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Ill-fated 2004 Signing Class Sealed Miami's Fall From National Elite

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

By Craig Handel
Ft. Myers (Fla.) News-Press

November 6, 2007

When Kirby Freeman led Miami to its go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes against Florida State earlier this season, it represented what college football recruiting analysts thought would be the norm from members of the Hurricanes' 2004 signing class.

However, moments such as that one, with Freeman firing a perfectly led 13-yard touchdown pass just before being sandwiched by two FSU defenders, have been rare over the past four seasons.

In fact, when looking at reasons for Miami's slide from among the college football powers, one should start with the program's 2004 recruiting class.

"I can't think of one worse than this," said CaneSport managing editor Matt Shodell, who has been following Miami recruiting for the past seven years. "The class was clearly a failure."

On paper, it looked great at the time. The Hurricanes, coming off a 16-14 win over FSU in the 2004 Orange Bowl, had the nation's fourth-rated class, behind Southern California, LSU and the Seminoles, according to Rivals.

Miami had landed three five-star players — junior college offensive lineman Tyler McMeans, linebacker Willie Williams and wide receiver Lance Leggett — as well as nine four-star players: Freeman, linebacker James Bryant, running backs Andrew Johnson, Charlie Jones and Bobby Washington, defensive ends Calais Campbell and Rhyan Anderson, defensive tackle Dwayne Hendricks and defensive back Lovon Ponder.

"Yeah, that was supposed to be a really good class," Shodell said.

Part of the problem was where the talent came from. Less than half (13) of the original 28-player list was from Florida.

From there, the problems continued on signing day, then into the summer. They still continue, even through this season. Of the 28 signees on the 2004 list, 12 no longer are with the team.

Notre Dame tight end transfer Greg Olsen, one of two additions (along with 2003 holdover Eric Moncur) to the original 2004 class, is thriving in the NFL after a solid career with the Hurricanes. Olsen left UM early, after last season.

First-year Miami head coach Randy Shannon said not having players stay with the program is a big detriment.

"You build a team based on seniors and juniors," Shannon said. "If you only have five of maybe 20 or so players, that hurts you. You're playing younger guys."

Of the remaining 16 signees from the Class of 2004, five are expected to be out for the rest of this season with injuries, with a sixth out for the past two weeks with what Shannon likes to call a "nick." Of the other 10, just two are regular starters, with another two having been part-time starters this season.

If there is any positive to this class, it's that 15 of the players redshirted at some point and thus have one more season left after this one. However, Campbell is expected to leave early for the NFL, where he has a good chance of being a first-round draft choice in 2008.

BIG CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY

When Butch Davis rebuilt Miami into a national power, he put together great recruiting classes. With his scholarships limited by NCAA sanctions, he could afford few misses, so he and his assistants closely analyzed prospects.

They not only watched players' games but talked to their teachers, guidance counselors and school officials, as well as their coaches. The players then were brought on recruiting visits. Former Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe once said, "If a kid shows his ass," and other UM players didn't like him, the Hurricanes wouldn't sign him.

"We'd spend one day per kid in his environment," said Greg Mark, an All-American defensive end who coached Miami's defensive line for 10 years. "The football players we recruited weren't always highly rated. Guys like Ed Reed, Ray Lewis were not highly rated in high school.

"We did the rating ourselves. I always liked it when we hovered around No. 15 in recruiting rankings, because I thought we were doing our jobs well."

Mark said Miami's philosophy changed when Larry Coker became the head coach after the 2000 season.

"At that time, Larry was more interested in recruiting off lists instead of what coaches did in the past," Mark said. "Some teams recruit off lists way too much. Some of it is done to save on time, and some of it is done to save money. Sometimes coaches are criticized for spending $800 on one coach to see one kid when they can spend $500 to get a list of 100 kids."

Mark said the problem with going off lists is that the coaches don't do the evaluations.

"It has become like the (NFL) draft in New York City, where fans boo when some players are drafted," Mark said. "There's a lot of criticism if you're not recruiting some guys from your area. I know there are guys we recruited who were ranked as blue-chip, top-25 players who couldn't hit water if they fell off a boat. But we were forced to recruit them. Coaches are limited in what they can say, but these recruiting analysts can give the public every bit of information."

Mark also said that when some players are over-hyped and put on a pedestal, they stop working as hard.

