Miami has plenty of talented football players. In fact, this year’s team might be one of the most talented groups that the Canes have had since Al Golden was in charge.
However, for all the talent that the Hurricanes have, there’s still one guy who – as National Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson put it – is the “straw that stirs the drink”.
Junior running back Mark Walton is that guy for UM – and the health of his ankle will be the biggest storyline as the No. 13/14 Hurricanes (2-0) will play their first ACC game of the year when it travels to Duke (4-0, 1-0) to take on the Blue Devils Friday night at Wallace Wade Stadium at 7 p.m.
‘He’s A Tough Dude’
Everyone was holding their breath when Walton went down during the second quarter of Miami’s game against Toledo. Walton, who had already eclipsed the 100-yard mark in the first half, had his ankle either stepped on or rolled on during a run and crumpled to the ground before the start of the next play.
Even though he admitted he was in pain “like he’s never felt before”, Walton re-entered the game in the late in the third quarter and ended up trudging his way to his first 200-yard performance of his career as the Canes rallied to take down Toledo 52-30.
Walton told reporters after last Saturday’s game that he was “fine” and that he planned on rehabbing the ankle and didn’t foresee himself missing any time – even with the team playing on a shortened week.
Miami offensive coordinator and running backs coach Thomas Brown said he wasn’t worried when Walton originally went down and that the Miami Booker T. Washington alum has made good on his promise about rehab.
““Worried? I wouldn’t say worried. Obviously, you kind of skip a beat for a second when he goes down and doesn’t hop up like he normally does,” Brown said. “I think he does a really good job, like the rest of our guys, to prepare himself for this violent football game.”
“He’s doing good now…he’s been rehabbing his butt off. He’s a tough dude,” Brown added.
Walton did not participate in practice Tuesday, but he was available Wednesday and went through almost all the team’s drills.
UM head coach Mark Richt said that the team was taking a bit of a cautious approach with their No. 1 offensive weapon in practice but was going to let him get a good amount of practice reps.
“He did most everything,” Richt told reporters Wednesday. “I think Coach Brown’s antenna was up, on just watching him every single rep, in regards to ‘How did he look? Did he tweak it? Did he have a problem?’ We probably subbed him out just a little bit more in practice than normal, but not a lot more. If you weren’t paying close attention, you would see no difference.”
Richt also confirmed that Walton and sophomore receiver Ahmmon Richards, who has been battling a hamstring injury, are expected to play Friday against the Blue Devils.
“Yes. I’ve said it before, unless there’s a setback, I expect both Mark and Ahmmon to play” Richt said Tuesday.
Duke’s Defensive Test
Not having Walton at 100 percent – even though sophomore running back Travis Homer appears to be a more than viable option as the No. 2 ball carrier – will hurt the Canes Friday as it hopes to put up points against a Duke defense that is allowing just 15 points and 261 total offensive yards per game this season.
The Blue Devils’ defense has been putting the kibosh on opposing offenses, in large part because of redshirt sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound wrecking ball leads the team in tackles (34), tackles for loss (6) along with recording two sacks and an interception.
Duke defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 15 times this season, which is tied for fourth in the country through the first four weeks.
“Defensively, the numbers are very, very impressive. They’re not even giving up 300 yards per game. I think giving up maybe 16 or 17 out of 50 third-down conversions,” Richt said when asked about Duke’s defense.
“People are rushing for 60 or 70 yards…sometimes rushing is really low because you throw for 400 [yards] on them-type defense, and it’s not that. They’re not giving up a lot of yards passing either. The thing that I saw as I turned on the tape was just great fundamental defense – guys taking on blocks and defeating blocks, guys tackling very well in space. When you think about it, they’ve played four games. It’s not like a one-game or two-game stat we’re talking about. We’re talking about four games.”
There’s no doubt that ESPN will rehash and replay Miami’s “Miracle” kickoff return against Duke from 2015.
The Canes went on the road, with Malik Rosier making his first start due to an injury to then-No. 1 quarterback Brad Kaaya, and upended the Blue Devils thanks to a wacky play that included eight laterals before Corn Elder ended up dashing 91 yards up the sideline to complete one of the most improbable plays in football history.
A lot has changed for Miami since then – and the Canes hope that Friday’s game doesn’t need any late-game hi-jinks.
“You just don’t ever dream that something like that can happen in a game,” Richt said. “When you get to that point, you feel like the game is over, if you’re a coach. You know you have to get him on the ground. If you block a kick return perfect and it hits the seam and there it goes, you could imagine that could possibly happen. But slinging it around I don’t know how many times they slung it, you’re just like, ‘There’s no way.’ Once it gets into the razzle-dazzle kind of play, it’s not going to end good for the offensive team, but it did.”
It was announced Wednesday that UM senior wide receiver Braxton Berrios was among those student-athletes recognized as semifinalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy.
The award recognizes an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation. Berrios, who has posted a 3.959 grade-point average as a double major in finance and entrepreneurship, achieved a career-high 105 receiving yards – including a career-long 55-yard reception – in the Canes’ 52-30 win over Toledo this past Saturday.
Berrios is also the team’s leading receiver through two games with 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The National Football Foundation will announce 12-14 finalists on Nov. 1, and each of them will receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a member of the NFF National Scholar-Athlete Class. The finalists will travel to New York City for the 60th NFF Annual Awards Dinner on Dec. 5, where one member of the class will be declared as the winner of the 28th William V. Campbell Trophy and have his postgraduate scholarship increased to $25,000.