CORAL GABLES, Fla. – When No. 13 Miami opens its season against Florida A&M on Thursday night, the Hurricanes won't exactly be worried about dirty plays.
Plays on the dirt might be the problem.
The start of football season overlaps with the end of baseball season, and since the Florida Marlins also call Sun Life Stadium home, the baseball infield — elbow-chewing, knee-scraping, unyielding dirt — will remain until at least early October. The gritty surface frustrates kickers, can be slippery for runners, and is generally unpleasant for both tacklers and tacklees.
"It's not fun," Miami linebacker Colin McCarthy said.
In 2012, the infield dirt will no longer be an issue for the Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins, because that's the season when the Marlins will move into a baseball-only stadium built on the site of the now-dismantled Orange Bowl near downtown Miami.
Until then, the cutout infield will remain for the first few weeks of football season, impossible for crews to cover with sod until the Marlins' season ends.
"Not fun at all," said Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano. "Not the way the game should be played."
The Dolphins have already had two preseason games on the dirt this season, one of them marred by rain that turned the infield into a thick clay soup. The infield stretches over much of one half of the football field, while the other side — the outfield grass, if you will — is perfectly manicured to the Dolphins' and Hurricanes' liking.
It has been a thorny issue in South Florida forever. Dolphins players, kickers in particular, have long complained about having to work on the dirt.
"Go Marlins!" former New England Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour famously said in 2003, after Olindo Mare missed two kicks off the infamous dirt and cost the Dolphins a victory. New England ended up prevailing 19-13 in overtime.
Miami coach Randy Shannon tries to avoid discussing the dirt issue with players, not wanting them fixated on something out of their control.
The Hurricanes have sent their kickers, snappers and holders to the stadium to get some level of comfort with working on the dirt, but the rest of the team will get a first look on Thursday night.
"We don't even get all that involved in it," Shannon said. "I have this philosophy, and I've learned this by coaching. When you say 'Don't fumble the football,' the guy's not going to run very fast. So you've got to just tell them to keep moving their feet, use little trigger words like that to get them better."
That's not to say Shannon is dismissive about the dirt deal.
Some of the Hurricanes will wear a layer of tape over their forearms and elbows on Thursday night, letting it serve as another layer of skin. Unlike in baseball, where players rarely slide on the dirt with any skin exposed, football players often can't avoid some downright nasty scrapes and cuts when they get driven into the hard-packed surface.
"You can get a lot of staph infections from those burns if you're not careful," Shannon said. "You go up there and you practice, a guy gets a dirt burn or a sand burn, then he can't heal and he might miss the FAMU game or the Ohio State game (the following week). So you don't put yourself in that situation."
When it comes to the dirt, Miami's schedule might provide a break.
After Thursday, the Hurricanes aren't back at home until they face Florida State on Oct. 9. The Marlins play their regular-season finale Oct. 3. Barring a playoff run, the field might be all grass when the Seminoles come to South Florida.
"Depends on the Marlins," Shannon said. "If they get hot, we might be in trouble."