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Memorable Moments from the 2021 Season

Memorable Moments from the 2021 Season

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In so many ways, this was a season defined by their resilience.

The Hurricanes weathered their share of ups and downs in 2021, with a rough start to the year and injuries to leaders on both sides of the ball having the potential to derail Miami’s season before the Hurricanes even made it to the heart of their conference schedule.

But more than once, Miami’s players found ways to fight through the challenges.

When their veteran quarterback was lost for the season, a second-year freshman emerged and not only grew into his role as a leader, but made national headlines in the process.

And when they lost their first two ACC games by a combined five points, the Hurricanes responded by notching back-to-back wins over a pair of top-25 teams before closing the year out with victories in five of their last six games.

The Hurricanes went on to finish the year with a 7-5 record, including a 5-3 mark in conference play and now set their sights on the season ahead.

In the coming weeks, they’ll begin their offseason conditioning program. A new head coach will set the tone. New signees will arrive in Coral Gables and the work to prepare for 2022 will begin in earnest.

Before that, though, here are look at ten memorable moments from the season that was.

1. Tyler Van Dyke takes the reins

Every expectation entering the season was that veteran quarterback D’Eriq King – who threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020 – would return from a knee injury suffered in last year’s bowl game to lead Miami’s offense.

And for three games, that was exactly what happened, with King starting for Miami in the season opener against Alabama, the home opener against Appalachian State and a key non-conference matchup against Michigan State.

But King, one of the Hurricanes’ leaders both on and off the field, was hurt in the loss to the Spartans and doctors concluded the redshirt senior needed season-ending shoulder surgery.

And so, on Sept. 25, freshman Tyler Van Dyke made the first start of his Miami career.

The quarterback threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ 69-0 win over Central Connecticut State that day.

He went on to become the ACC Rookie of the Year and the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Van Dyke finished the year throwing for 2,931 yards while completing 62 percent of his passes. He threw for at least 300 yards in each of Miami’s last six games and his 25 touchdowns are tied for seventh on Miami’s all-time single-season list.

“Going out there and getting comfortable with playing with the speed of Division I college football as the biggest difference,” Van Dyke said earlier this month. “It’s what I learned throughout the year. I could really do it. I could play quarterback at the University of Miami.

“Once I believed in that, nothing could really stop me or the offense. Now, I just have to keep believing in that and keep believing in my teammates.”

2. The Canes knock off Pittsburgh and Van Dyke outduels Kenny Pickett

The Hurricanes arrived in the Steel City on Oct. 30 fresh off a win over North Carolina State knowing they faced another test against a top-20 team and a Heisman Trophy finalist in Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Miami scored on its first three possessions and while Pickett had a big day, Van Dyke was more than able to hold his own against the eventual ACC Player of the Year.

Van Dyke threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns, Miami totaled 490 yards of offense and freshman safety James Williams had a late fourth-quarter interception of Pickett that helped seal the Hurricanes’ 38-34 win over the then 17th-ranked Panthers.

“We know Pitt has a great offense. They’ve shown it all year. So we knew we were going to have to score a lot of points, even with our great defense,” Van Dyke said after the win. “The defense came clutch with two interceptions, made some great stops…At the end of the day, we ended up doing what we had to do, scoring more points than them. It was good.”

3. A big night against NC State kicks off a three-game win streak

After losses to Virginia and North Carolina to start conference play, the Hurricanes were at a crossroads when NC State arrived at Hard Rock Stadium on the night of Oct. 23.

Most outside South Florida expected the 18th-ranked Wolfpack and their stalwart defense to hand Miami its third straight conference loss. The Hurricanes had other ideas.

(Photo by JC Ridley/University of Miami Athletics)

With Van Dyke at the helm, the Hurricanes amassed 420 yards of total offense, the defense held NC State to just 3 of 14 on third-down conversions and Miami picked up a 31-30 win.

