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Canes football operating in parallel universes as athletic director interviews continue

·7 min read

The key protagonists in the University of Miami football program are operating in parallel universes this week, as coach-in-limbo Manny Diaz traverses the Southeast selling the program to recruits while Julio Frenk’s executives interview candidates who could realistically dismiss Diaz even before stocking the refrigerator in the AD’s office.

“We’re operating as normal,” UM director of player personnel Andy Vaughn told WQAM on Monday night.

Nevertheless, it’s a peculiar, uncomfortable and awkward place for this program to be, and realistically it cannot continue this way for more than another week, with the early signing period just 16 days away.

UM was still conducting interviews for the AD job on Tuesday. The school, this week, planned to interview New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nunez for a second time.

Nunez — who grew up in Miami and wants the job — and former UM stars Gino Torretta and Alonzo Highsmith are among the confirmed candidates for the AD job, and there are others also being considered whose names have not been confirmed.

One person who spoke to UM’s decision makers said there has been indecision internally about whether to hire a former player (such as Torretta and Highsmith) and pair him with an experienced administrator or go the traditional route of hiring a career administrator for the job.

Most internally agree that the Canes would prefer to hire someone familiar with the UM culture and Miami market. At least two of the candidates would likely replace Diaz immediately, according to multiple sources.

But whatever he decides, Frenk is going to disappoint one set of executives, donors or Board of Trustee members — some of whom support Torretta, some of whom are lobbying for Highsmith, many of whom want a pursuit of Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and some of whom are fine with Diaz being given another season.

This odd state of suspended animation — in which Diaz visits recruits’ homes and is stuck for an answer when asked if he will remain employed at UM — cannot, to this point, be blamed on anyone.

Diaz and his staffers are simply doing their job. UM officials Rudy Fernandez and Joe Echevarria — empowered to help Frenk pick a new AD, with the assistance of search firm Turnkey — are being diligent and thorough in considering every option.

The fact UM hasn’t hired an AD yet has not — to this point — tangibly cost the Canes any particular recruit, or cost them Cristobal (who coaches Oregon in the Pacific-12 title game against Utah on Friday) or foiled any possible attempt to land Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin, who will have as much interest in the Canes next week as he would this week.

But it has created challenges.

When the uncle of four-star Georgia based quarterback Jacurri Brown — a UM nonbinding commit — asked Diaz this week if he will remain UM’s coach, “coach Diaz handled that really well,” Brown told CaneSport’s Matt Shodell. “He said he can’t guarantee any coach will be there four years, but he said the players are all happy at Miami, no one wants to leave [or] transfer. And we appreciated that he was honest because he could have said ‘my job, this and that,’ but he was honest and that’s all you can be.”

Of the eight players committed in this 2022 class, Brown has insisted he’s signing with UM regardless of any coaching change, though he might visit Mississippi the week before signing day, which would create some doubt.

Among UM’s seven other nonbinding commitments, four-star Tennessee based receiver Isaiah Horton told Canesport that he might look elsewhere if the coaching staff isn’t retained.

And decisions would loom for UM’s six other commits: Fort Myers based four-star cornerback Chris Graves (took an in-home visit with a Gators coach this week after visiting the UF campus twice in recent months); Orlando-based three-star safety Markeith Williams; Louisiana-based three-star receiver Landon Ibieta; Georgia-based four-star offensive tackle Felentha Carswell (being pursued by a bunch of schools); Texas-based three star linebacker Justin Medlock (recently announced a Utah offer on social media but has his Canes commitment noted at the top of his Twitter page) and four-star cornerback Khamauri Rogers (who is visiting Mississippi State). Nobody can say for sure what those six recruits would do if Diaz is canned.

The good news is that one of UM’s top targets — four-star Miami Gardens Monsignor Pace defensive end Shemar Stewart — won’t sign until February. So the Canes — who are very much in it for Stewart — will have time to overtake perceived front-runner Texas A&M.

Also, four-star defensive end Nyjalik Kelly is strongly considering UM regardless of who the coach is; he also is interested in Oregon, so a Cristobal hire wouldn’t hurt UM with Kelly.

Now let’s be clear about this:

Permitting Diaz and his assistants to meet with UM’s nonbinding commitments and top recruits — such as Stewart and Kelly — is justified and necessary.

But Fernandez and Echevarria should ask Diaz to hold off on offering transfers until Diaz’s status is clarified in the next week or so. UM, for instance, has made an offer to offensive tackle Miles Frazier, an FIU transfer and a former two-star recruit who was also offered by Iowa State, Mississippi State, Arizona State and Virginia.

What if a new coach doesn’t want him?

Offering high-end recruits is one thing; offering B- and C-level transfers is another.

UM also said Monday that it’s pursuing junior college players, with Independence (Kansas) three-star defensive tackle Jeffrey M’Ba among UM’s top targets.

“We’ve identified the players we think can help us; junior college and transfer portal; players that fit with our system,” Vaughn said. “Now we’re trying to convince these guys to make this your home…. The transfer portal is how teams go find impact players.”

As Diaz twists, some of his top administrators continue to make the case for him publicly — as they must — as if trying to lobby support for a same-party candidate who’s trailing in the polls.

“Something great is about to happen if you look at the tail end of our season,” recruiting director David Cooney said. “The program is heading in the right direction…. You add a Leonard Taylor, James Williams. You saw the success we had with those kids once they started to play. We are going to close out this thing the way we want to and get some of those [recruits].... We are going to get this roster to look how we want it to look.”

The hope, for this staff’s sake, is that the new athletic director agrees with that glass-half-full perspective.

Diaz, if he’s retained, plans to replace SMU-bound Rhett Lashlee with a coordinator who also plays an up-tempo, spread offense.

“It all starts at the quarterback position. That is going to be the Miami staple from here on out,” Cooney said. “That is what kids in Miami want to play, are used to playing. They play a spread offense.”

But one person close to the search expressed concern that if a new AD gives Diaz one final prove-it season, he might have difficulty finding highly-regarded coordinators and assistants who are reluctant to work for a coach whose job security is tenuous at best.

ALL-ACC TEAM

No UM player was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team, but three players made the second team: receiver Charleston Rambo (who set UM single-season records for receptions) guard DJ Scaife and punter Lou Hedley. ACC coaches and select media members do the voting.

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