On the sun-drenched artificial turf of Miami University’s Yager Stadium, 112 RedHawks gathered Friday morning for the first session of Chuck Martin’s fifth season as their football coach.
They were anxious enough to actually get under way a few minutes before the scheduled 9 a.m. start, but they weren’t too keyed up as they started preparing for the 2018 season opener against Marshall on Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. at Yager, Martin said.
“They were more business-like,” he said as players dispersed after the two-hour session in agreeable weather conditions. “I don’t want to say there was less enthusiasm, but they were more workmanlike. They were purposeful on both sides of the ball. They weren’t like, ‘We’re going to beat Marshall today.’”
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The RedHawks, in Martin’s opinion, were focused more on the process than the outcome. That’s a change from last season, when Miami was poised to build on a 2016 campaign that started with six losses and ended with six wins before a close loss to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. That record-setting rush to the finish line make the RedHawks the Mid-American Conference glamor boys for 2017, but a series of late-game self-inflicted mistakes led to disappointing records of 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the MAC that have tempered expectations.
Athlon Sports projects Miami to go 6-6 overall and 5-3 in the MAC to tie Buffalo for second in the East Division behind Ohio. The RedHawks were picked to finish third in the East in a poll of 24 MAC media members.
Miami is blessed with eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, including senior wide receiver James Gardner, who is on the watch lists for three postseason awards: the Fred Biletnikoff for wide receivers, the Maxwell Trophy for best all-around player and the Danny Wuerffel for community service. Senior center Danny Godlevski is on the Dave Rimington Trophy watch list, senior running back Kenny Young made the Doak Walker watch list and senior tight end Nate Becker earned a spot on the John Mackey watch list. Martin found the experience of those players and other veterans palpable and invaluable.
“They’ve practiced all summer,” he pointed out. “The freshmen didn’t know what was going on, but we had really good leadership. They were process-oriented. The two guys we took to (MAC) media day didn’t talk about results. The thing that struck me about (Friday) was the attention to detail on both sides of the ball.”
The first day didn’t go perfectly. At one point, an assistant coach was heard yelling at the offense, “Good job getting lined up. Good job.” Senior quarterback Gus Ragland had a ball slip out of his hand as he started to throw it. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jackson Williamson struggled on a couple of throws, but true freshman A.J. Mayer deftly threaded the needle on one throw over the middle, wide receiver Jack Sorenson made a nice catch on a Ragland pass and junior cornerback Travion Banks did a good job breaking up a pass to Gardner.
Young looked especially sharp running and catching the ball, and he even connected with a wide-open Gardner on a halfback pass that would have gone for a touchdown in a game.
Most remarkable was Miami’s robust health. Martin mentioned a couple of “dinged-up” offensive linemen, but he also had the opportunity after practice to ask running back Maurice Thomas how he felt. Thomas, the Talawanda product, participated in his first team drills since injuring his left knee in the third game of the 2017 season.
“It felt great – 100 percent,” said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound fourth-year junior, who was granted a medical redshirt season. “I only did individual stuff in the spring. The training staff got me ready.”
Thomas, limited to 11 carries last season after running the ball 37 times in 2016 and 18 in 2015, didn’t feel any extra sense of urgency to make up for lost time, he said.
“There were definitely times in rehab when I felt like I could do more, but they told me, ‘Hey, you have the whole spring,’” he said. “Today, I felt like I could do everything and not hold back.”