Receiver Charleston Rambo finished with nine catches for a game-high 127 yards, running back Jaylan Knighton rushed for 83 yards and had another 83 receiving yards and freshman safety Kamren Kinchens had one of the most memorable tackles of the year in the win.

“It was a huge win, a huge team win. We fought well and we got a ‘W,’ finally,” linebacker Corey Flagg said. “We found a way to win…We won together.”

4. Kam’s big stop

One of the biggest storylines of the season was the emergence of more than a handful of freshman playmakers, including Kinchens.

A former four-star prospect out of Miami Northwestern High School, Kinchens made one of the biggest tackles of the year in Miami’s win over NC State.

With the Hurricanes clinging to a one-point lead and the Wolfpack driving in the game’s final minutes, Kinchens dragged down NC State receiver Thayer Thomas just short of a first down that would have extended Wolfpack drive.

Instead, Miami took over on downs with 2:49 left and went on to win the game.

The tackle happened near the Hurricanes’ sideline and set off a wild celebration Kinchens won’t be forgetting any time soon.

“It added so much more that it happened on our sideline,” Kinchens said after the win. “It was like doing it right around your family. They were already right there, seeing it right in front of their eyes, literally three feet away. As soon as the whistle was blown, they ran onto the field.”

Kinchens went on to finish the year with 44 tackles, four passes deflected, a forced fumble and a tackle for loss.

5. Rambo and Harley’s record-breaking day

Miami’s regular-season finale at Duke turned out to be an especially memorable day for Rambo and fellow receiver Mike Harley.

The Hurricanes picked up a big 47-10 win over the Blue Devils and in the process, the two veteran receivers rewrote the Miami record book.

Harley, a fifth-year senior, finished the day with 13 catches for 96 yards and became not only Miami’s single-game receptions leader, but the Hurricanes’ all-time leader in career catches.

He finished his career at Miami with 182 receptions, passing the mark of 173 set by former Hurricanes great Reggie Wayne between 1997 and 2009.

“This place made me a man. This place made me humble. This place made me get closer to God. This place made me become a football player,” Harley said of his experience at Miami after the win. “This place made me a big brother, a leader. This place made me give back to the community. I could name a lot…I’m grateful to be here.”

While Harley set career marks with his performance at Duke, Rambo – a transfer from Oklahoma – made the most of his single season with the Hurricanes.

The receiver finished the day with eight catches for 101 yards. That helped him become Miami’s single-season leader with 1,172 receiving yards and Miami’s single-season leader in receptions with 79 catches. He bypassed former Hurricanes receiver Allen Hurns and Leonard Hankerson, respectively, to secure those records.

“This feels good,” Rambo said after the win. “Even before we got to play ball, when I got here, it was straight grinding and working hard. Today, it paid off.”

6. A Hard Rock Stadium debut to remember

Kicker Andy Borregales came into the season having watched more than his fair share of games at Hard Rock Stadium.

After all, his older brother, Jose, didn’t just kick for the Hurricanes in 2020 – he became the first Lou Groza Award winner in Miami history.

On Sept. 11, it was Andy Borregales’ turn to take the field at Hard Rock. And the freshmen had as memorable a home debut as he could have wanted.

With 2:04 left and the Hurricanes trailing Appalachian State by one, Borregales – who’d had a kick blocked earlier in the game – trotted out onto the field and calmly split the uprights with a 43-yard field goal that would lift Miami to a 25-23 win.

Borregales went on to convert 17 of his 21 field goal attempts on the year and was a perfect 45 of 45 on point-after attempts.

Needless to say, both he – and his brother – were thrilled with that kick against the Mountaineers.

“I had no doubt in my mind he was going to make it,” Jose Borregales said after the game.

Added Andy Borregales, “That was amazing.”

7. Miami’s freshmen make their mark

Andy Borregales was just one of Miami’s freshmen to have a significant impact this season.

Kinchens and Williams teamed up in the secondary to total 44 and 31 tackles, respectively. Williams added a pair of interceptions, too and defensive tackle Leonard Taylor had 21 tackles and was tied with veteran Zach McCloud for a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss.

