Miami Hurricanes freshman running back Fletcher carries a heavy load early — and delivers

Mark Fletcher Jr. huffed and puffed while the officials took a second look at his long run down the right sideline, and tumble toward the front right pylon at the corner of the end zone Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium. The Louisville defense barely laid a hand on Fletcher as he shot past an initial rusher, ran around the left side of his brick-wall offensive line and cut for the opposite sideline for a 54-yard gain. A second look confirmed what the referees, and Fletcher, thought: The running back was out of bounds at the Cardinals’ 1-yard line.

Fletcher caught his breath during the replay review — “It helped me a lot,” he said, because the coaches were “going to take me out” -— and powered his way into the end zone on the next play to put the Miami Hurricanes ahead in the third quarter.

“I appreciate that they didn’t take me out,” the freshman said Saturday, smiling.

Right now, he’s making it hard for his coaches to do anything else. The tailback is only 11 games into his college career and already looks like one of the most valuable weapons on the offense, with two 100-yard games in his last three and 386 total yards in his four games since he returned from a month-long injury absence in October.

Last weekend, he was the biggest bright spot in Miami’s 38-31 loss to No. 9 Louisville, running 17 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns, and adding another 25-yard catch on a wheel route. On Nov. 4 in an ugly loss to NC State, he was, too, with 23 carries for 115 yards and three catches for 17.

In only seven games of an injury-plagued debut season, Fletcher has twice topped 100 yards on the ground, thrice run for at least 5.0 yards per carry on at least nine carries and found the end zone four times. His 468 rushing yards are the most on the team and the most by a Miami freshman since former all-conference running back Duke Johnson ran for 947 in 2012 as the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“He’s going to be a great one,” coach Mario Cristobal said Saturday. “We’ve got to keep bringing in guys like Mark.”

On Monday, Cristobal added Fletcher is “solidifying” the No. 1 spot in the backfield.

“He’s been great. He’s been awesome,” Cristobal told WQAM, “exactly what you want.”

For the Hurricanes with their too-often-inept offense and long-term questions at quarterback, Fletcher’s emergence is a true revelation, even if it’s not altogether unexpected.

Even in Miami’s vaunted Class of 2023 filled with multiple five-star recruits plus elite defensive lineman Rueben Bain Jr., Fletcher’s commitment was one of Miami’s most important victories. He ran for 1,934 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior at Plantation American Heritage last year, and 4,443 yards and 49 touchdowns in his four years of high school. He was a known commodity in South Florida since he was tearing up the parks long before he even suited up for American Heritage and the Hurricanes stole him away from Ohio State, and beat out rival Florida, to get him to commit to the hometown team during the early signing period last year.

The expectation in Coral Gables was, at the very least, Fletcher would give Miami a heavy power-running option in short-yardage situations from Day 1. The reality is he’s already much more.

On Fletcher’s 54-yard run, the Cardinals barely touched him. On another long run for Fletcher, Louisville linebacker Jaylin Alderman had a clean shot at Fletcher in the backfield right as Fletcher took the handoff from quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, but Fletcher planted his right foot and cut to his left past Alderman, then juked past Cardinals defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly with the same type of hard cut down the field to pick up 18 yards.

“He’s so big, but he’s so agile,” defensive lineman Branson Deen said Saturday. “You would think he’s going to run through you, then he makes a good cut and you’re like, Oh my God, where’d he go?”

Said Fletcher: “I love showing them that I can do more things than just be a power runner. … I’m just happy that [offensive coordinator Shannon] Dawson schemed it up so I can do that.”

Fletcher’s best moment, though, happened because of what he does best. From Louisville’s 21, Fletcher burst through a hole in the middle of the offensive line, bounced off a pair of Cardinals in the middle of the field and then kept his balance when Kelly grabbed him by the leg to score a game-tying touchdown in the first quarter.

He’s a more complete back than he was early in his career at American Heritage or even than he was when he first joined the Hurricanes in May, but he’s still special because of his massive 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame and, with temperatures expected in the 40s on Friday at Boston College, Fletcher will get the perfect chance to showcase everything he does so well in Miami’s regular season finale this weekend.

“I’m ready for it,” Fletcher said. “I just pound it downhill.”