The state’s college football season was 18 minutes old when one of the most head-scratching trends in the sport came to an end: Miami finally has a quarterback.
In one second-quarter drive in Thursday night’s season-opening 31-14 win over Alabama-Birmingham, D’Eriq King showed every trait that made him a superstar at Houston, a highly sought after grad transfer and the expected answer to years of Hurricanes offensive futility.
First it was his arm. On the sequence’s opening play, UAB end Alex Wright forced King to scramble. King backtracked, headed right, reversed left and threw a dart on the run to Dee Wiggins for 11 yards.
Then it was his swagger. After handing the ball off to Cam’Ron Harris, King turned upfield with his running back. King threw a block at cornerback TD Marshall that helped Harris squeeze out a few extra yards.
“That’s a leader everyone’s going to follow,” coach Manny Diaz said.
Especially if he makes more plays like the last one of the drive, when he used his electric legs. Under pressure (again) up the middle, King fled left and headed for the end zone.
“I just took off,” King said.
With 3 yards to go, he leaped between two converting defenders for his first touchdown at The U.
And finally it was the leadership his coaches have praised during the entire odd offseason. Instead of flashing Miami’s new-look touchdown rings himself, he handed them off to two of his linemen.
Not bad for the fifth drive of his 'Canes career.
“You see how special he was today...” Harris said. “That guy is amazing.”
King delivered plenty of other highlights, too. The mere threat of him keeping the ball forced UAB’s Kyle Harrell to hesitate briefly on a fourth-down charge in the first quarter. That split second helped keep a hole open for Harris, who sped 66 yards for one of his two touchdowns.
The 5-foot-11, 202-pound Texas native dashed for a 25-yard third-down conversion to keep another scoring drive alive. His 4-yard pass to Brevin Jordan in the third quarter extended his NCAA record with a touchdown rush and touchdown pass in 16 consecutive games. His talents mixed with new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashee’s play-calling and up-tempo system helped create Miami’s biggest rushing output (337 yards) in four years.
“I think you saw a glimpse of what (the offense) can be,” Diaz said.
King’s dazzling debut (83 rushing yards, 141 passing yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers) was impressive enough to overshadow the weirdness of the state’s first major football game of the COVID-19 era.
The socially distanced environment felt stale on the telecast. The announced attendance (8,153) was the lowest to see a Miami game anywhere since a 1979 Syracuse game that took place in Buffalo while the Carrier Dome was under construction.
It was also strong enough to overlook some of the flaws that didn’t matter against a Conference USA team but will be fatal in the upcoming four-game stretch (road trips to Louisville and Clemson plus home games against Florida State and Pitt).
The improved offensive line still leaked too much. King overthrew too many passes, including a would-be touchdown to a wide-open Jeremiah Payton in the third quarter, in a 15-of-23 night. The defense failed to record a takeaway that would bring out the routinely sanitized turnover chain.
But as sloppy as the 'Canes looked at times, they’re light years ahead of where they were in Diaz’s debut — last season’s 24-20 loss to Florida in Orlando that bordered on unwatchable. They’re much improved from their last game, too, when they were shut out against a different Conference USA team (Louisiana Tech) in the Independence Bowl.
Those days of awful offenses in Coral Gables look over now. Miami finally has a quarterback.