CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is a sense of unusual quiet around the University of Miami campus these days. No ongoing investigations. No persistent distractions. No recruiting dilemmas. No speculation about Al Golden’s future with the program.
Even an anticipated quarterback competition has failed to develop, snuffing out another potential controversy.
Miami has thus far gone through half its spring practices drama free. Business as usual has gone from dealing with a hovering NCAA cloud to just focusing on football business. That has not gone unnoticed, either.
When asked about the relative calm that has settled over his football program, Golden broke into a big smile and put his arms in the air, like he had won the biggest game of the season.
"It’s been just so much fun just coaching football," Golden said this week. "It’s almost like a foundation’s in place. They know what the standards are. They’re doing all the little things you need to do, so it’s been good. It’s been a lot of fun. Some guys have stepped up and that’s helped us improve our team. I’m excited about where we are."
The NCAA officially ended its investigation into Miami last October, finally allowing everybody to move forward. On the field, progress was being made as the Hurricanes jumped out to a 7-0 start and No. 7 ranking before ending the season with four losses in their final six games. Still, Miami finished 9-4 -- its best record since 2009. Just months after closure from the NCAA, Golden had to deal with a new wave of innuendo in early January -- this time linking him to the open job at his alma mater, Penn State.
Golden reiterated his commitment to Miami, and James Franklin was eventually hired in State College, Pa. Though Golden declined to discuss what happened with Penn State, he said once again he believes in what he, his staff and players are building at Miami.
He points to the recently completed Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence, which includes a revamped locker room, weight room and academics wing with money being raised for more upgrades, this time to the practice fields. He also points to the success the staff had in signing its most recent recruiting class, ranked No. 10 in the ESPN Recruiting Nation class rankings.
But the hard work is far from over. Miami remains slightly below the scholarship limit because of the NCAA sanctions. Depth is not where the staff wants it to be, and neither is the play of the defense, which again ranked among the worst in the ACC. Golden took heat during the offseason for retaining defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio from a fan base looking for an easy scapegoat.
Reality says Miami simply did not have the talent on defense a season ago to be an elite unit. The group the Hurricanes will field in 2014 is more experienced and more talented, so improvement is expected. The cohesion Golden has seen so far during spring practice has validated his decision to keep the staff intact.
"We’re not where we want to be. We’re not," Golden said. "The players know that. We’re going to keep moving it forward. We haven’t had one cycle that’s been a normal recruiting cycle, so for all the things that we’re not right now, I’m not going to make excuses for what these guys have achieved during a very difficult time, almost an impossible time.
"After going through what we’ve gone through, I don’t think the answer is to start tearing it apart, starting all over, and, to be honest, I’m glad I made the decision I made. I look out there and there’s more continuity out there than if we had started over. We’re getting leadership, we’re getting guys playing with a lot of energy."
Offensively, the Hurricanes have to break in a new starting quarterback. Though most anticipated an intense competition between fifth-year senior Ryan Williams and redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen for the starting job, Williams has established himself as the front-runner with his performance this spring.
Williams has waited behind two quarterbacks for this opportunity, spending the past two seasons backing up Stephen Morris. He has a major edge in both experience and maturity. Golden says so far this spring, Williams is completing about 70 percent of his passes.
"Growing up as a Miami Hurricanes fan and waiting four years and getting my chance to play this year, I’m really excited about this season," Williams said.
He is not alone. A quiet calm has never created this much excitement in Coral Gables.