CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Mario Cristobal brought some notes with him to his first news conference of the regular season Monday but didn’t have enough room to lay them out on the lectern.
“You guys take up a lot of space,” the 51-year-old head coach of the Miami Hurricanes told reporters before shuffling tape recorders, phones and digital recorders around to make room for what he brought with him.
The Hurricanes, ranked 16th in the Associated Press preseason poll, have yet to become a great comeback story under their new coach. Cristobal would be the first to tell you The U isn’t back — it’s back to work.
But there is more interest in what the head coach at Miami says these days now that the school’s administration is investing millions into its football program like the big boys in college football do.
Game 1 of the Cristobal era is Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Bethune-Cookman, an FCS team that went 2-9 last season and was beaten 63-0 the last time it faced the 0-2 Hurricanes in 2019. Southern Miss, 3-9 in 2021, visits next week.
So gauging how good Miami really is will require waiting until the Hurricanes travel to College Station to play sixth-ranked Texas A&M on Sept. 17.
But that doesn’t mean Cristobal isn’t looking to sniff out signs of trouble with his team. On the field, Miami’s receivers dropped too many balls in camp, a problem he didn’t try to hide. Off the field, Cristobal is looking forward to when the Hurricanes check into their team hotel Friday. He wants to see if all the time and energy he’s invested into strengthening the mental makeup of his players over the last eight months has really resonated.
Whether it has been intense 120-play scrimmages and practices in the scorching heat or bringing in an array of guest speakers to address the team, Cristobal’s said Monday, “most of our work has to be done between the ears with our group and we’ve been at it nonstop to make that a reality.”
“We want to see maturity and we want to see urgency,” he said. “We want to see a team that when it goes to the hotel, immediately goes up to the room like we have structured, gets in there and starts putting on their workmanlike boots and starts watching more film, getting other tips and reminders, going over their tests. As opposed to getting on a game system, which we’re not going to do. As opposed to just wasting time and brain space. We want to see a team that when we come up for pregame, certain portions of it should look just like a game. The offensive and defensive line when they rip off the ball, it should look like a live one-on-one rep.
“(Being) player-led is all about ownership and that is the next step for our team. We want to see real deal ownership. Accountability, players holding other players accountable. If a player is on the edge, he’s about to get a flag, there’s got to be a guy to be able to grab and pull them back and say, ‘that’s not the way we do things here at Miami.’ So, yeah, that’s when a team takes that step.”
Miami lured Cristobal back home from Oregon with a 10-year, $80 million contract to replace Manny Diaz in December, and has handed him resources no other Hurricanes coach has had before. Cristobal used it to build a Who’s Who of coaching staff, swiping 2021 Broyles Award winner Josh Gattis away from Michigan to run the offense and 40-year coaching veteran Kevin Steele away from Maryland to run the defense.
The Hurricanes averaged 31 points a game last year with Tyler Van Dyke stringing together six consecutive 300-yard passing games of at least three touchdown passes a game over a 5-1 finish, but they were the worst rushing team in the ACC averaging only 3.27 yards per carry. Defensively, the Hurricanes were among the worst tackling teams in the country and gave up 31 points a game to FBS opponents. There were fractures in the locker room over playing time, with a handful of older players who fell out of the rotation quitting at various points during the season.
One thing Cristobal and his assistants have stressed since taking over is the best players on the field will play — and depth charts be damned, especially on defense. Cristobal punted on sharing Miami’s depth chart Monday (as has been customary for the Hurricanes on game weeks), saying there are still many positions on defense and a couple on the offensive line to be sorted out this week in practice.
“What you don’t ever want to do is play guys that don’t deserve it or don’t earn it. That’s how you shatter a team’s confidence,” Cristobal said. “We’re always honest, transparent, which is boring sometimes. But it is the best way in our opinion to do things with our team. And we believe that as we get closer and closer to game time, they’re going to realize more and more that the way that we practice should always be as difficult or more difficult than when we play the game. That’s always been the secret sauce to Miami. It wasn’t some mythical potion or a wish. It’s always been about what was done on that practice field. Well, we’ve done that. We’ve brought that aspect back to our program, which is something that we feel very confident about and are looking forward to.
“There’s no mind tricks or whatnot. Our guys know who’s gonna play. That practice tape never tells a lie. Guys that have done well deserve playing time (and) they’re gonna play. Those that haven’t, we’re gonna keep working with them until they’re ready enough to play.”
Both Gattis and Steele — who have worked under some highly successful head coaches — complimented Cristobal Monday on the job he does, communicating his expectations to players and staff, and then assisting them in achieving them.
“A lot of people give instructions, but then it’s ‘OK, you go carry it out,’” Steele said. “He helps you be successful. That’s probably one thing from a different vantage point that I didn’t necessarily know about him as a head coach because I had not seen it firsthand. That’s called being the ultimate leader.”