"Too much of anything is bad," he said.

In the end, Mark said, "We may have recruited for the wrong reasons. We went off lists too much and went after players with star appeal."

HUGE SIGNING-DAY PROBLEM

One player who had the star appeal was Williams, from Miami Carol City.

SuperPrep listed the 6-2, 225-pound linebacker as the second-best player in the country, at any position. He also earned Parade All-American honors.

Miami Herald reporter Manny Navarro, who mainly covered preps in 2004, thought the Hurricanes should've been recruiting other talent in the Dade-Broward-Palm Beach region more than the players they were going after. But he agreed with everyone who thought Williams eventually would join UM's long list of first-round NFL draft picks.

"I thought some of these guys were a little over-hyped," Navarro said. "The running backs weren't Frank Gore, they weren't Willis McGahee.

"But Willie, I saw him as a player who did amazing things. He reminded you of LT. He had a no-holds attitude of making plays. I remember in the state championship game against Orlando Edgewater, he broke the Edgewater quarterback's arm on a hit. It was one of those hits where there wasn't anything dirty about it, he just broke his arm.

"If Willie got to the college level, I felt it wouldn't be long for him to get to the pro level."

Navarro and Williams developed a strong relationship, which led to Williams doing a diary on recruiting trips. He wrote of taking flights on trips with only the pilot and stewardess on board. He said, "Coach (Bobby) Bowden was cool, but Ms. Bowden was the bomb." He zinged Auburn's women as "farmer girls who talked funny."

The New York Times wrote of the diaries, which Navarro said became an "internet phenomenon."

Williams was the center of attention on national signing day, a day that would be a harbinger of things to come for him, as well as Miami's 2004 recruiting class as a whole.

Williams tried to add suspense to his announcement by postponing it for a few minutes. It irritated his high school coach, Walt Frazier, who wanted to put him across his knee.

After Williams chose Miami, with the media just a few feet away, he called Bowden to tell him he wasn't coming. Then Williams called Coker. The two talked of the "three-year plan," which meant that Williams would star for the Hurricanes for three seasons, then go to the pros.

"He kept his word," Shodell quipped of the three-year part.

Four hours later, at Miami's afternoon press conference, Coker was asked about Williams' off-the-field problems. Coker said he wasn't aware of any.

After the press conference, Williams' off-the-field exploits became a national story. He had been arrested 11 times in high school. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation in 2002, after pleading no contest to burglary charges.

Three criminal complaints were filed against Williams by the Gainesville police, for incidents they said occurred during his recruiting visit to Florida. The complaints alleged that he punched a young man in a nightclub for no apparent reason, hugged a female student without her permission, and discharged fire extinguishers in a school building, a felony. Among the stories that circulated was that he and other recruits turned on fire extinguishers to create smoke, then ran through it as they simulated the pre-game scene before Miami games.

Despite intense public criticism, Coker and Miami president Donna Shalala stood behind Williams. He went to court and was put under house arrest for violating his probation. He was allowed to continue going to high school but had to wear an electronic monitor. He couldn't leave home on weekends.

Williams never got into trouble with the law while at Miami, but he had a hard time getting onto the field. While he wanted to make big plays, then-defensive coordinator Shannon wanted him to play within the system. That clash led to Williams mainly seeing special teams action.

"Willie never figured out Randy Shannon meant business," Navarro said. "Willie went to the University of Miami with the wrong mentality. He only wanted to show up on Saturday, make plays and be a superstar. He had to do school work and be disciplined. He wouldn't listen in practice. He just wanted to kill the quarterback."

After he stopped attending strength-and-conditioning workouts, Williams never appeared for the start of Miami's fall camp.

After trying to transfer to numerous places, Williams went to West Los Angeles Community College for a season. He then jumped to Louisville, which had become known as a collection bin for players with checkered pasts, in time for the 2007 season. He was kicked off the team there on Sept. 27, one day after being charged with possession of marijuana, felony tampering with physical evidence, and driving without a license.

Williams pleaded guilty on Oct. 12 to the marijuana possession charge, a misdemeanor, as part of a plea agreement in which the other charges were dismissed. He again will avoid jail time, as long as he stays out of trouble for a period of two years.

At last report, Williams planned to enroll at a junior college, with the hope of completing his college degree. He still hopes to play in the NFL some day.

