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After 34 Straight Wins, Fiesta Bowl Defeat Motivated Fresh Start

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  By Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 25, 2003 CORAL GABLES — Larry Coker didn't need a therapist's couch to get over the Hurricanes' overtime loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Of course, Miami's coach found himself depressed when pondering the reasons why UM lost the national championship game. But every time he felt numb inside, Coker said he would leave his office to take a trip downstairs to his team's weight room. There, he would admire his players' dedication to their offseason workout program, and his spirits would be lifted instantly. “I was the one who was, ‘Woe is me. We got that call. We were so close. We're second (best).' You just relive it and relive it and relive it,” said Coker, who suffered his first loss as a head coach against the Buckeyes. “But there (the players) were, working like Trojans with a renewed vengeance. That kind of put it all into perspective for me. We're going to be OK. We're going to work beyond this. Forget it? No. But move forward.” The Hurricanes plan to do just that in 2003 because the loss to Ohio State, which ended Miami's 34-game winning streak, gave this team a renewed spirit, providing a much-needed attitude adjustment and a refreshing realization of how difficult it is to win a title. According to senior linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is one of UM's returning captains, that loss got the Hurricanes hungry again. “Before the Fiesta Bowl, a lot of the guys on this team had never lost a game on the college level, so some players began to take winning for granted and stopped putting in the work that got us to this point,” said Vilma, who is regarded as one of the nation's best middle linebackers. “We started taking our opponents lightly. That game was a wake-up call.” The Hurricanes plan to use their controversial defeat as the starting point for a re-energized approach that gets them into the national title race for the fourth straight season. Despite the departures of 12 starters, UM has enough returning talent to be in contention again. However, the quest for the program's second title in three years rests on the shoulders of a number of untested players.

A new starting quarterback, tailback and big-play receiver must emerge to fill the enormous voids left by Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee and Andre Johnson, and an entirely new set of starting defensive linemen must be found. The Hurricanes also have some concerns along their offensive line, an area of strength in recent years that has some question marks after the departures of two starters and a rash of preseason injuries. It helps that the Hurricanes have proven throughout the past three seasons that they have some impressive staying power. They've shown it despite losing dozens of stars to the NFL, many of them before the conclusion of their eligibility. They reload, instead of rebuild, by replacing former superstars such as Jeremy Shockey, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis and Ed Reed with new ones such as tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Johnson, McGahee and safety Sean Taylor. Somehow, the newcomers not only hold their own in most cases, but sometimes they even manage to eclipse the feats of their predecessors. A prime example of this was the lack of impact Shockey's early departure to the NFL had on the program. Miami had stockpiled players such as Winslow, the son of the Hall of Fame tight end who shares the same name. As Shockey earned a Pro Bowl spot and drew countless national headlines in his rookie season for the New York Giants last year, Winslow broke all of UM's tight end single-season records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in his first campaign as a starter. This season Winslow, who's too big for safeties to handle, too fast for linebackers to stick with and just cocky enough to be a Hurricane, is back for more. As he sees it, size, power, speed and the best hands on the team equal explosive possibilities, especially now that Miami's offense will be built around him. That all explains why this junior isn't shy about admitting that he believes he's about to change the game of football as fans presently know it. Winslow is the son of one of the best tight ends in history and happens to be playing the same position as his old man, so perhaps his lineage demands nothing less than extremely high expectations. Nevertheless, even that might not explain why he's begun calling himself a somewhat controversial nickname: The Chosen One. The nickname, which stems from his belief that he's going to help revolutionize the tight end position similar to the way his father did with the San Diego Chargers during the 1980s, is catching on. “I'm not full of myself, but I know what I can do out there,” said Winslow Jr., who caught 57 passes for 726 yards and eight touchdowns last season. “I don't think anyone has my ability, so I call myself The Chosen One because God just blessed me. I make catches that I haven't seen anyone else make. “I'm not really a tight end. When you think of a tight end, you think of a big blocking bruiser, a slow guy. I'm more of a receiver in a tight end's body. It's really a mismatch for me to go against a linebacker, safety