Miami (9-2) vs. Louisiana State (10-2), Dec. 30, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
By David Glenn
ACCSports.com December 22, 2005
Miami fans have a way of finding fault in all of their head coaches outside of Jimmy Johnson, who's still considered king in Coral Gables.
Howard Schnellenberger is credited with the start of the dynasty, but he also abandoned it to try his hand at the pros. Dennis Erickson didn't pay much attention to details, and ultimately that landed the program on probation. Butch Davis was an excellent talent evaluator, but he often made poor game-day decisions.
As for Larry Coker, the career assistant who was promoted when Davis left to coach the Cleveland Browns, he's considered a "nice guy" who can't always motivate his players.
There's often some truth to the theory that a team takes on the personality of its coach, and it appears that the Bad Boys of college football have turned a bit soft, playing down to the level of their competition over the past few years. How else does one explain the uncharacteristic losses to heavy underdogs North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech over the past two seasons?
In fairness to Coker, none of Miami's prior coaches had to deal with the expectations he helped create by winning a national title in his first season, then losing another (to Ohio State) in a controversial game the following year. That run of success earned him the administration's respect and patience, but the past two seasons have raised concern in some circles about the direction of the program.
Is Coker a caretaker whose time has passed? Or is he the right coach to lead the Hurricanes into the next decade?
Two straight years of being in position to win Miami's first ACC championship but falling short have been troubling to UM athletic director Paul Dee. More troubling is the fact that the Hurricanes spoiled their title aspirations by losing critical games at the Orange Bowl, to Virginia Tech in 2004 and Georgia Tech this fall.
The defense has been a steadying force ever since coordinator Randy Shannon, a former UM linebacker, returned to the program in 2001 and produced one of college football's most dominant units.
But the offense, which was humming with Coker as its coordinator in the late 1990s, has fallen off in recent years. This season that unit deserved full blame for Miami's losses to FSU and Georgia Tech, considering that the Seminoles were held to 10 points and the Yellow Jackets to 14.
One UM insider said, "We've wasted our defense the past few years," and even Coker has to agree with that assessment. The Hurricanes were two yards from scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the FSU game but couldn't punch it in, and a failed fourth-and-one attempt in field goal territory cost UM the Tech game.
"We have talent, but it's not on the field," Coker said. "Tyrone Moss was having a phenomenal season before he got hurt (torn ACL against Virginia Tech). Devin Hester wasn't on the field against Georgia Tech. We have outstanding talent. I've said it all along: Talent is not the issue here. We've recruited well and have outstanding talent. You don't win 10 games without it. You don't lose two games by three yards and seven points to the people we play without having outstanding talent."
So if the talent's there, has Miami dropped from the upper echelon of college football because of coaching? If the talent's there, why is it that this same batch of coaches, who produced an unprecedented run of 20 first-round draft picks in five years, can't find the necessary playmakers to produce on offense?
Next season probably will provide more answers to that question, because the Hurricanes should have enough returning talent to contend for the ACC title and -- with a few lucky bounces -- possibly even a sixth national championship.
Miami may be placed in the top five in the 2006 preseason polls. With Southern California and Texas likely to lose their quarterbacks, and with experienced junior Kyle Wright ready to lead the Hurricanes, another UM resurgence may be expected.
The defense will lose plenty to graduation, but Shannon rotates his players so much that it's hard to notice a dropoff. Backups such as tackle Kareem Brown, linebacker Willie Williams and cornerback Randy Phillips have All-America potential. Next year's schedule also appears favorable, with FSU and Virginia Tech visiting the Orange Bowl.
One potential problem is UM's offensive line. This year a senior-laden unit shouldered most of the blame for the team's two losses, after giving up nine sacks to FSU and seven to Georgia Tech. How much better could next year's inexperienced group (Derrick Morse, Andrew Bain, Tyrone Byrd) possibly be?
Though Coker has said he doesn't intend to make staff changes, his hand might be pushed if a suitable replacement can be found. Many at UM were unhappy when Coker limited his search for a new offensive coordinator in 2003 to in-house candidates and eventually promoted quarterbacks coach Dan Werner, whose resume wasn't overwhelming.
Fans are begging for a sacrificial lamb, and Werner is their ideal choice. But Coker seems sympathetic to Werner's situation, likely based on the former's experiences as an embattled young coordinator at Oklahoma in the early 1990s.
