Season opener at No. 20 Kentucky ‘great opportunity’ for Miami

RedHawks last played a SEC program in 2016

The last time before Saturday that Miami played a Southeastern Conference football team, the RedHawks lost, 17-16, to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Bowl on Dec. 26, 2016.

While Miami coach Chuck Martin probably would be happy with such a narrow outcome, he certainly would savor even more an upset in the RedHawks opener on Saturday at No. 20 Kentucky .

“We’re super excited to start,” Martin said before opening his ninth season as the RedHawks coach. “We get to play an SEC team. That’s something we haven’t done since we lost to Mississippi State. This is quite an opportunity for everyone involved. The kids are really excited. We have to prepare to play a really good team. It’s thrilling for everybody involved.

“We know the tasks that are ahead of us. Their strengths are obvious. They have a defensive mindset. They play tremendous defense. They fly around and get after the quarterback. Their quarterback (Will Levis) is probably a first-round draft pick. He’s 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds. We’ve got a whole (video) cutup of him running over SEC linebackers, but that’s not why NFL coaches like him. He can throw 75 yards in the air.”

Martin also credited Kentucky with adjusting its recruiting to focus on the gold mine that is Ohio high school football, hijacking several players who might otherwise have gone to Mid-American Conference programs.

“They’ve got a lot of Ohio kids they never recruited before,” Martin said. “They hurt our league.

“They’re a great challenge. It’s a great opener. We’ve played lots of games like this. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s a great opportunity.”

While running back Jaylon Bester relished the opportunity to play an SEC team, he was looking forward to the opportunity to return to his 2019 form, when he led Miami with 171 carries for 741 yards and 14 touchdowns on his way to being named the RedHawks Offensive Most Valuable Player. Injury problems forced him to miss all of the 2020 season and limited him to three games in 2021.

“For me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said the 5-foot-8, 181-pound senior from Carmel, Ind., who is listed as the starter on Miami’s depth chart. “I’m excited to be there.”

He knows Kentucky’s defense will make his comeback difficult.

“Their defense is athletic, but once I find space going north and south, I don’t plan on getting caught,” he said. “The goal is to get the ball into the end zone and get as many points as possible.”

Junior defensive tackle Austin Ertl is one of the few returning starters on Miami’s defense. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Wisconsin native also has extra incentive going into the game.

“I’m super excited,” he said. “There’s nothing better than 7 o’clock under the lights, but I wouldn’t say I’m more excited than normal. I’m always excited. I can’t wait to get out there and start playing, but for me, it’s a little personal. I wasn’t recruited by bigger schools. They thought I was too small, so I have a little chip on my shoulder. I want to see how I do when I go up against bigger schools.”

Ertl also is anxious to see how a RedHawks’ defense loaded with new faces performs.

“They have a first-round quarterback with a crazy arm,” he said. “Inside, they have a lot of experience. I can’t wait to see what our defense is made of. Obviously, fall camp has its trials and tribulations and ups and downs. We won’t know what to expect out there in Week One.”

Martin is looking at least partly at the game as a learning experience.

“We’ll play a lot of guys,” he said. “There are still some jobs that need to be won. Practice is great, but we have to see what happens when the lights go on. The game is the game. Their quarterback is bigger than everybody on our defensive line except our nose guard. They’ve got skill and size and their offensive line blocks out the sun.

“This is the kind of game you have to have an appetite for. Maybe some guys won’t be cut out for it. Maybe they are and maybe they know, but you can’t know until you get into the arena.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Miami at Kentucky, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 980, 1450

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