ACADEMICS, TRANSFERS HURT

In the fall of 2004, highly touted tailback Bobby Washington of Miami Killian couldn't make it into UM academically. University officials reportedly questioned the legitimacy of his standardized test score and thus refused to grant him admission, despite the approval of the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Washington landed at N.C. State, which quickly accepted his academic credentials. Then-Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato was a well-known recruiter in South Florida dating to his long tenure as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at FSU. Washington later left the Pack for Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky, where he is the team's leading rusher (121 carries, 821 yards, 10 touchdowns) this fall.

Three other members of Miami's 2004 recruiting class failed to meet minimum NCAA standards: defensive tackle Kellen Heard, tight end Cedric Hill and offensive lineman Josh Kerr. All three players eventually found other destinations at the Division I-A level.

Heard, from Texas, enrolled at Texas A&M in 2005. A second-team defensive tackle for the Aggies, he had 24 tackles (one for loss) through nine games this season. He has two years of eligibility remaining.

Hill, an in-state prospect from Valdosta, enrolled at South Florida in 2005. After starting four games as a wide receiver that year, he has settled in as a pass-catching tight end. Through eight games this fall, he had 11 receptions for 159 yards and a touchdown for a USF team that has spent some time in the top 10. He has one year of eligibility remaining.

Kerr, from Ohio, has followed an extremely unusual career path to Ohio State. Three and a half years after signing with the Hurricanes out of high school, he's the second-team left tackle for the top-ranked Buckeyes — as a redshirt freshman. Somehow, he still has three full seasons of college eligibility ahead.

Over the last couple of years, Miami lost other players in typical ways, including transfers who departed because of a lack of playing time. Those included Anderson (New Mexico State), Johnson (Akron) and center Jonathan St. Pierre (Illinois State).

Anderson, a Wisconsin product who didn't play much in his three seasons at UM, is a backup defensive end for New Mexico State. Through the end of October, he had eight tackles (two for loss) and one sack in nine games.

Johnson, who suffered a serious knee injury as a UM freshman and carried the ball only 35 times for 172 yards over his three seasons with the Hurricanes, enrolled at Akron in January. A Pennsylvania product, he was one of the stars of the Zips' spring practice. He hopes to emerge as a starter as a senior in 2008, after sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules.

St. Pierre, a signee from Canada who played very little during his two years in Coral Gables, has become a success story at Division I-AA Illinois State. A two-year starter at center for the Redbirds with another year of eligibility ahead, he is on track to earn three degrees.

Bryant, another Pennsylvania product, wanted to be a linebacker. The UM coaches wanted him to be a fullback, where he showed significant promise. The two sides regularly butted heads, and Bryant's playing time was reduced. He also got suspended after being the player whose gesture helped start the team's infamous brawl against Florida International. He also ended up at Louisville, where he hopes to play linebacker after sitting out this season.

Five members of the original 2004 list — defensive tackles Hendricks and Antonio Dixon, linebacker Romeo Davis, defensive back Anthony Reddick and running back Charlie Jones — are still with the Hurricanes but likely will miss the rest of the 2007 season because of injuries. In addition, Leggett missed games against Georgia Tech and FSU because of a foot injury.

HAPPY STORIES HARD TO FIND

There are two remaining starters — Campbell and tight end Chris Zellner.

A preseason All-American entering the season, Campbell has been named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award and is on the new Hendricks Award midseason watch list. He had 37 tackles (eight for loss), five sacks, five quarterback hurries, an interception, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a pass reception on a fake field goal through eight games this season.

However, more was hoped of Campbell, a well-regarded prospect from Colorado who also excelled in basketball at the high school level.

"He's playing OK, isn't playing up to his potential," Shannon said. "He's not coming up with big plays like he did last year. It's probably because he's playing full-time, not part-time like last year. Last year Calais was playing 30 plays a game, so he was always fresh. He has to play more now. Instead of Calais playing 30, 35 plays, Calais is playing 60. It's a different ballgame."

Zellner, another redshirt junior, has been a solid program player. He has 16 starts over the last three seasons, mostly in multiple-tight end sets. He also has spent time at defensive end, fullback and h-back with the Hurricanes. His seven receptions so far this fall are one short of his career high.

