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Departures, Question Marks Fail To Slow Lofty Expectations

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

By Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 23, 2004  

CORAL GABLES — When told that the Miami Hurricanes lost potentially an estimated $100 million dollars worth of players to the NFL this offseason, Larry Coker, UM's typically humorous head coach, replied, “I guess we were over the salary cap.”

Coker was joking about the salary cap, of course, but the departure of an unprecedented six first-round NFL picks — all perceived as potential starters for their respective franchises come opening day — is no laughing matter.

However, at Miami, the General Motors of football factories, talent replaces talent, so there's generally no need to be alarmed by the exits — in some cases, early exits — of players such as tight end Kellen Winslow, safety Sean Taylor and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. After all, each of those guys replaced first-rounders themselves.

The Hurricanes consistently reload their roster, turning unknown players into household names. This season is expected to be no exception, with top-notch performers such as cornerback Antrel Rolle, offensive tackle Eric Winston and defensive tackle Orien Harris expected to elevate themselves into the superstar realm. As usual, with budding stars come lofty expectations, and the Hurricanes would have it no other way.

Exactly how spoiled are things in Coral Gables?

Miami finished the 2003 season with a 11-2 record, won a share of the Big East title, played in a BCS bowl and beat cross-state rival Florida State — not once, but twice. Yet the season was viewed by many as a disappointment, simply because the Hurricanes weren't in the national championship hunt for the first time in three years. That's how lofty the expectations are at UM, year-in and year-out.

The hopes are just as high this season, even though the Hurricanes have changed conferences, joining a more competitive group of teams. Miami dominated the Big East upon its arrival in that conference, but can the Hurricanes venture into the ACC, dethrone the Seminoles and hold off everyone else?

That answer likely will depend on how much the offense has improved from last season. A simpler scheme has senior quarterback Brock Berlin breathing easier. That's important because Berlin, the former Florida transfer, is the biggest X factor in Miami's run at its sixth national title.

Berlin admitted he wasn't at ease in 2003, his first season at the UM helm. He wasn't comfortable following Ken Dorsey. He wasn't comfortable running the offense, or with his role as team leader. And he wasn't comfortable with the relationship he had with teammates and UM fans last year following back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Tennessee, games for which he takes most of the blame.

“That's the way the position goes,” Berlin said. “You're the quarterback. It's coming out of your hand. You throw the ball. That's the way it is, but it's tough sometimes.”

Fast forward one offseason, and the former Parade All-American quarterback finally seems relaxed. It appears Berlin has regained his Southern charm and the smile that goes with it. He's more at ease, and for good reason.

Miami's offense has been simplified since last fall, more crafted around his skills. His position coach, Dan Werner, is now his offensive coordinator, after Rob Chudzinski left the program to become the tight ends coach for former UM leader Butch Davis and the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Most importantly, Berlin finally has come to terms with last season's struggles and the lessons he learned from them.

“Losing, nobody likes to lose,” said Berlin, whose 2,419 passing yards and nearly 60 percent completion percentage were overshadowed by his dismal touchdown (12) to interception (17) ratio. “The two games we lost, it was a bad feeling, but it was a learning experience, something we were able to build on this offseason.”

Berlin might have acted as if the harsh criticism he faced never fazed him, but Coker said it did, making the former Gator uneasy in the offense and around his teammates. Coker monitored Berlin closely this spring and summer to see how he would handle additional pressure, and the quarterback did well. Berlin limited himself to two interceptions during spring scrimmages, helping him to regain the confidence of his teammates.

“It can be tough on a quarterback at this level, but he's a lot more confident and he believes in himself,” Coker said. “I feel very positive about the progress he's made, the offseason he's had, and the relationship he has with the rest of our team. They've developed a lot of confidence in him because of the way he's worked.”

Outside of the departure of Winslow, the tight end who became his favorite target, Berlin will have many of the same weapons at his disposal in 2004.

That includes one very special tailback, Frank Gore, whose midseason knee injury was credited for UM's stagnant offensive production in the second half of the season. Gore has had two seasons sabotaged by two separate knee injuries, but the redshirt junior appears on track to play in the Sept. 6 opener against Florida State.