• Gattis, 38, said he’ll call plays from the press box on Saturday. It’s something Gattis said he started doing two years ago at Michigan. Steele, 64, said he’ll be on the field and will rely on defensive ends coach Rod Wright to assist him from upstairs in the booth.
“When I first started coordinating, I thought I saw everything great from the field,” Gattis said. “But it’s amazing what you see from up top. It allows you really two things. One, obviously, is to be able to see what an opposing defense is trying to do to you. But it also allows you that peace, calm, quietness up there, where in between series where you’re able to collect your thoughts, self-scout, look at your notes, tendencies, and things like that, and not get caught up in the emotions of the game.
“I think one of the toughest things about calling games from the sideline is you get into the emotions. Now the positive of calling from the sideline is you’re able to impact your players. They’re able to look you in the eye, you’re able to look them in the eye, you get a feel for the game at a greater level than you do in the box. But in the box that allows you to really be able to get adjustments made and be able to see everything happening.”
• Even though the Hurricanes have nine personnel groupings on defense, Steele said his playbook gets pared down to what his players’ strengths are.
“We have a package and we have a lot of concepts in that package to be able to do what we need to do to stop offenses, but we’re only going to do what our players do well,” he said. “(Grasping it is) not an issue because if they didn’t grasp it, it’s out (of the playbook).”
• Steele said he feels like Miami is six to seven players deep both at tackle and on the edge that “deserve playing time.”
“That’s a big number,” Steele said. “We’re going to need every one of them.”
• What does Steele want the identity of Miami’s defense to be?
“We want to be physically and mentally tough,” he said. “We want to lead the country in effort, and we want you to know you’ve been tackled.”
• Left tackle Zion Nelson, who missed all of fall camp recovering from a knee scope to remove loose cartilage in his left knee, practiced recently, Cristobal said. But his snap count on Saturday has yet to be determined.
Cristobal said he feels confident the Hurricanes have eight offensive linemen who “can play winning football” but feels the number could extend to 10.
• Cristobal didn’t want to shed any light on who on the offensive line has locked up a starting job. Asked who shined brightest in camp among Miami’s linemen, Gattis mentioned DJ Scaife, who has started 40 games between right guard and right tackle, center Jakai Clark, a 32-game starter, Jalen Rivers and John Campbell.
• Steele said top cornerback Tyrique Stevenson has seen improvement in his technique but is still working at understanding how to read tendencies and routes receivers are running.
“If you don’t understand splits, formations, motions and shifts and what that’s going to lead to and what’s coming, then you’re trying to defend everything,” Steele explained. “So, the football IQ part of it, he’s made a big jump in terms of understanding. It’s not always what they’re going to do, but you can eliminate what they’re not going to do. That makes it easier to cover the route tree.”
• Both Cristobal and Steele had high praise for second-year cornerback Malik Curtis, who was a standout in Miami’s second scrimmage.
“Curtis has blossomed, really blossomed,” Steele said. “The guy can run. He’s had some really big plays in fall camp.”
• Cristobal identified receiver Xavier Restrepo and Stevenson and Curtis as return men on kickoffs and punts. “We have confidence in all three and we’ll figure it out this week,” Cristobal said.
• Miami reportedly added UAB running back Lucious Stanley to the roster as a walk-on grad transfer. Stanley, a 6-foot, 215-pound Fort Myers (Fla.) native, had 38 carries for 213 yards and a touchdown in 13 games last season. Cristobal said he’s “confident” the Hurricanes have enough depth with only three healthy scholarship backs to start the season. Cristobal said last week he expects Don Chaney Jr. to return at some point this season.
• As for the receivers, Cristobal said the unit has performed better over the past couple of practices. He said paring the playbook down and having the same group of receivers getting reps together helped. “We saw more production, we saw more reliability, more consistency, and felt really confident leaving the practice on Saturday, which was very much like what a game flow would be like, and then (Sunday’s) practices as well,” he said. “We feel like we’ve gained ground. We’ve made progress. We think our best days are still ahead of us. So, we’re still going to keep grinding.”
• Gattis said Key’Shawn Smith was initially asked to “move around” to various receiver spots in the offense, but he’s settled in at one spot, “and now you’re starting to see that success grow.”
• Tight end Will Mallory, who was held out of scrimmages to avoid injuring his surgically repaired left shoulder, has been cleared for Saturday’s game, Cristobal said. But his reps could be limited by his level of conditioning.
• Gattis said he’s confident playing all five of his scholarship tight ends. He said Cristobal has been working with the tight ends on blocking.
Said Gattis: “Elijah (Arroyo) has probably kind of developed himself the most in that room of trying to be a complete tight end.”
(Photo: Mark Brown / Getty Images)