Jorge Baez grew up in Little Havana, the historically rich neighborhood just west of Miami, which, among many other things, was home to the old Orange Bowl.
The old Orange Bowl, of course, was home of the Miami Hurricanes.
When Baez was growing up, the ’Canes were really the ’Canes: the meanest guys on the block, winners of 58 straight home games, teams that practically made national championships a yearly routine.
They were Baez’s first heroes. And the Orange Bowl, may it rest in peace, was the most special place to watch college football.
“I grew up running in there and watching them ’Canes play,” Baez said.
He was hooked.
“I kind of knew at an early age that, once I graduated from college, that’s what I wanted to do,” said Baez, now in his first season as the wide receivers coach at Southern University.
“I wanted to coach football. The bug bit me early.”
Baez later served as a graduate assistant at Miami in the early 2000s. Though that was when, according to Yahoo Sports’ explosive report, rogue booster Nevin Shapiro started to lavish gifts and illegal payouts to star Hurricanes, Baez said he heard and saw nothing.
“Never met him. I had no idea,” Baez said. “If (Shapiro) came up to me right now, I wouldn’t recognize him.”
At any rate, Baez’s love for football led to coaching jobs at two Miami high schools, then to Ole Miss, where he again worked as a graduate assistant.
He joined the Southern coaching staff this summer after a stint at NAIA Lambuth University. And when he took a good look at his new receivers ... well, he was impressed.
Sitting in his office at the A.W. Mumford Field House last week, Baez swiveled his chair toward the whiteboard on a nearby wall.
One by one, he looked at the names of his players.
LaQuinton Evans. Charles Hawkins. Jared Green. Mike Berry. Lee Doss.
Baez kept going. And he kept smiling.
“I think I have a great corps,” he said. A lot of these guys on this board could play at places that I’ve been — places like Miami and Ole Miss.”
It is a bold, bold statement. When the season begins Sept. 3 at Tennessee State, the receiving corps will try to back it up.
If they do, it will mark a drastic turnaround from last season.
As the team struggled in its first year under new coach Stump Mitchell, so, too, did the wideouts.
Dropped passes, spotty protection and inconsistent quarterbacks all played a part in a passing attack that fell far below expectations.
Curry Allen, the team’s leading receiver, managed only 539 yards.
What’s more, longtime assistant Eric Dooley left to become offensive coordinator at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Even if Dooley had stayed, this promised to be a transition year for the receiving corps, which lost five seniors.
Mitchell said during the offseason that Southern planned to identify its top five or six receivers and give them most of the reps in practice, hoping they’ll develop chemistry with quarterback Dray Joseph.
The staff also brought in three key newcomers: Green, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Virginia; Berry, a junior-college transfer; and Doss, a former high-school teammate of Hawkins.
Now that training camp has closed and the opener is less than two weeks away, Southern appears to have found its top targets.
The corps starts with Evans, who came close to breaking out last season with 329 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
Now, as a senior, Evans will try to take over as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, in the mold of Michael Hayes and Devin Lewis and Juamorris Stewart.
“I’m so high on LaQuinton Evans,” Baez said. “He’s a good kid. Does what you ask him to do. He’s a competitor.”
So, too, is Hawkins. A former walk-on who played primarily as a punt returner, Hawkins has become a key player in the passing game, despite being only 5-foot-8.
Of all the receivers, Hawkins has performed the brightest in preseason camp.
“He does exactly what you want him to do, and he can play,” Baez said. “He’s definitely going to be a playmaker for us.”
As for Green, he has missed chunks of camp because of a groin injury, but with his 6-2 frame, speed and experience — he was a three-year role player at Virginia — Green has the potential to excel.
Then there’s Berry, who spent last season at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and found himself without a new school until late this spring, when Southern stumbled upon him.
“It’s going to be scary when he gets it all together,” Baez said. “Mike Berry is one of those juco kids that comes out and you say, ‘How did he fall down to this level?’ He has the ability to dominate and play at a high level. It’s just (a matter of) him soaking in this offense.”
The depth and talent doesn’t stop there, Baez said. He’s also high on Doss and 6-5 freshman Bradley Coleman, saying they’re very close to contributing this year.
The tight ends could factor more into the passing attack this season, as well.
Although sophomore Javon Jordan missed practice last week for undisclosed reasons, the team still has true freshman Eric Janeau and sophomores Kesean Peterson and Rashaun Allen — both of whom played last season.
Allen has turned in a quietly productive camp; in the Jaguars’ second scrimmage, he led all players with four catches, mostly on short passes underneath the linebackers.
Together, the tight ends and receivers will try to transform Southern’s offense into an efficient unit, moving the ball primarily through high-percentage passes.
Baez, for one, said he believes the team has more than enough talent to do it.
“I look at these guys, and I say, ‘Man, I’ve got a great group,’ ” Baez said. “Because I do. This is a good group of players.”