CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Mark Richt has called a play or two in his day. But the night before Miami held its first scrimmage of the spring, Richt started to feel a little uneasy.
The next morning, he felt the same way.
Even $4 million coaches with 145 wins get nervous.
Despite his long history running offenses, Richt would be calling plays for the first time in nearly 10 years. Just a little piece of him wondered whether he would get it right. But this is exactly what he wanted. In fact, it was a make-or-break proposition when he agreed to coach at Miami after 15 years at Georgia.
“I was like, ‘If I’m doing it again, I’m going back to coaching the quarterbacks, putting in the offense, calling the plays, doing the whole thing, even if it kills me,’” Richt said in a recent interview.
Richt is alive and well. And Brad Kaaya threw five touchdown passes in that first scrimmage. Nerves? Gone rather quickly. Richt remembers exactly what to do.
If anything, this spring has been a return to Richt’s roots, honed as an assistant at Florida State, fine-tuned in the early years as head coach at Georgia. But in late 2006, he decided to turn play-calling duties over to Mike Bobo and removed himself from day-to-day meetings with the offense, choosing to focus more on becoming a better head coach.
He missed working with the players “pretty much right away.”
“I think the players see me in a different light here than the last six or seven years at Georgia,” Richt said. “When there’s a scrimmage now or even a practice, they can see more of my competitive spirit because I’m competing with them, offense versus defense. I’ll still see something great happen with the defense and be excited about it, but the bottom line is we’re trying to win the day, and I’m part of the offensive staff trying to win every day. That’s been different.”
Different, but re-energizing. Richt is involved in everything with the offense, and helps coach the quarterbacks with his son, Jon. Players refer to Mark as “Coach Richt” and Jon as “Coach Jon” during practice.
The focus from the start has been an attention to detail. Richt wants perfection. If he doesn’t get perfection, the players have to keep repeating drills and run gassers for mistakes on tape. Kaaya gets coached the same way as backups Malik Rosier, Jack Allison, Vincent Testaverde and Evan Shirreffs.
For example, during the same scrimmage Kaaya threw five touchdown passes he missed three play fakes and had two loafs. He had to run five gassers at the next practice for it.
“They’re always going to be hard on me, and I appreciate that,” Kaaya said. “They don’t let me slack off ever.”
To help the learning process, Richt shows them cut-ups from his time at Georgia. Most clips star Aaron Murray, who finished his career with four SEC records – including passing yards (13,562). The reason is simple: Murray perfected everything Richt asked him to do, from footwork to ball fakes to drop backs to decision-making.
“Murray was like a machine,” Kaaya said. “Every play we’ve watched, he’s making the right read, he’s going to the right place with the ball, he’s making the right run check. Even his play fake after he hands the ball off when he boots out, it’s the same exact thing every single time. That’s what I’m trying to get to, where after a scrimmage I don’t have any errors, to where it’s perfect every single play.”
Kaaya said so far his play fakes have improved and so has his under-center footwork. Last season, Miami used more shotgun formations because of personnel. Kaaya noted the offensive line coaching is different, too. The pocket is consistent every time he drops back, helping him improve awareness and mobility.
It is safe to say Kaaya is the best quarterback Richt has had to work with since Murray finished his career in 2013, a tantalizing proposition, considering the drama that surrounded the quarterbacks the last few seasons at Georgia. Kaaya might even have more natural talent. Already in his first two seasons, he has thrown for more than 6,000 yards.
Taking over a team with a starting quarterback in place was “just a bonus” for Richt. But to be able to work more with players, he assembled a staff that could essentially be left alone without him overseeing every single detail.
“I told everybody who works here: ‘I want to coach. You’ve got to do your job,’” Richt said. “If everybody does their job, we’re in good shape. If I’ve got to go clean up a bunch of junk, I can’t do what I want to do and we’ll have to find somebody else to get it done.”
The message has been sent. And those assistants who left Georgia to follow Richt to Miami have seen a difference.
“Being around him last year, he wasn’t a very happy person,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “He didn’t have a lot of fun. He was still himself, but he didn’t seem like the same old coach. Being down in South Florida and being back at his alma mater and having the chance to call plays again and coach the quarterbacks gave him new life. He’s taken 20 years off his life. He shows more energy, more passion. He’s re-energized.”
The nerves are gone. The fun is only now beginning.