The first time Gore tore his ACL, the one in his right knee, his self-esteem dropped. He was supposed to be UM's starter in 2002, but a brutal hit during spring practice that year sidetracked what was supposed to be his break-through season. His absence paved the way for Willis McGahee to run to stardom. While Gore spent a redshirt year as a spectator and scout-team member, McGahee became a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Gore was left wondering what might have been in a period that required a lot of soul-searching.

Gore returned to the field in 2003 and started the season strong, rushing for 468 yards and four touchdowns on 89 carries. His 5.3 yards-per-carry average wasn't close to the 9.1-yard mark he contributed as a freshman All-American, but it was good enough to garner evaluations from NFL scouts as a possible first-round selection in the 2004 draft.

All of that came before his life took another detour. In the first quarter of Miami's 22-20 victory over West Virginia on Oct. 2, Gore was hit on both sides by Mountaineer defenders at the end of a 13-yard run. He immediately knew what had happened. This time it was his left knee. For a couple of days, Gore said, he battled the why-me mentality, but he quickly overcame it and got back to work with his sights set on 2004.

“I just know I have to keep working hard,” Gore said. “If I keep working hard, good things will come.”

Good things began to occur in mid-August. That's when Gore showed his coaches that he possesses the same cutting ability and most of the speed that has been his hallmark ever since he shattered nearly all of Dade County's single-season rushing records in 2000, when he fell less than 50 yards shy of 3,000.

Coker and Werner envision Gore teaming up with sophomore Tyrone Moss for Miami's most potent one-two tailback punch since James Jackson and Clinton Portis. Through 16 games, Gore has a career average of 6.8 yards per carry. Moss, who rushed for 511 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman last season, averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

The offensive line they'll be running behind is one of the quicker and more athletic units in college football. Almost every veteran has lost 20 pounds since last spring, in an effort to become a more explosive bunch. They are patterning themselves after those sub-300-pound Denver Broncos blockers who consistently pumped out 1,000-yard rushers while proving that great girth isn't the only route to a successful unit.

The heaviest player on Miami's starting line is Winston, the left tackle, who weighs 312 pounds. A converted tight end, he carries the bulk well on his 6-7 frame and recently ran a 4.9-second 40-yard dash. Offensive line coach Art Kehoe said none of UM's offensive linemen ran the 40 slower than 5.5 seconds, which is considered pretty good for the average person, much less a 300-pounder.

“Ever since the Broncos, a lot of coaches are starting to catch on, and NFL lines are starting to slim down,” said Winston, who is projected by numerous pro scouts as a first-round lock if he declares for next year's draft. “You want a bunch of guys who can get up and move. We're all fast, all quick and all can run. That's going to allow you to do a lot of things.”

As talented as Miami's offensive line is being hyped to be, that group doesn't come close to the caliber of talent that's on the defensive line, which in just one season transformed itself from the perceived weak link of last year's defense into the expected strength of the 2004 unit.

UM's defensive line will be one of the deepest, if not strongest, in the country, considering that the backup talent on this unit is as good as most teams' starters. There is a huge hole to fill in the middle with the departure of tackle Vince Wilfork, but Coker said it was Harris (when healthy), not Wilfork, who was Miami's most productive defensive lineman last season.

Rolle, who has started 25 of Miami's last 26 games, leads a veteran secondary that's been one of the nation's best over the past three seasons. Adding former receiver Devin Hester, perhaps the best all-around athlete on an unbelievably athletic team, to that group only makes it a more formidable unit.

The one defensive group that may merit a question mark is the linebackers, who must replace all three of last season's starters. The play of sophomore Tavares Gooden and junior Roger McIntosh (who started six games in 2002) this spring and summer, plus the well-publicized arrival of controversial but super-talented rookie Willie Williams, has eased some of those concerns. But the starting spot in the middle is a bit murkier, with junior Leon Williams struggling to hold off redshirt freshman Jon Beason.

No matter who wins the spot vacated by Vilma's departure, lofty expectations exist for that individual, as they typically do in true Hurricanes fashion.

“Our goal is to be playing for the national championship every year,” Harris said. “This year is certainly no exception, because we've got the talent to do it.”

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