it was really great to see Waynmon Steed in there,” Diaz said. “Got to give credit to Vinny Scavo and Jeff Ruiz and our medical training staff because both those guys came back from really, really difficult injuries to come back from and it wasn’t always guaranteed that they would get to see the field at all. And for both those guys to go in there and play the role, I thought it really, really neat to have both those guys in.”

Added defensive tackle Nesta Silvera, “BJ didn’t miss a step as you all could see. He was out there whacking people, up there on the top of the team in tackles in his first game back in over a year and a half. That’s a testament to him and also to our training staff in how they worked with him.

10. Now, the ACC schedule begins

As much as the Hurricanes enjoyed their performance and celebrated their win on Thursday, they know there are still a number of things to work on, especially with 10 straight ACC games now looming on the schedule.

King noted, specifically, he wants to do better connecting with his receivers on long pass plays. Punt return may be a practice focus in the days to come after a costly turnover on special teams and Diaz noted Miami’s technique and consistency will be things to work on after Week One.

“A lot to correct from Game One, but a lot to be proud of and just thankful to be these guys’ coach and have the opportunity to coach a football game at Hard Rock Stadium today,” Diaz said.

Added King, “Week Ones are always weird. Every Week One I’ve been a part of has been a crazy week. But yeah, new offense, new quarterback, new system totally, missing spring ball, missing a little bit of summer—I think we did pretty good for the occasion. We’ve got to keep getting better and have a great week of practice. Usually the biggest jump is Week One to Week Two. So, hopefully we can have a great week of practice and go out there and have a great game versus Louisville.”