Meanwhile, the trio of receivers Romello Brinson, Jacolby George and Brashard Smith – affectionately known as Miami’s “Three Amigos” – combined for 28 catches and 472 yards, and running backs Thad Franklin II and Cody Brown both saw significant playing time as the year went on.

All are looking forward to building on what they accomplished and learned this year.

“With this [at the collegiate level], you’ve really got to do your job. You can’t be a super hero or try to do everybody else’s job because that’s how you lose games,” Kinchens said after the win over NC State. “That’s how I’ve really grown. Everything else, I think I’m mature enough to already know and I’ve already been put in good situations.”

8. Knighton carries the load

After missing the first four games of the season, running back Jaylan Knighton returned to action in Miami’s ACC opener against Virginia.

He finished that game with a team-high 47 yards, but went on to become Miami’s workhorse, especially with teammates Cam Harris and Donald Chaney Jr. lost to season-ending injuries.

Knighton totaled a team-high 561 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 20 catches for 280 yards and another three scores.

His total of 841 all-purpose yards ranked second on the team behind only Rambo’s 1,172 yards and his average of 105.1 yards per game led the Hurricanes.

“Me working hard and me going hard is an everyday thing,” Knighton said after he rushed for a game-high 83 yards against NC State. “So I just put it on the field on Saturdays [on] tape. I prepare throughout the week, Monday through Friday, and perform on Saturday, So, with that, I just stay focused, work hard, grind with my teammates and let that go.”

9. Miami’s seniors get a memorable Hard Rock sendoff

There were moments the weather conditions were less than ideal when the Hurricanes played their home finale against Virginia Tech on Nov. 20.

But that didn’t seem to matter to more than a few of Miami’s seniors who took the field against Virginia Tech that night.

(Photo by Eric Espada/University of Miami Athletics)

Harley caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Van Dyke in the fourth quarter that helped pad the Hurricanes’ lead in what was eventually a 38-26 win over the Hokies. McCloud, playing at defensive end for the first time in his Miami career, recorded his first strip-sack of the year, while Rambo had a game-high seven catches for 116 yards. Defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera and striker Gilbert Frierson, meanwhile, were among Miami’s defensive leaders with six tackles each.

When the game ended, Miami’s seniors were carried off the field and each had one more memory to treasure.

“That moment meant a lot,” Harley said of his late touchdown. “I wasn’t supposed to be in on that play but [former Hurricanes offensive coordinator Rhett] Lashlee looked at me and was like ‘Get in’ and I just ran in there. It was so crazy. I was smiling, literally smiling…As I was running, I was smiling and I was like ‘Throw the ball, Tyler.’ I could hear the stadium saying ‘Mike, Mike,’ because I was wide open…I caught the ball and I scored, but I was smiling the whole time.”

10. A new era begins

For Miami, one of the most memorable moments of the season came not on the field in a game, but at the Carol Soffer Indoor Practice Facility earlier this month.

On Dec. 7, former Hurricanes offensive lineman Mario Cristobal returned to his alma mater as the Hurricanes’ new head coach.

A two-time national champion during his time at Miami, Cristobal led Oregon to three straight Pac-12 conference championship games before coming home to Coral Gables.

And the veteran coach, who worked previously as an assistant at both Alabama and Rutgers and was also the head coach at FIU, has hit the ground running in his new role with the Hurricanes.

He began recruiting almost immediately and signed eight new playmakers during December’s Early Signing Period, with more additions expected in the coming weeks and months.

And for Cristobal – a Miami native who played at nearby Christopher Columbus High School – the work of helping the Hurricanes return to national prominence is extremely personal.

“The University of Miami is always going to be the difference-maker in my life…It generates those feelings, those emotions,” Cristobal said earlier this month. “It’s my turn to work with everyone here and grant those same types of pathways and opportunities to the players that are here now so they can feel that same way; they can hopefully, have an even better experience, so they can accomplish everything they came here to do while taking the program to the next level.”