On Sunday, a day after Miami defensive tackle Micanor Regis had served his one-game suspension against Maryland for punching a North Carolina player below the belt the previous week, coach Al Golden said his top interior lineman had “paid a price.”
So has Miami -- until now.
A series of NCAA-related suspensions that began in the season opener against Maryland helped derail Miami’s championship hopes, and just as the Hurricanes thought their off-field troubles were finally over last week, the misconduct by Regis was captured on video and brought to Golden’s attention. Now, finally, as the Hurricanes prepare this week to face Virginia on Thursday night, they do so with the most complete roster they have had since the preseason. For the first game this season, all of Miami’s players are eligible.
While several injuries still remain concerns, Golden said this week that he doesn’t anticipate any more players missing time this year for disciplinary reasons. At the closest to full strength it’s probably going to be this year, Miami has the potential to finish the season strong. It will need some help from Virginia Tech’s remaining opponents to have a meaningful stake in the Coastal Division race, though. Regardless of whether or not the Canes actually make it to Charlotte, there has been noticeable improvement in back-to-back wins that indicates Miami is a contender in the ACC when all of its starters are in the lineup on a consistent basis.
“We’ve played a tough schedule amidst a transition year, amidst a lot of adversity that we could not foresee coming,” Golden said. “There’s been a lot of transition, there’s been a lot of inconsistency, and now we’re starting to get some traction. They’re starting to understand the process, they’re starting to understand what it means to be consistent and to take care of your business every day. They’re starting to see results.”
Those results added up to wins against North Carolina and No. 22 Georgia Tech in each of the past two weeks. Both wins kept the Canes alive in the Coastal Division race, and Miami faces two more divisional opponents in Virginia and Duke before traveling to rival Florida State on Nov. 12. Defensive end Olivier Vernon served a six-game suspension as a result of the NCAA investigation and didn’t return until last weekend against Georgia Tech. Standout safety Ray-Ray Armstrong was suspended until the Virginia Tech game. And there were a total of eight players suspended for the season-opening loss to Maryland.
“I think we all know they were a big factor,” Golden said. “I don’t think there’s any question when you look at the players involved and of course the impact they’ve made. To say that Jacory Harris, or Travis Benjamin or Sean Spence or Ray Armstrong -- any of those guys -- wouldn’t have made a difference early in the season, I think it’s fair for us to say they would have made a difference.”
Over the past few weeks, they have made a difference. Spence played in the middle against Georgia Tech and led the team with10 tackles. He also had six solo stops and a tackle for a loss of 2 yards. Against UNC, he led all defensive players with 14 tackles, including a crucial sack late in the fourth quarter for a loss of 7 yards. Harris has improved dramatically, throwing 12 touchdown passes to four interceptions. He threw three touchdown passes in the road win at North Carolina.
"I feel like we're pretty good right now," Harris said. "We've got everybody back and I feel like the guys who were missing after the one-game suspension were a big part in helping us move forward. Now that everyone is back, we do have a complete team, but at the same time we have to take care of the little things in order for us to be where we want to be."
Of course, it's hard not to wonder where they could have been this year had there not been so many suspensions.
"Of course we could say it would have been a different season, but at the same time, if we would've just taken care of business we'd be in a great position right now," Harris said. "Obviously we didn't do that, but having these guys back, we can still have a good season moving forward."
A win against Virginia would guarantee the Canes of a winning record in the ACC in Golden's first season. Miami is undefeated against Virginia in Sun Life Stadium, but was ranked No. 22 last year when it lost to the Cavaliers on the road. Virginia coach Mike London said he has noticed a change in Miami in recent weeks.
“You see a lot of things that Al has got going that can add up to where they play hard on defense, run around,” London said. “The quarterback is throwing the ball down the field to some of the skilled receivers; their special teams has become a weapon for them also. I can imagine that with having guys back they will just add to the fact that they are getting better.”
They had little choice but to get better. A 2-3 start at Miami is a big price to pay.