CORAL GABLES, Florida — It seems like Denzel Perryman and Anthony Chickillo were destined to play at Miami.
They met for the first time eight years ago, that initial encounter taking place in the Miami weight room that would eventually become their hangout as Hurricanes. Perryman is a linebacker from Coral Gables, the suburb the university calls home. Chickillo is a defensive lineman and third-generation Hurricane, his college plans basically set in the instant that someone turned to his parents and said, "It's a boy."
They've been through a little of everything in their time together.
Well, almost everything.
For as talented as Perryman and Chickillo are — both should be playing on NFL Sundays starting in 2015, and probably for many years after that — neither has appeared in an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Their last chance has arrived, and both insist they have designs on making the most from this final opportunity.
"I try to take things one day at a time, focused, try to stay in the moment," Chickillo said. "Not think about the future, not think about the past."
Not thinking about the future, that's the hard part.
Not thinking about the past, that's easy for Perryman and Chickillo, since the past hasn't exactly been pleasant.
Here's some of what Perryman and Chickillo have experienced: Randy Shannon, the coach who recruited them, got fired before they arrived on campus; there was an NCAA investigation over the acts of a rogue former booster that led to two years of university-imposed bowl bans plus deprived Miami of what would have been a trip to the ACC title game in 2012; and they've been standouts on a defense that has struggled mightily at times.
Starting Sept. 1, when the season begins at Louisville in a rematch of a Russell Athletic Bowl that saw the Hurricanes get blown out to end the 2013 campaign, that defense — and its two primary leaders — will be under the microscope once again.
"I can't waste any time, man," Perryman, already projected as a possible first-round pick in 2015, said with sweat falling off him following practice on a recent steamy morning. "Every day is an opportunity to get better. I've got to take it day by day. I can't think about after the season, what teams will look at me, things like that. I see the scouts out here every day, but I can't think about anything other than what this team has to do to get better."
The Hurricanes made some strides defensively last season. In 2012, they gave up 486 yards per game, the fifth-worst average among major college teams and part of a season where the unit rewrote the Miami record book in plenty of ways that aren't good. A year ago, that was down to 426 yards per game, still in the lower third of the national rankings but a clear improvement nonetheless.
This season, if that number keeps falling, Miami's stock — and that of Perryman and Chickillo, too — should be rising.
"At the end of the day, you just have to lock in. You know what we're capable of doing, you know what the staff is capable of doing, you know what the players are capable of doing and you've got to keep moving forward," defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said. "That's all you can do."
When Shannon got fired, Perryman and Chickillo had no doubt about their futures.
Moments after news broke of the coaching change, Perryman and Chickillo — who lived on opposite sides of Florida but still talked daily, mainly over headsets when playing online video games against one another — texted the other almost simultaneously, reaffirming their commitment both to Miami and to becoming teammates.
To go out with a special season would seem like the perfect ending.
"We've been through some things," Perryman said. "And every day, we say to each other, 'Let's get better.'"