College Football: RedHawks eager to take ‘next step’

A line in the media notes prepared by Miami’s athletic department for Saturday’s season-opening game at Marshall declared that “Miami’s football rebuild is now complete.”

Most college football coaches would downplay, if not outright deny, those six words, especially if they looked at the previous season’s record and saw 6-7. Many of them would react with significant fervor.

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Fourth-year RedHawks’ coach Chuck Martin was surprisingly agreeable with the assertion.

“I think, in some respects, it is complete,” Martin said on Monday during the first of Miami’s weekly football media sessions. “One of the first things we talked about when I got here was becoming relevant and competitive in the (Mid-American Conference) again, and I think a big part of that is complete.

“Now, what’s the next step? I think the program is where we want it to be. We only have 10 seniors on the roster. The cupboard is full. Another grand step would be to play a complete season – start strong and finish strong.”

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The RedHawks accomplished that last part in 2016, reeling off six consecutive wins to finish the regular season after starting 0-6. The strong finish led to a MAC East Division co-championship, shared with arch-rival Ohio, and a berth in the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they lost to Mississippi State, 17-16.

They can get started on completing the first part of Martin’s next step on Saturday when they travel to Huntington, W.Va., to meet former MAC-rival Marshall. Kickoff at Joan C. Edwards Stadium is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., and the game is due to be streamed live on Facebook.

“We’re excited,” Martin said. “This is game week.”

Miami’s roster actually includes 12 seniors – perhaps Martin was rounding down – but the more impressive number is 17. That’s the number of returning RedHawk starters, including nine on a defense that allowed the fewest average yards per game among MAC teams.

“It’s nice to have kids who have the experience and know what it takes to play a team of the caliber of Marshall,” Martin said.

Senior safety Tony Reid believes one area in which Miami’s defense can improve is takeaways. The RedHawks finished fifth in the 12-team MAC with 21 takeaways last season – seven fumble recoveries and 14 interceptions, led by four each by fifth-year senior cornerback Heath Harding and junior linebacker De’Andre Montgomery.

“That’s a big thing we can do,” said Reid, who led Miami in tackles last season. “We want to let everyone know that the ‘Mob’ is here. That’s what we’re calling ourselves. We want to try to cover everything. That’s what we’re working for.”

Unlike last season, when Miami had to play the first six games without quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks expect to go into this season relatively healthy. Junior defensive lineman Dean Lemon, an Alter product, won’t dress for the game because of a leg injury. The injury is not expected to keep him out for the season, a Miami spokesman said.

“The kids have worked hard for the past nine months,” he said. “Our 1-1/2 deeps are ready for this game, but our 2-2-1/2 deeps could use another couple of weeks.”

Miami has lost eight of its last nine openers with the only a 26-7 defeat of Presbyterian on the RedHawks home field at Yager Stadium in 2015. The run includes a 42-27 home loss to Marshall in Martin’s first game as Miami’s coach in 2014.

“We’re trying to get off to a good start,” he said. “We haven’t had one in a long time. That first game against Marshall wasn’t much fun. We were down, 28-3, at halftime. We’re well aware of the rivalry.”

Back to the notes declaration. Junior left guard Sam McCollum was less sure than his coach about whether the rebuild is complete.

“We’re on the way,” he said. “We still haven’t played a game. It’s hard to tell. I guess we’re progressing the way coach Martin wants us to progress, but it’s hard to tell.”

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