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Grab your jersey, fire up the grill and put your favorite beverage on ice.
Nearly three quarters of the way through one of the strangest years on earth, football is about to be played in South Florida.
With an NCAA record-breaking quarterback, new spread offense and fan base yearning to return to better times, the University of Miami takes on Alabama-Birmingham (1-0) at 8 p.m. Thursday in the 2020 season opener at Hard Rock Stadium.
Amid a coronavirus pandemic that has rocked the world, 13,000 mask-bearing fans have been permitted to attend the game in a stadium capable of holding more than 65,000. They will be socially distanced, according to Hard Rock/Miami Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and prohibited from tailgating or buying alcohol (which, unlike the norm, won’t be available).
Also prohibited from attending the opener (as well as the next home game Sept. 26 against archrival Florida State): UM students. How that works out is anybody’s guess.
The game will mark the first football played by an Atlantic Coast Conference team this season.
“If you brought it down to the year, it’ll probably be very similar to the very first practice we had, the very first scrimmage we had — shoot, the very first day of coming back to the office after a long time,’’ UM coach Manny Diaz said, when asked how he expected to feel on Thursday heading into kickoff. “There will be a lot of emotion, just the feeling of gratitude that we get a chance to get back out there and play, because that has not been promised.
“But that has got to quickly go. Once we get ready and lined up for kickoff, it’s all about ball. We’ve got a lot of respect for the team we’re playing. All those emotions will be short-lived once the foot hits the football.’’
UAB, a member of Conference USA, has one advantage over 14-point favorite Miami (6-7 in 2019): It already played a game this season. The Blazers, who finished 9-5 last year, defeated Central Arkansas 45-35 last Thursday to set a league record with their 19th consecutive home victory.
UAB used two quarterbacks in that game, veteran starter Tyler Johnston III (17 of 25 for 143 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception) and redshirt freshman Bryson Lucero (7 of 9 for 83 yards and a touchdown).
They also have a 3,122 career rushing yards star in senior running back Spencer Brown, who ran for 127 yards and a touchdown last week against Central Arkansas.
King’s UM debut
But it’s Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King who will draw the eyes of college football types across the nation — including UM’s remaining 10 ACC competitors, such as defending national champion runner-up Clemson (Oct. 10 on road).
King, 23 and just under 5-10, he told the Miami Herald, is the graduate transfer star out of Houston who can run, pass and evade much larger defenders with a spin here and twist there and some heavy-duty athleticism. At Houston he threw for 4,925 yards with 50 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding 1,421 yards and 28 touchdowns rushing.
“It’s a great feeling,’’ King said this week about his first UM game. “A couple months ago, nobody thought we’d be playing right now. Thank God we get the opportunity to go play a game on Thursday night. Just playing for the University of Miami — like I always say, there’s a lot of history behind the program, a lot of good players put the uniform on, put this helmet on.
“It’s an honor for me to go out there and play my first game.’’
And he’ll be playing it in new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s no-huddle, fast-paced attack, very similar to the offense King ran at Houston. Lashlee said that trying to squeeze into a game a lot more than the 65 plays the Canes averaged last season won’t mean much if the Canes don’t perform.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re huddling or not huddling, trying to go fast of not, you’ve got to execute,’’ Lashlee said. “If you’re going really fast and you don’t execute, all you’re doing is going three-and-out really fast. The way you run over 80 plays a game consistently, the way you have a chance to stay on the field is by gaining first downs.”
Lashlee, like Diaz and everyone else involved in the game, will be keenly aware of the stark differences this season, from masked players and coaches on the sidelines to individual chairs replacing team benches.
“I don’t know if anything’s normal this year, whether you’ve been here 20 years or it’s your first year,’’ Lashlee said. “What I really hope is that at as soon as that first ball is kicked off, for the most part, we’re just doing what a lot of us have done our whole lives — coaching and playing football and bringing some joy to their lives and people around the country.
“I have no idea what to expect. There’s a whole lot of ‘what ifs’ this year.”
Players also have no idea, but there’s no doubt they feel fortunate to get the opportunity when conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed the fall season because of the pandemic.
UM defensive tackle Jon Ford said his expectations for Thursday night, in light of the strange year, include just “having fun with the team.’’
“Nobody knew if we were going to have a season this year,’’ Ford said. “Just being able to run out of the smoke with the team...is going to be real emotional.
“I’m excited to see what this team has to offer this year.’’
Diaz was asked if he had any sense of how this year’s team would respond to adversity. The Canes ended last season in the Independence Bowl with a 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech — only the third UM shutout loss of the century and first time a team from outside a Power 5 conference shut out a power-conference opponent in a bowl since the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series began in 1998.
It was also the sixth time in 2019 that the Canes lost as a pregame favorite.
“This year is going to be a long year,’’ Diaz said. “It’s going to be a marathon. We know there’s going to be all kinds of uncertainty. If there has ever been a year the cliché ‘one week at a time’ is true, 2020 is the year.’’
Canes receiver Mike Harley, who will run out of the smoke for his “last opener at Hard Rock,’’ is certain he’ll be excited for kickoff.
“I’m just waiting for it — 8 O’Clock Thursday,’’ Harley said. “Just watch the game and the offense come alive.’’
Or, as Diaz ended his early morning interview this week with WQAM radio: “Yay, football.’’