Miami is as deep, experienced and talented as almost any Mid-American Conference football team going into this college football season, but after finishing 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the conference last season, the RedHawks have much to prove.
That’s why extra work has become the rule rather than the exception in Oxford, as fifth-year coach Chuck Martin found out over the weekend.
“We gave them Friday and Saturday off, but when I stopped by on Friday, there was a handful of guys working out, and when I stopped by on Saturday, there was a handful of guys working out,” Martin said Monday morning during the first of his weekly media sessions. “I told them, ‘Hey, get the heck out of here,’ and they’re like, ‘Aw, coach, we’re just trying to get stretched out.’ It makes you feel good.”
The hope is the extra work will help the RedHawks avoid or overcome the self-inflicted mistakes that cost them several wins last season, including the opener at Marshall, where the Thundering Herd returned two kickoffs and one interception for touchdowns in a 31-26 win.
That game set the tone for a season marked by bizarre and disastrous mistakes. Miami opens the season at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against Marshall at Yager Stadium in Oxford.
“Starting off with a win would set the tone” said senior middle linebacker Junior McMullen.
Nineteen starters return for the RedHawks, eight on offense and defense and another three on special teams. That meant little to those who voted in both the MAC media and coaches’ pre-season polls. Miami was picked to finish third in the MAC East Division in both polls. That’s one slot below their predicted 2017 finish, the result of winning six straight regular-season games to close the 2016 season before narrowly losing to Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Bowl.
Senior outside linebacker Brad Koenig insists he and his teammates aren’t worrying about voices outside the program, no matter what they’re saying.
“We’re at a place where we’re ready,” said the 6-foot-1, 230-pound fifth-year senior, who led Miami with 103 total tackles, 65 solo stops and 10.5 tackles for losses. “We’re working on being locked in and mentally focused. We’re not focusing on where we finish. We’re trying to block out the outside noise and not buy into the hype. We’re just worried about the process.”
The greatest questions for the RedHawks reside in the defensive backfield, where several players are competing to replace safety Tony Reid – last season’s second-leading tackler – and cornerback Heath Harding, the Dayton Christian High School product who finished second on the team in solo tackles and third in overall stops. He also led Miami with nine pass breakups.
“We’re excited about the defense,” McMullen said. “You can’t replace Harding and Reid, but we’re confident that the guys on the back end can get the job done.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Gus Ragland leads a Miami offense that includes all five offensive linemen among the returning starters. Going against the offense daily in practice has left McMullen impressed.
“Our offense does so much stuff,” he said. “They do a lot of stuff that messes with your eyes. They force us to be disciplined and read our keys and do the things we need to do to be a great defense.”