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''We're Building Chemistry Right Now''

''We're Building Chemistry Right Now''

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Marley Cook knew full well what he was capable of in the weight room.

As a high schooler in Water Valley, Mississippi, the defensive lineman had lifted more than his share of heavy weights. He’d done the same thing at Middle Tennessee State, too.

Still, being able to set a program record for Miami’s football team when he squatted 705 pounds during offseason workouts earlier this year was something worth celebrating – especially since it came while he was surrounded by his new Hurricanes teammates, many of whom were loudly cheering him on every time weight was added to the bar.

“It’s been a while since I did it. It’s been since high school,” Cook said. “At Middle Tennessee State, the most I did was like 635 and they made me stop … When I got here, they kept lowering the bar [to add weight]. [Football strength and conditioning coordinator Aaron] Feld was like, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ So, I looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, it’s on now.’ And being around those guys, my teammates in there, [they] were helping me out. They keep me going, get me boosted up. Not only my teammates, but my coaches, too.”

Said Hurricanes defensive lineman Jared Harrison-Hunte of that memorable session in the weight room, “It was ridiculous how fast it went up. You don’t know how much 700 pounds is. It should not be going up that fast … and Marley hit a number that shouldn’t be hit. It was just excitement. It was loud. It felt like Hard Rock Stadium versus FSU-loud. It was very loud. Very, very, very, very loud.”

As the Hurricanes continue navigating their way through spring practice, Cook is one of three new faces on the defensive line looking to use their experience to help make Miami better, along with NC State transfer C.J. Clark and Marshall transfer Elijah Alston.

All three bring solid resumes with them and have faced top-notch competition. And yes, two of them have faced off against the Hurricanes in recent years and walked away with wins.

But both Clark and Cook say they walked away with something else: a belief in head coach Mario Cristobal’s vision for the Hurricanes and Miami’s toughness, even in challenging moments.

“The aggression, the want … those guys out there on that offensive line – Matt Lee – they were dominant from snap one to the end [of the game],” said Clark, who registered a sack and three tackles for NC State against Miami last season and finished the year with 22 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. “No matter what the score was, they were dominant. And I kept that in my head.”

Said Cook, who had a sack for Middle Tennessee against Miami in 2022 and totaled 22 tackles and six tackles for loss last season, “I saw what they had here. I saw the potential they had. In the bowl game … halfway through the season, I watched the majority of the games and I said, ‘This team is pretty young, but as long as they get a couple older guys and the right pieces and [they’re] able to uplift the younger guys, you have talent everywhere … I never thought I’d transfer from Middle Tennessee, but now that I’m here, I’m giving this program everything I’ve got.”

Like Clark and Cook, Alston was impressed by what he’s seen from Miami, but his connection to the Hurricanes was a bit more personal.

The former Marshall standout built a relationship with Hurricanes defensive coordinator Lance Guidry while the coach was with the Thundering Herd.

The opportunity to reunite with Guidry and once again play for his former defensive coordinator was intriguing. And after a few months in Coral Gables, Alston says that reunion with Guidry has been every bit the positive experience he expected.

“We built a great connection. He’s a good guy. He’s a good coach. Outside of football, he’s an even better person,” said Alston, who totaled 46 tackles at Marshall last season. “So, it was fun coming out there to reconnect with him all over again. … He did a good job of teaching me the game of football, instead of just coaching me. … He helped me grow as a person and a player.”

Alston, Clark and Cook join a unit that has been a reliably consistent force for the Hurricanes of late.

Two recent former Hurricanes alums – Greg Rousseau and Jaelan Phillips – are on NFL rosters. And last fall, Miami defensive lineman Rueben Bain, Jr. was named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year after a stellar debut season that included 37 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks.

Every expectation for Miami’s defensive line is that the unit will continue to be a force moving forward under coaches Jason Taylor and Joe Salave’a.

Veteran experience will be a big reason why, Taylor said.

“We’ve had some success in the [transfer] portal and understanding the importance of some of those spots. Guys like [Alston] coming in, who’ve been in this system before at Marshall. So, taking away that learning curve and having a chance to work more on details and understanding second-level concepts … he’s been good for us,” Taylor said. “Obviously, C.J.’s seen a lot of football. Marley’s seen a lot of football. … Marley’s come in here and done a really, really good job. Thomas Gore’s done a great job. I know he was here [last season], but he was a transfer from before. …

“Having those experienced guys come in, be familiar with learning and the process of learning, being familiar with the rigors of practice of a Power Five, of a high-level practice. … it’s good to have those veteran guys in the building that know what they’re trying to do. They figured out their why. They have a destination and they’re working every day to get there. So, it’s the coaching, the mentorship, and the motivation for them is done differently than it is for someone fresh off the airplane.”

Now, of course, the challenge for Miami’s new defensive linemen is to continue growing in their new surroundings, to continue learning and to continue mentoring the players around them.

Each of them, they say, is embracing that opportunity.

“We’re building chemistry right now,” Alston said. “We’ve got Marley Cook, we’ve got C.J. Clark, we’ve got Bain, we’ve got Harrison-Hunte. We have the younger guys under us. The chemistry is there. That’s all going to be there. We just have to put it all together.”

Said Clark, “Everyone wants to be great, so you have to push every day to be great. Have that mindset and remember who you are and continue to grind every day.”