|No. 11 Miami begins life without Walton vs. Georgia Tech|
MIAMI -- The loss of running back Mark Walton to a season-ending ankle surgery will impact more than just Miami's running game.
Coach Mark Richt notes there will be a trickle-down effect on special teams as well when the 11th-ranked Hurricanes (4-0, 2-0 ACC) host Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-0) on Saturday afternoon.
Walton's replacement in the backfield, sophomore Travis Homer, has been a key performer on Miami's special teams in addition to backing up Walton in the early going. He is eager about the task, refusing even to take a break in last week's 24-20 victory over Florida State when Richt said he could sit out coverage on a kickoff.
"Homer was the special teams player of the game this past game," Richt said. "Last year, at the end of the season, he was the special teams player of the year. He starts on all four specials, and he does them great. Does them very, very well.
"He can run, he's agile, he's tough, he can tackle, he's smart and he tends to have a lot of stamina. When he becomes the No. 1 back, we have to be careful about watching him out there."
Homer has rushed for 207 yards in a backup role behind Walton, averaging 8.3 yards a carry and catching five passes for 71 yards. Walton rushed for a team-best 428 yards in four games despite dealing with ankle issues the since the second game of the season.
He injured his left ankle against Toledo but continued to play through that until last week, when he suffered an injury to his right ankle that required surgery. Walton averaged 14 carries per game and Homer just over six, but offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said he thinks that Homer will be able to handle the extra work.
"I think he is in phenomenal shape," Brown said. "He's taken a bunch of snaps on special teams. He played 25-30 snaps in the Florida State game, so I think he is in great condition.
"We've pulled back on some special teams for him because of the load he's going to take on offense. That's the biggest thing. Obviously, we need him to continue to be consistent."
Walton is not the only injury Richt will be dealing with against Georgia Tech. Wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, who missed the first two games with a hamstring issue, is questionable for this week, and guard Navaughn Donaldson also is questionable with an ankle injury.
"Ankle sprains, you kind of have to go day-by-day and see where they are," Richt said.
Georgia Tech comes into the game as somewhat the forgotten team in the ACC race. But after losing the season-opener opener in overtime to Tennessee when they couldn't hold onto a late fourth-quarter lead, the Yellow Jackets have rolled to three consecutive wins by an average score of 35-11.
Junior quarterback TaQuan Marshall has led an offense that is crushing opponents to the tune of 396-102 yards a game rushing. Marshall accounts for about 131 of that himself.
"I think that the moment just hasn't gotten too big for him," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said of Marshall, who, like Miami junior quarterback Malik Rosier, is in his first year as a starter. "That's the thing I was worried about the most, especially in that first game.
"For the most part, he's kept his composure really well and has just gone about it. Now it's going to heat up, and this is also his first road game, too. I think he's a pretty confident kid. He works hard and wants to get better, so hopefully we'll continue to see improvement."
The Yellow Jackets' ability to control the pace of the game with its punishing ground attack (396 yards per game, second in the nation) is what concerns Richt.
"A 10-play, 12-play, 18-play drive is not a shock," Richt said. "It happens. If they're backed up on the 10, you almost get nervous that they're backed up on the 10 because they're going to methodically go down the field and probably chew up 10 minutes and stick it in the end zone on you.
"The key to this game is going to be to get some stops. The turnover margin is going to be huge."