Leggett hasn't been a complete bust, but he has been a disappointment, with coaches sometimes questioning his toughness and effort. After making 17 catches for a 20.5-yard average and four touchdowns as a true freshman, he had key drops in the 2005 opener against FSU, then struggled the rest of the way to a 15-catch, two-TD season. He rebounded with 38 receptions for 584 yards and four TDs in 2006. This fall, before the injuries hit, he had 14 catches for 235 yards and one TD.

Defensive back Carlos Armour has had a few starts this fall but has yet to make an interception. Davis was a regular starter in 2005 but has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries. Reddick showed tremendous promise at safety as a true freshman in 2004, even starting six times, but hasn't been the same since suffering two major knee injuries. Moncur, who enrolled in 2004 after failing to qualify in 2003, finally has become a productive starter this fall.

Freeman started four games last season after Kyle Wright went out with a broken right thumb. Freeman showed some skill running the ball but was inconsistent passing it. He led Miami to a 2-2 record.

Freeman started this season but was removed in the second quarter of the second game. Until Florida State, he saw little action. Then he became a hero.

"That was really good for me in building my relationships with teammates and coaches," Freeman said. "It's been a difficult situation, not just for the team as a whole, but it's also been difficult for me."

SHANNON SEES SILVER LINING

The 2004 Miami class has put the Hurricanes in a difficult position. There have been other factors in the program's demise, but thus far the 2004 signees have as their legacy consecutive records of 9-3, 9-3 and 7-6. That gradual slide, of course, led directly to the dismissal of Coker, the man who signed them.

For his part, Shannon remains optimistic, despite the gaping hole he sees in the middle of his program. And he said he understands those fans who were frustrated by the Hurricanes' 5-3 start this season.

"I know there are going to be a lot of people beating us up. But you know what? That is their job," he said. "The fans have the right to beat you up because they're fans. I'm not going to get mad at any fan that gets mad at me and this team because we lose. They should."

When Shannon recruits now, he tells players they'd better arrive in Coral Gables with the mindset of playing right away.

"They see the young guys are playing," he said. "Some (coaches), they promise you'll play and you never see freshmen play. At Miami you see all the freshmen playing. I think the players we have committed are seeing they can come in and play right away."

Oddly enough, almost four years after Coker landed what then was considered a top-five class nationally, Shannon has received commitments from a group of high school seniors that is receiving similarly lofty accolades.

"If we get this class to stay together," Shannon said, "within a year or two we'll be back where we need to be."

MIAMI

Recruits: 30 Points: 145 (4.8 per)
All-ACC Selections/Candidates: 2
Starters: 9 % Starters: 30.0
Second Team: 7 % Contributors: 53.3
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 10


WI DE Rhyan Anderson Transfer/New Mexico State
TN DB Carlos Armour Starter
PA LB James Bryant Transfer/Louisville
TX OL Tyrone Byrd Second Team
CO DE Calais Campbell Two-Year Starter
FL LB Romeo Davis Two-Year Starter#
FL DT Antonio Dixon Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
TX QB Kirby Freeman Second Team
TX DT Kellen Heard Non-Qualifier/Texas A&M
NJ DT Dwayne Hendricks Second Team#
GA TE Cedric Hill Non-Qualifier/South Florida
PA RB Andrew Johnson Transfer/Akron
FL RB Charlie Jones
Second Team#
FL WR Khalil Jones Second Team
FL DB Rashaun Jones Left Team 2007
FL DT Joe Joseph Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
OH OL Josh Kerr Non-Qualifier/Ohio State
TX WR Lance Leggett* Three-Year Starter
JC OL Tyler McMeans Starter (2005)
FL DE Eric Moncur Starter
N.Dame TE Greg Olsen Two-Year Starter/NFL
FL DB Lovon Ponder Two-Year Starter#
FL DB Anthony Reddick Second Team#
FL OL Chris Rutledge Second Team
CAN OL Jonathan St. Pierre Transfer/Illinois State
LA RB Derron Thomas Career Reserve
FL WR George Timmons Career Reserve
FL RB Bobby Washington N.C. State/EKU
FL LB Willie Williams Transfer/Louisville
FL DE Chris Zellner Two-Year Starter (TE)

^ – 2004 walk-on ! – I-A transfer # – injured
* – never redshirted (exhausts eligibility this fall)

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