As usual, the Hurricanes likely will be hit with early departures to the NFL. Three juniors -- two-way player Devin Hester, two-year starting receiver Ryan Moore and defensive tackle Baraka Atkins, a three-year starter -- appear to be leaning toward leaving. Perhaps in response, Coker recently proposed turning Hester into UM's version of multi-dimensional Southern Cal playmaker Reggie Bush. One star who will be back is tailback Tyrone Moss, who was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before he tore an ACL in the win at Virginia Tech.
Of course, it won't matter who's throwing or handing off to UM's talented backs and receivers if the line can't protect him or open up holes for the runners. Considering the team's offensive inconsistencies over the past two seasons, how patient will the administration be as Coker tries to iron things out?
"We've had some ups and downs, but we've played pretty good, too," Coker said. "We have an opportunity to win 10 games. This year we played very well on offense after the first game, and then we didn't play very well against Georgia Tech. But I think we're doing some good things on offense to fix the problems."
Contract extension or not, Coker had better hope that his solutions work, or he might not get the happy ending he seeks, retiring gracefully after a Bobby Bowden-like run.
Just in the last two years, Dee fired men's basketball coach Perry Clark and pushed long-time women's basketball coach Ferne Labati out the door. Clearly, Coker's program is performing at a much higher level, but it's equally clear that Miami holds the bar much higher for football than for any other sport.
PEACH BOWL AND BEYOND
RT Rashad Butler, DE Thomas Carroll, DT Orien Harris, FB Quadtrine Hill, CB Kelly Jennings, CB Marcus Maxey, LB Roger McIntosh, LG Tyler McMeans, FL Sinorice Moss, RG Tony Tella, LT Eric Winston
WR Akieem Jolla (transfer), DE Javon Nanton, TE Buck Ortega, FS Greg Threat, LB Leon Williams
2006 Returning Starters
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
QB Kyle Wright 6-4/220 Jr.
RB Tyrone Moss 5-9/220 Sr.
SE Ryan Moore? 6-3/215 Sr.
TE Greg Olsen 6-5/252 Jr.
OC Anthony Wollschlager 6-4/281 Sr.
DE Bryan Pata 6-4/272 Sr.
DT Baraka Atkins? 6-4/264 Sr.
LB Jon Beason 6-0/225 Jr.
LB Romeo Davis 6-3/221 Jr.
SS Brandon Meriweather 6-0/188 Sr.
FS Kenny Phillips 6-2/200 So.
Special Teams (2)
PK Jon Peattie 6-2/206 Sr.
P Brian Monroe 6-2/208 Sr.
Other Tested Returnees
OG Andrew Bain, FB James Bryant, WR Devin Hester(?), WR Darnell Jenkins, RB Charlie Jones, WR Lance Leggett, OG Derrick Morse, RB Derron Thomas, OT Reggie Youngblood, TE Chris Zellner
DS Ross Abramson, DT Kareem Brown, DE Calais Campbell, LB Glenn Cook, LB Tavares Gooden (2004 starter), DT Dwayne Hendricks, CB Devin Hester(?), DT Teraz McCray, DE Eric Moncur, CB Randy Phillips, SS Lovon Ponder, SS Anthony Reddick, DS John Rochford, CB Glenn Sharpe, LB Willie Williams
Projected 2006 Strengths
There is a long list of veteran ACC observers who believe that, out of all the quarterbacks in the conference, Wright is best-equipped for a break-out season in 2006. Moss, Olsen, Moore and perhaps Hester should provide the offense with plenty of reliable options. Believe it or not, outstanding defensive coordinator Randy Shannon may have even more material to work with next season, despite several key departures. And don't forget the group of extremely talented players (Gooden, Leggett, McCray, Reddick, Sharpe, etc.) who offered little or nothing in 2005 because of injuries and/or other problems but could return to a productive or (in several cases) an All-ACC level very quickly.
Projected 2006 Questions
After five seasons with Larry Coker, should UM fans be concerned that the coach went 35-3 with (mostly) Butch Davis' signees but "only" 17-5 over the past two seasons with (mostly) his own? Can the proud Hurricanes win even an ACC title, much less another national championship, with the built-in advantages of the Big East a thing of the past? Will the program again be able to retain Shannon, who built the nation's No. 1 defense this fall despite several key injuries and without the usual (Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Shawn Taylor) cavalcade of NFL-ready superstars? Is second-year OC Dan Werner really the right guy for the job? How will the team's run-first offense react to the departures of its left tackle anchor (Winston) and three other senior linemen?
Chart By: Editor David Glenn