''It's the Beginning of a Long Journey''

''It's the Beginning of a Long Journey''

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Xavier Restrepo grew up in South Florida, watching the Miami Hurricanes.

And so, every time he finds himself in the tunnel at Hard Rock Stadium preparing to run through Miami’s famed white smoke on his way to the field, he makes it a point to soak up the moment.

For him, there’s nothing in the world like that sense of anticipation, that incredible excitement.

Finally, after nine long months of waiting, on Friday night, Restrepo will get to experience those feelings again when he and his Hurricanes teammates return to Hard Rock to open the 2023 season against Miami (Ohio).

The receiver is, understandably, plenty excited.

“For me at least, when I’m running through the smoke, it’s a flashback to everything I went through and all the obstacles I overcame and my reasons why,” Restrepo said this week after one of the Hurricanes’ last practices before the opener. “Sometimes, I even get emotional running through the smoke because it’s a dream come true…Actually being able to run through the smoke is very humbling.

“It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

While Restrepo, a fourth-year junior, won’t be making his first run through the smoke on Friday night, dozens of new Hurricanes – from coaches to freshmen to transfers – will have that experience and like the veteran receiver, they’re looking forward to soaking up every moment.

But all of them know that once the smoke clears, there’s a job to do.

They’re looking forward to that, too and showing the kind of progress they’ve made this offseason.

“Every day in practice, we’re going at it, whether it’s the freshmen or we’re going against the older guys. We’re just coming in to work,” said freshman defensive lineman Rueben Bain, Jr. , a former four-star prospect out of Miami Central High School who will be suiting up for his first game in orange and green. “I feel like the coaches have seen that in us…now we’re showing why they recruited us and working every day.”

Bain is one of several standout newcomers that are expected to make an impact this season.

Fellow freshmen, including offensive linemen Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola, have earned praise from teammates and coaches throughout preseason camp, as have receiver Nathaniel “Ray Ray” Joseph and running back Mark Fletcher, Jr.

Meanwhile, veteran players like offensive linemen Matt Lee and Javion Cohen, defensive lineman Branson Deen, running back Ajay Allen, receiver Tyler Harrell, and linebacker Francisco Mauigoa joined the Hurricanes in the offseason, knowing they have the potential to be difference makers for a program looking to bounce back after a tough 5-7 season a year ago.

All of those newcomers – and veterans like Restrepo, quarterback Tyler Van Dyke and All-American safety Kam Kinchens – will have their first opportunity on Friday to show the kind of work they’ve done to grow not just as individual players, but as a team.

It’s work that has second-year head coach Mario Cristobal excited about what’s to come.

“We’re super fired up about that mostly because of the progress and the development and the growth of our team and the time invested, the real time and real work done over the past several months,” Cristobal said. “[We] finally get the chance to go out there and play…Again, the continued growth and commitment of the program, the elevation of the culture and some really good practices led up to this opportunity coming up on Friday.”

Friday will also be a chance for fans to see the systems put together by Miami’s two new coordinators, Shannon Dawson on the offensive side of the ball and Lance Guidry on defense.

Last season at Houston, Dawson’s Cougars ranked eighth nationally in passing offense (314.0 yards) while quarterback Clayton Tune set the American Athletic Conference single-season touchdown passing record with 40. Wide receiver Nathaniel Dell, meanwhile, led the nation in receiving touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,398).

At Marshall, Guidry’s defense finished the 2022 season ranked in the top five nationally among FBS programs in several key areas including third-down defense (first), stop rate (second), pass efficiency defense (third), defensive efficiency (third), yards per play (third), turnovers gained (fifth) and rushing defense (fifth).

All of that, the Hurricanes hope, will make a difference.

“Systematically, we feel like we’re better suited to our personnel,” Cristobal said. “There’s really not much talk that needs to be added. Let’s go play football and find out where we’re at, play to the best of our abilities and keep progressing.”

Like the Hurricanes, the RedHawks have their share of new faces taking the field Friday.

Miami (Ohio) has a roster that features 20 players who started their college careers at different programs. But their leader, quarterback Brett Gabbert – the younger brother of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Blaine Gabbert – has been a consistent force for the RedHawks.

Brett Gabbert was the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year and ranks sixth in program history with 6,259 passing yards and 45 passing touchdowns.

Defending him, the Hurricanes know, will be a huge test.

“He does it all. He’s an excellent passer. He’s a tough, and physical, and fast explosive runner. Great feel for the system. He makes the magic happen for them. Great feel for the entire culture, the organization,” Cristobal said. “You can tell he’s one of their primary leaders and it shows in the way that he plays the game, and it shows in the production that he’s had. And certainly, I know they count a lot on him. But he’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, now. He’s not doing it by himself. He has some really good players around him.”

The Hurricanes will counter with their own talented quarterback, Van Dyke, who was the 2021 ACC Rookie of the Year.

A fourth-year junior, Van Dyke threw for 1,835 yards and 10 touchdowns last season despite being hampered by a shoulder injury that caused him to miss significant playing time during the latter part of the year.

And more than once since returning to action during the offseason, the veteran signal caller has spoken about how eager he is to get back on the field with his teammates.

“Last year didn’t go as planned. It’s a new year. I think everything happens for a reason and you go through times of adversity for a reason,” Van Dyke said this summer. “We’re just looking forward to this year, taking it one day at a time, staying focused in the present. Our goal is just to win, just take it one day at a time, as I said, and just win.”

On Friday, he and the rest of the Hurricanes will have their chance to start that new year.

They say they’re more than ready for the challenge – on Friday and beyond.

“It’s the beginning of a long journey,” Kinchens said. “We’re here to show everybody what we’ve earned throughout this spring, fall camp and summer. We’re going to put it on display.”