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The two offseason risks that turned Miami into a top-10 team again

Manny Diaz made the same moves Willie Taggart made at FSU a year earlier. It’s working out well at The U.
Miami Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz's decision to add grad transfer quarterback D'Eriq King has worked out splendidly.
Miami Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz's decision to add grad transfer quarterback D'Eriq King has worked out splendidly. [ JAMIE RHODES | ACC Pool ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020

When Manny Diaz finished his first year as the Miami Hurricanes’ head coach last December, his dream job looked to be in peril.

An awful offense led to a seven-loss season. Fans had soured. The goodwill was gone. Diaz was in danger of becoming another two-and-out coach like Willie Taggart.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, Diaz made two high-profile gambles — replacing his offensive coordinator and adding a grad transfer quarterback — that have revived the No. 10 ‘Canes, turning them from an underachieving mess with a two-game losing streak to Conference USA teams into a fun, formidable program gunning for a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game.

Related: D’Eriq King and Kyle Trask battled as Texas high school quarterbacks. Now they’re 1A and 1B in Florida.

“As you’re building a program, you’re trying to surround yourself with the right people,” Diaz said. “Not that we had the wrong people, but just better fits for our culture. We had good people, but I just feel like we have a better fit for what we have right now, and then the success has sort of taken off because of that.”

That success was not inevitable. Struggling coaches routinely change coordinators or bring on quarterbacks to try to save their programs and jobs. Many of them fail.

Will Muschamp cycled through three offensive coordinators in four years at Florida. Jim McElwain signed Notre Dame grad transfer quarterback Malik Zaire before his third and final season with the Gators.

Hiring Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator didn't save Willie Taggart at Florida State.
Hiring Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator didn't save Willie Taggart at Florida State. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Taggart took both steps after his 5-7 season at Florida State in 2018, adding Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator and Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook as his grad transfer passer. Nine games later, he was out of a job.

Diaz could have gone the same way. Firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos a day after a humiliating 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl and replacing him with SMU’s Rhett Lashlee could have backfired. Although quarterback D’Eriq King dazzled at Houston, there was no guarantee he would star at Miami — especially when the pandemic slashed spring practice.

Related: Why Miami’s D’Eriq King is the most important player in the state

But the pairing has clicked. King’s playmaking skills have meshed well with Lashlee’s up-tempo spread system.

Miami’s offense has risen from 90th in scoring (25.7 ppg) to 23rd (34.9 ppg). King is averaging more than 300 yards of total offense per game, while Lashlee is a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant.

“They’ve got great chemistry between the two of them,” Diaz said. “I think they’re both just very special people. I think they’re both great leaders that other people want to be around and want to please.

“Both of them by nature of that had a very positive impact, certainly on the offensive side on our team, which then spread into our entire football team.”

Miami quarterback D'Eriq King has revived the Hurricanes' offense.
Miami quarterback D'Eriq King has revived the Hurricanes' offense. [ NELL REDMOND | AP ]

The addition of a more-than-competent offense to another solid defense has turned the program around. Case in point: Miami lost to Duke by 10 last year in the middle of its season-ending, head-scratching, three-game losing streak. Last week, the ‘Canes trounced those Blue Devils 48-0.

Miami enters Saturday’s game against No. 20 North Carolina with a chance for its second 10-win season since 2003, an accomplishment that would be especially impressive with this abbreviated schedule.

Although the ‘Canes are playing like one of the ACC’s best teams again, The U is still not back. It’s a notch or two below Clemson and Notre Dame. Diaz acknowledges that.

Related: Why is Ohio State ahead of Gators, Texas A&M with so many fewer games?

“We don’t want to just sit around and beat our chest because we had a great performance at Duke, we’re ranked this, we’re ranked that,” Diaz said. “You have to rebuild the castle every week. And I think our point right now is to understand that we’re still trying to build the foundation of a program to be where we want to be. It’s not there yet.”

But it’s closer now than it was a year ago, thanks to the successful gambles Diaz took last offseason.