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Football returns to the field

Angelo Gelfuso - The Miami Student
Angelo Gelfuso - The Miami Student

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Despite falling short, playing in the St. Petersburg Bowl last December painted a promising picture of what was to come for Miami football. In the last six seasons, the anticipation--the palpable excitement coming into a season--has never been greater than it has for the 2017-18 season.

Nine starters return to a defense that ranked inside the 2017 NCAA Top 25 at the end of the 2016-17 campaign. The efficient, redshirt junior quarterback Gus Ragland officially takes the reins of an offense that returns eight named to the first-team.

"Kids worked hard for about nine months, in the offseason, and then in fall camp. They've had a great offseason," head coach Chuck Martin said. "Their strength-and-conditioning program got them really ready for fall camp. They were locked in all camp."

Successful teams bear one commonality -- the desire to get off to a quick start. This is something that the RedHawks will be looking to accomplish.

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"We haven't gotten off to a good start at Miami in quite some time -- probably since 2010. And I don't even know how that season started," Martin said.

While optimism has spread throughout the program, Martin wants to assure everyone that the rebuilding effort is far from over.

"I think, in some respects, it's complete--when you get here three years ago, and it's 0-16," Martin said. "The first thing we talked about was becoming relevant in the conference, and trying to win a conference championship. A big part of the rebuild is complete."

Junior offensive lineman Sam McCollum said, "I think it's on the way to being complete, but we still haven't played a game yet. So we still have a lot to show ourselves and show everyone else."

Depth is a facet of the team that has been turned on it's head -- what used to be a problem for the squad is now a strength.

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"It's nice to come into a season with experienced players that have played, and played at a high level," Martin said.

Not only do the 'Hawks boast depth throughout, but this is being matched with skill-based progression.

"Everyone seems to be growing and progressing, like Coach [Martin] wanted us too," McCollum said.

With this advancement, both sides of the ball have seen offseason improvements.

Expect the offense to be spearheaded by the quarterback-wide receiver combo of Gus Ragland and third-team All-Mid-American Conference junior James Gardner.

Last season, Ragland was staggeringly productive with his chances while filling in for the injured, previous starter quarterback junior Billy Bahl, halfway through the season. He erupted and threw for 1,537 yards, 17 touchdowns, all while throwing one interception. On the ground, the double-threat ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns.

James Gardner, who has looked phenomenal in this offseason, appears ready to take the conference by storm, improving in areas such as route-running.

His sophomore year saw the wide out lead the team in receiving with 750 yards, 45 catches and six touchdowns -- good enough for a 68.2 yards-per-game average. Based on these numbers, this year could be special for him.

After a surprising Top 25 finish, the defense has taken on a new mantra.

"We're making a name for ourselves: The Mob, senior safety Tony Reid said. "We're going to try to cover for everything -- whether it's tackles for loss, turning the ball over and helping out our offense by setting up great field position."

Defensively, expect MU to be anchored by Reid--who led the team in tackles with 98--and De'Andre Montgomery. A junior linebacker/defensive back, Montgomery is a ball-hawk in the secondary. Last season he co-led the team with four interceptions.

Miami opens up the campaign on the road against Marshall University. The RedHawks haven't beaten the Thundering Herd in the past six times the teams have faced off. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., as the Oxford contingent eagerly awaits.