Miami and Mark Richt Could Be Surprise ACC Coastal Contenders

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2016

Mark Richt could turn MIami around quicker than many expect.
Mark Richt could turn MIami around quicker than many expect.Joe Skipper/Getty Images

Saturday afternoon, Miami fans got their first extended looks at the Mark Richt era, and they had to like what they saw.

Although the Hurricanes’ spring game, which was played before 15,000 fans in Fort Lauderdale due to ongoing renovations at Sun Life Stadium, was far from perfect, Richt’s new players showed that Miami’s on-field renovation could come together quicker than expected.

With talented Brad Kaaya at quarterback and tough defensive back Corn Elder leading the defense, even a banged-up Hurricanes group flashed potential that could make Miami contenders in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division this fall.

“I thought there were good things on both sides of the ball,” Richt told ESPN’s Andrea Adelson following the game on ESPN3’s broadcast. “I thought guys played hard to the end.”

That wasn’t always the case under Al Golden. Miami officials finally had enough of Golden last fall, and they canned him the day after a program-worst 58-0 home loss to Clemson. Richt, a South Florida native and former Miami quarterback, fell in the Canes’ lap after being fired at Georgia. He brings new energy and new life to a roster that sorely needs a boost.

Brad Kaaya is ready to lead Miami's offense under Mark Richt.
Brad Kaaya is ready to lead Miami's offense under Mark Richt.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Golden did leave him some significant talent. Start with Kaaya, the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2014. He is a great fit for Richt’s pro-style, multiple-back system. Last fall, his touchdowns slipped from 26 to 16, but his passing yardage rose from 3,198 to 3,238, and his interceptions fell from 12 to five.

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Saturday, he looked sharp and threw a trio of touchdowns for the Orange team. A pair went to emerging tight end Christopher Herndon IV, and the last, with 10 seconds left, went to wideout Braxton Berrios. That capped an excellent two-minute drill.

“It takes more than one guy, but he’s a great player, a great person, very coachable and teachable,” Richt said of Kaaya. “I love how he’s been responding to everything.”

Braxton Berrios has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver for Miami.
Braxton Berrios has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver for Miami.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With leading receiver Stacy Coley out nursing an injury, Berrios (healthy after battling a knee injury suffered in the 2015 season opener all season) showed he can be a No. 1 receiver. Meanwhile, returning 1,000-yard rusher Joseph Yearby also flashed his talent as a lead back, helping an offense that Richt said “was just about out of skill players” by game’s end.

Elder also made several nice plays on Kaaya throws and proved he can be a star for a defense in need of one.

There were some negatives—Richt wasn’t pleased afterward following a poor snap on the final extra point.

“In the end, we didn’t have a whole lot of gas left,” he said. “We’ve got to finish better in general. Get tougher mentally and finish better.”

While it’s hard to extrapolate opinions from a spring game that Richt designed to be vanilla (first-team offense versus second-string defense and vice versa, for the most part), the Hurricanes have pieces to contend in the ACC Coastal immediately.

North Carolina will be the likely favorite to defend its 2015 Coastal title, but the Tar Heels are replacing quarterback Marquise Williams with backup Mitch Trubisky. Beyond them, the division is wide open.

Both Virginia and Virginia Tech are breaking in new coaches in Bronco Mendenhall and Justin Fuente (who's replacing the retired Frank Beamer), respectively. Georgia Tech is rebounding from a 3-9 season. Duke could be without quarterback Thomas Sirk (who sustained a torn Achilles in winter workouts), and Pitt, under second-year coach Pat Narduzzi, could also push for the title.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes return 16 starters from an eight-win team. They have a favorable schedule, hosting Florida State and North Carolina while traveling to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Richt’s work is far from done, but this is a team that could certainly challenge for the Coastal championship and, at long last, make a trip to the ACC title game.

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