Moments after concluding his pre-practice press conference Saturday morning, Hurricanes football coach Al Golden jogged past his defense, shook his head and smiled.
In case you hadn't heard Golden say it the first time, he said it again Saturday. His team is bigger, more mature. And in college football that matters quite a bit. Aside from that four letter word Golden doesn't want to use (the NCAA), size and maturity have been Miami's biggest obstacles on the field the last two years (specifically on defense).
While the offense hummed with Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson behind the wheel last season, Miami's defense played most Saturdays like they were listening to Miley Cyrus' new song We Can't Stop (as in anybody).
Opponents averaged 30.5 points per game (ranked 82nd out of 120 FBS programs). Quarterbacks had all day to throw (UM's 13 sacks ranked 113th) and the run defense was historically bad (ranked 112th, giving up 217 yards per game). The secondary? Sure, they forced more turnovers (11 INTs, 11 fumbles) but even the worst quarterbacks in the country often looked like Heisman candidates (UM's pass defense ranked 102nd overall and gave up 268.5 yards per game).
Youth, inexperience, lack of depth -- particularly up front -- were the excuses put forth. Most of it valid of course. But those excuses are officially old now.
Especially when Golden says things like this Saturday: "We didn't have anybody not pass the [conditioning] test for the first time since I've been here... They demolished it, absolutely crushed it."
Two years ago -- Golden points out -- half the team couldn't pass the conditioning test. He had everyone out on the field at 5:30 a.m. to do extra conditioning so they could try to be physically ready to go. It took away focus. Saturday the team began fall camp without schedules, Golden said. "We're having the leaders run it," he said.
Junior defensive end Anthony Chickillo, once thrown into the fire as a baby-faced freshman at 6-4, 248 pounds, sat down and spoke to reporters at 6-4, 275 pounds. Remember what it was like that first game at Maryland two years ago, Chickillo was asked?
"I was ready to play mentally, but from a physical standpoint my body wasn't where it needed to be," said Chickillo, who now benches more than 400 pounds, squats around 500, power cleans 350 and recently benched the NFL-testing standard of 225 pounds 29 times (up from 27 last year).
"That's what we've been working on," he continues of getting bigger and stronger. "I want to hold the point [of attack], be more durable, whatever I can to help the team win. I've actually gotten faster with my weight. I'd say I'm more explosive. I feel good.
"We feel like as a defense we got big this off-season. We're proud of that."
The growth in size can be seen everywhere. Sophomore defensive end Jelani Hamilton has gained 14 pounds since last season. He's 6-5, 285 pounds now. Redshirt sophomore David Perry has gained 12 pounds and is now listed at 6-7, 277 pounds.
Defensive tackle Olsen Pierre, once 6-4, 265 as a freshman, is now 6-4, 305 pounds as a junior. Luther Robinson (6-3, 303) has gained 13 pounds since last season. Often-injured Curtis Porter is up eight pounds (6-1, 316).
The linebackers? Denzel Perryman (6-0, 240) and Tyrone Cornelius (6-2, 225) are both 10 pounds heavier than they were last season. Middle linebacker candidate Jimmy Gaines (6-3, 240) has gained eight pounds. Sophomore Raphael Kirby (6-0, 235) has gained a dozen. Former defensive back Thurston Armbrister (6-3, 233) has gained 11 pounds since his first year at linebacker in 2012.
"I thank [conditioning coach] Andrew Swasey everyday," said Perryman, who came to UM weighing 205 pounds and played at 217 as a freshman.
So bigger has been established. Maturity too (bad seeds Gionni Paul, Eddie Johnson, Thomas Finnie are gone). Proving they are better is what they have to do next.
UM defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio didn't make it out to practice early enough to address the media Saturday. But the truth is you don't need to hear anything from D'Onofrio until after his unit hits the field on game day. That's when they'll start answering the real questions. If this team is going to be better, defense is where it starts.
Lack of size is no longer an excuse. At least it wasn't Saturday. In fact, for the first time Golden was hooting and hollering about how big his guys looked.
MORE NEWS AND NOTES
> Chickillo, who led the team last season with four sacks, spent the off-season working on his flexibility and refining his technique. He also studied film of NFL stars Chris Long, JJ Watt, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Mario Williams. "I really wanted to see how they get after it," Chickillo said.
> Sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard, who finished his freshman season strong said his goal this season is to produce 10 interceptions. "It's possible," he said. "It hasn't been done before, but with the system we run we're going to have a chance to make a lot of plays."
> Of the criticism of UM's defense, Perryman said he takes it personal. "What's bothered me the most is when I know as a defense it's one of those woulda, shoulda, coulda deals. That one mistake would cost us everything."
Said Howard: "We hear about it day in and day out. We got to prove ourselves, prove it to the coaches. We have to prove we can be a top defense in the country. Even prove it to the fans. They pay their money to come watch us. We owe it to the fans [to be better]."
> UM coach Al Golden said the reason quarterback Stephen Morris and defensive end Shayon Green were chosen as captains is because they've "distinguished themselves .... not just as guys who do their job everyday, but who people will follow."
> UM plans to be careful with the reps of receiver Malcolm Lewis initially, but Golden expects him to be full-go by the time the season starts. Golden is still impressed Lewis is ready to go after his horrific injury last year. "He made the conditioning test," Golden said. "What a marvel of medicine."
> Golden said safety Deon Bush, coming off sports hernia surgery, should be fully integrated into practice in a week. Running back Eduardo Clements (neck) is full-go at practice already.
> Golden said the first 72 hours of camp will be pivotal to seeing which freshmen "can make a run at a position or help the squad." Asked which freshmen he's most excited to see the first names out of Golden's mouth were receiver Stacy Coley, running back Gus Edwards and defensive back Artie Burns.