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No way in the world anyone thought Miami’s 12:30 p.m. game Saturday against Central Connecticut State would be this significant when the Sept. 25 date was first announced in March 2020.
Now, with starting quarterback D’Eriq King out with a shoulder injury that is likely worse than coach Manny Diaz has indicated, a beleaguered Miami program must play two young, unproven backups to potentially decide who would start five days later in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener at home against Virginia.
UM (1-2) will pay Central Connecticut State (1-2 with its last game a 56-10 loss to Southeast Louisiana) a $650,000 guarantee to come to Hard Rock and play the Hurricanes, first reported last year by fbschedules.com.
And, by the way, Miami must win this game or Diaz’s job is surely in jeopardy. Diaz, 15-12 since he took over as head coach in 2019, is already under immense pressure after a disappointing 1-2 start this season. He’s 1-4 in his past five games and winless in his past seven games against non-ACC Power 5 teams.
Central Connecticut’s Blue Devils, based in New Britain, are on another level altogether.
But first, back to those young UM backup quarterbacks — and one of their top offensive linemen who sustained a season-ending injury last week.
Diaz announced Wednesday that second-year freshman Tyler Van Dyke and true freshman Jake Garcia split first-team reps this week and would both definitely play Saturday. He also announced that second-year freshman left guard Jalen Rivers had knee surgery and won’t be back until the spring.
Van Dyke, a sturdy 6-4 and 224 pounds, would likely get the start Saturday. He had all of last season to learn the offense and took second-team snaps through fall camp and into this week. He also has game experience, though limited, playing UM’s final offensive series in the season-opening loss to Alabama. He threw one incomplete pass in that game and ran three times for 17 yards (the final rush for 18 yards to end the game). He played in two games last season, with two incomplete passes lost 7 yards on a sack.
Van Dyke is from Glastonbury, Connecticut, and played for Suffield Academy. Initially rated a three-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings and four-star propsect by Rivals when he committed to UM in April 2019, he became a consensus four-star quarterback by the time he graduated. He was rated the No. 2 pro-style quarterback and top player in Connecticut by ESPN and No. 9 pro-style signal caller by 247Sports. He finished his senior prep year with 2,260 passing yards and 21 touchdowns on 123 completions (61.5 percent) in 200 pass attempts, with six interceptions.
His prep career stats: 290 of 497 (58.4) for 4,643 yards and 39 touchdowns, with 16 interceptions.
Van Dyke is low-key, understated, serious and intensely driven, according to Diaz. The coach and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Rhett Lashlee said Van Dyke topped the charts in UM’s offseason program. “The way he works, the way he does everything right,’’ Diaz said. “You want Tyler on your team. That guy scores highly in everything.’’
Garcia, listed as 6-3 and 200 pounds, got loads of national love as a high school star but has yet to take a snap in a college game. He is from Whittier, California, and was rated the No. 2 pocket passer by ESPN and No. 5 pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2021 signing class by 247Sports and Rivals. As a high school senior at Grayson High in Loganville, Georgia, Garcia completed 71 of 125 passes (56.8 percent) for 1,237 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, per Max Preps, to lead the nation’s No. 2 prep team to the Class 7A state title. He also ran for two touchdowns.
Garcia’s high school career stats: 279 of 420 (66.4 percent) for 4,278 yards, 47 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He ran for four touchdowns. Garcia attended five schools in four years and temporarily moved from California to Georgia in August 2020 because the California Interscholastic Federation canceled football in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Garcia is extremely outgoing, friendly and tuned in to social media. While several top national programs had tried to lure him, he became enamored of the Hurricanes, whose 2021 recruiting class and fans made an all-out social-media effort to get him to decommit from Southern Cal. After a year of being committed to USC, Garcia switched his pledge to UM.
“Great fans,’’ he told the Miami Herald before he began spring practice as an early enrollee. “Just keep supporting us and pack the stadium once this coronavirus stuff is over. That has an impact on the game, definitely.
“We’re going to turn it up.’’
Garcia and Van Dyke won’t be the only youngsters fans fans likely see Saturday. After drops, shoddy tackling and all-around mistakes by veterans, Diaz is expected to play more freshmen, second-year players and those with less experience.
“The young guys have to be more locked in this week just because we understand we will be getting more playing time and there will be more snaps,’’ said second-year freshman defensive tackle Elijah Roberts. “This is the opportunity to showcase our skills.’’
The Blue Devils
As for Central Connecticut State, they have plenty to prove. They have never beaten an FBS opponent, but even keeping it close would be a major accomplishment for the Blue Devils — and another crisis for the Canes.
Part of the Northeast Conference, CCSU didn’t play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but won its sixth Northeast Conference title in school history in 2019 with an 11-2 record and first-round FCS playoff loss to Albany. The Blue Devils are 0-3 all time against FBS teams (34-29 loss to Eastern Michigan in 2019, 42-6 loss to Ball State in 2018 and 50-7 loss to Syracuse in 2017).
UM striker Gilbert Frierson, who addressed the players in the locker room immediately following the loss to Michigan State, said this week that his teammates have stuck together and were trying to keep their heads up.
“We’re going to get better,’’ Frierson said. “We’re going to fix it. ...Let’s just move forward. It’s really about us and how we attack anything we do, no matter the opponent.
“Social media is social media. It’s going to be good. It’s going to be bad. But it’s always about how we respond the next week or the next day.’’