Phillip Dorsett is 20 years old, but in Miami years, that makes him a grizzled veteran.
He speaks authoritatively when he says, “I’ve seen this team do a complete 360.”
So has the college football world. Miami is no longer the bumbling team filled with youngsters learning on the job, unable to hold a lead or compete against tough competition. Miami is all grown up and playing that way.
For proof, let us look at four losses from last season:
North Carolina: Miami lost a tough game at home that it had every opportunity to win. Ryan Williams came into the game after Stephen Morris got hurt, and ultimately could not convert on fourth-and-6 from the UNC 26.
Notre Dame: Miami trailed 13-3 at halftime before getting smacked in the second half and losing 41-3.
Florida State: The Hurricanes led 10-0 early, then trailed 16-13 at the end of the third quarter. But Florida State reeled off 17 straight points in the fourth quarter to win.
Now let us look at the two most significant wins so far this season for Miami.
Florida: The Hurricanes not only stood toe-to-toe with a top-12 team, they won thanks to their defense. In three of the losses cited above, Miami played below average on defense -- especially in the Virginia game. Miami had no business losing that one.
Georgia Tech: Miami trailed for the first time all season, down 10 points in the second quarter. Yet Miami did not fold, and found a way to make the necessary plays to win.
One parallel stands out in particular between the Tech and Notre Dame games. Against Notre Dame, Miami opened the game by airing it out. Dorsett dropped two potential touchdowns. The Hurricanes, it seemed, deflated when they could not convert those big plays. Against Georgia Tech, Dorsett fumbled a punt in the fourth quarter. The Jackets recovered and scored a touchdown, but missed the extra point.
Still, momentum seemed to belong to Georgia Tech. Miami, however, did not dwell on the mistake. The Hurricanes scored three straight touchdowns to put the game out of reach. As Morris said after the game, “I think last year would have been different.”
These examples prove last year was different. But those tribulations ultimately taught Miami how to win. So has improved leadership. Miami has more seniors to rely on this year, and its freshmen and sophomores are taking on bigger, more vocal roles, too.
“We have a lot of young guys that are mature and they rally around the older guys,” said redshirt sophomore running back Dallas Crawford. “It really feels like we have no young guys. Even the freshmen, it seems like they’ve been around for years.”
Junior linebacker Denzel Perryman points to improved communication. “Overall, it’s not just one person speaking up. It’s everyone at every position,” he said. “I’ll say something, Jimmy [Gaines] will say something, another linebacker will say something.”
One more factor cannot be discounted. Miami players have had to deal with an NCAA investigation and skip bowl games two straight seasons because of self-imposed postseason bans. That adversity has served to bring everybody closer.
“We’re more focused,” coach Al Golden said. “We just have guys who have been through a lot. It’s a close group. They’re not daunted by anything. If you look at what they’ve been through, it pales in comparison. They get down a little bit and say, ‘All right, let’s go.’ I’m really proud of the leadership we have.”
This season, everybody knows what is at stake. Every single player came to Miami for a reason -- to re-establish the Hurricanes’ tradition. Opening 5-0 is a good start. But that is all it is. Though 5-0 is uncharted territory for the players, Golden has beat home the “one game at a time” mantra.
Opening 5-0 means nothing if the winning stops. Golden knows there are key areas where the Hurricanes have to improve during this bye week -- turnovers and penalties have to be the top two priorities. Miami has turned the ball over eight times and committed 14 penalties in its last two games. Those mistakes cannot be overlooked. Not if Miami wants to win a championship.
Indeed, the Miami maturity we have seen thus far will take on even greater importance as the season wears on.