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Miami uses spring to rid itself of 2014 tendencies

The game plan was vanilla. The wind was blowing and the temperature, by south Florida standards, biting. The scrimmage was held in a 20,000-seat stadium normally occupied by a team from the North American Soccer League.

Given the settings, Brad Kaaya could have joined his offensive teammates and idly coasted through the Miami spring game. Yet the sophomore quarterback -- and it’s worth reminding he hasn’t even been on campus a full year -- was intent on rallying the Hurricanes in the second half. It didn’t matter that it was only the annual intrasquad scrimmage, the final and often most-fruitless spring practice. The spring game was providing an opportunity for Miami to rebound and finish strong.

When presented with similar obstructions late last season, Miami folded. A resurgent season quickly turned forgettable when the Hurricanes ended 2014 on a four-game losing streak. The last three losses came against teams that failed to finish the regular season with a winning record.

Miami opens 2015 with two puff pastries, but the next six games are against teams -- Clemson and Florida State among them -- expected to compete for division titles.

“During an actual game when the season comes around, there’s always adversity in each game,” Kaaya said in a telephone conversation Sunday. “We need to be able to respond to adversity, even if it’s not September. It’s a real situation that happens in football every year. And it’s important for me as a leader.”

The offense heeded Kaaya’s message as he paced the sideline, talking to his line and receivers in hopes of motivating them.

“I did like the fact our guys responded,” offensive coordinator James Coley said.

The first-team offense kept playing in the second half and the group finally put together a few worthwhile drives.

Overall, there were positive and negative takeaways from the game for the Miami staff, but the biggest lessons coach Al Golden learned about his team came from the totality of the 15 spring sessions.

The Miami defense has come under fire the last few seasons, and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has received most of the heat. Though the Canes’ numbers improved dramatically in 2014, as they finished No. 14 in total defense and ranked highly in yards per play and explosive plays allowed, D’Onofrio admits there were too many peaks and valleys over the course of 13 games.

D’Onofrio has stressed consistency to his players this spring, and he believed the defense’s strong performance in the spring game is proof the Hurricanes are listening. It was a final touch on an enthusiastic spring from the unit.

“The body of work [in 2014] was much improved … but we’re talking about winning games on a game-in and game-out basis. We can’t have those blips where we go out and don’t play together and don’t play good enough to win,” D’Onofrio said. “We have the ability and have shown it, but I think they want to be the same group week in and week out.

“There was really good leadership [Saturday] and just wanting to finish the spring off strong.”

Offensively, Miami is built around Kaaya, who started every game as a freshman despite not joining the team until August. This was Kaaya’s first spring practice, and among his priorities were to become a better leader and gain a more intimate understanding of the Canes’ offense.

Kaaya lost top targets Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford, but Coley expressed confidence in receivers Braxton Berrios, Stacy Coley and Malcolm Lewis. While the receivers battled drops Saturday that directly led to Kaaya interceptions, James Coley saw progress in the passing game throughout the spring, especially on third downs. The third-down offense improved in the second half of last season, but the Canes still managed to finish only 95th in efficiency.

“Third down, we played really well during the spring. The quarterback was accurate and the receivers got open and the O-line blocked really well,” James Coley said. “We can go 15 plays on a scoring drive if we need to or go four plays.”

While the end of spring is the time to gauge progress, ultimately Miami is not being judged on how well it performs in scrimmages. The Canes have yet to represent the ACC Coastal Division in a conference title game and finished 2014 in a fashion that again left a history-rich university open to the jokes that accompany a dispirited program.

Asked if Miami has fixed the issues that caused last season’s collapse, Coley was emphatic.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I really feel the kids are hungry to go out and show the fans that the way we finished isn’t a part of this team. It died with last year’s team.”