and a corner. I work at wide receiver all the time, and when I bring that inside it's just so easy.” Winslow sure made his 11-catch, 122-yard performance in the Hurricanes' national championship loss to Ohio State look easy. His play in that game started the hype that will surround him this fall. Not only has he been labeled the best tight end in college football, but he's also mentioned as the best player at the college level. He's even approaching the Holy Grail of college tight ends: Heisman Trophy consideration. The Chosen One couldn't be happier with all of the attention, and he doesn't mind the pressure that comes with it. Neither does Coker, who said the Hurricanes will need big seasons from their superstars in order to get back to the championship game. Coker said he doesn't believe there is any reason why Winslow — who added 17 pounds in the offseason, bulking up to 252 — shouldn't put up respectable numbers, considering he's bigger, faster, stronger and more familiar with the offense than last season. “For us to do what we expect to do each year,” Coker said, “the great players need to have a great year.” Coker hopes that another potentially great player for the Hurricanes will be running back Frank Gore, who would have been the starting tailback last season if he had not suffered a serious right knee injury during the spring of 2002. Gore, who earned freshman All-American honors after rushing for 562 yards and five touchdowns as Portis' backup in 2001, averaged 9.1 yards per carry as a freshman. That marked the second-best per-carry average in Miami history. UM coaches, especially Coker, often have compared Gore's running style to former Detroit Lions superstar Barry Sanders, whom Coker coached as an assistant at Oklahoma State. Coker said it's Gore's ability to read defenses and find seams that makes him unique. “He's a player who can take a two-yard loss and make a four-yard gain out of it,” Coker said. “Everybody has a back that, if you can block everybody, will run for 60 yards. But not everybody has a back who can make something happen when it's not there.” The emergence of McGahee prompted him to redshirt last season, but Gore, now a sophomore in eligibility, said that in hindsight sitting out the year was the best thing he could have done. It allowed him time to strengthen his surgically repaired Achilles tendon under ideal, low-pressure circumstances. Now he's ready to show the nation why McGahee was once his backup. The toughest player for the Hurricanes to replace may be Dorsey, who broke just about every one of UM's career and single-season passing records in his three-plus seasons as a starter. But it's not like UM doesn't have the personnel to do it. Florida transfer Brock Berlin won the starting spot following a fierce spring battle with Derrick Crudup Jr., Dorsey's top backup the past two seasons. True freshman Kyle Wright, a prep All-American from California, may be the best of the bunch in the long run, although he's expected to redshirt this fall. Berlin, who amassed 653 passing yards and 11 TDs in his two seasons with the Gators, is everything Dorsey wasn't, and vice versa. Berlin has a cannon for an arm, but up until this point he hasn't shown great field savvy or the ability to read defenses consistently. Under Dorsey, the Hurricanes made plenty of big plays, but they also kept their defense out of trouble by converting third downs and limiting turnovers. If there was ever going to be a season in which UM's defense was needed to carry the team on its shoulders — an unlikely scenario, but possible — there's no better time than now, because the 2003 squad is well-equipped to do so. Of Miami's 13 returning starters, seven of them are on the defensive side of the ball, including Vilma and fellow senior linebacker D.J. Williams, who are both candidates for the Butkas Award. Miami's entire secondary, which led the nation in pass defense and pass efficiency defense, also is back. Up front, the Hurricanes have a proven three-man tackle rotation led by Vince Wilfork, an athletic 6-2, 344-pound junior who already has NFL written all over him, but some significant concerns at end. According to senior safety Maurice Sikes, the Hurricanes' defensive backs are out for vengeance more than any other unit on the team because of the way the Fiesta Bowl ended. Sikes remembers the momentary euphoria he felt dancing at midfield of Sun Devil Stadium as he and his teammates celebrated what they thought was a victory in the game's first overtime period. Then came the slowly thrown interference flag from an official, which gave the Buckeyes a second chance to stay in the game. OSU went on to win the title, pulling off one of college football's biggest upsets while triggering UM's nightmare of an offseason. Sikes said that experience gave Miami's players the full spectrum of emotions that can be felt in a game of that magnitude. The 2003 Hurricanes are working to make sure this season won't have such a torturous ending. “We've put in the work to get ourselves back on top. We're focused and we're hungry,” said Sikes, one of UM's four defensive backs who are preseason candidates for the Thorpe Award. “From watching that game, people felt sorry for us because of how we lost. They felt pity on us. No offense, but we don't want your pity. We're used to being hated for being on top, and our goal is to get back to the point where we're hated again.”