By Omar Kelly
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
April 11, 2005 CORAL GABLES There was no time for thinking, much less resting, and certainly no place to hide during one particular drill routinely used by the Miami Hurricanes this spring.
Coach Larry Coker would call out his players' names, one by one. It was offensive lineman versus defensive lineman, tight end against linebacker, receivers on defensive backs in this one-on-one drill, which attempts to simulate what happens in the trenches.
The challenge Coker placed on his players during this drill, which he borrowed from the Minnesota coaches (who called it Gopher Hole), was simply to beat your man before he beats you. The winner got a roaring ovation from his unit, and whichever group offense or defense won the most battles on that particular day walked away from the practice's final drill with bragging rights that lasted until the next trench war commenced.
This spring, Miami did this stripped-down variation of an old Oklahoma drill often at the conclusion of its practices, in an effort to inject a dose of toughness into the team.
"It's pretty much a gut check," said senior guard Tyler McMeans, whose last name fits perfectly with his physical play, which brought him regular success in the drill. "No help, just one-on-one. Helmets crushed together. Basically, it's about who wins the battle for the tough yards."
McMeans said the drill, for which the Hurricanes have yet to find a fitting name (Category 5 might work), promotes less hesitation, more reaction and less thinking.
When the whistle blows, you're either a winner or a loser, and that's the attitude UM's coaches are trying to instill. The Hurricanes too often were on the losing end of that equation during last year's 9-3 season, which concluded with a 27-10 Peach Bowl victory over Florida.
To most teams, that's a successful year. But to a storied football program such as Miami, 2004 was a huge disappointment. It forced everyone involved with the program to undergo a gut check of his own, and it questioned whether or not this group of players is tough enough to contend for a national title, which is Miami's annual goal.
That is why the Hurricanes took a page from Minnesota, a productive running team that featured two 1,000-yard rushers last fall, implementing the drill Coker said he regrets not doing more of last spring.
"When technique is lost, when you're tired physically and mentality," McMeans said, "all that's left is your toughness."
At the conclusion of spring practice, the one thing Coker was adamantly confident about was that his 2005 team will be tougher than the one from 2004. Last fall the Hurricanes caved when the going got rough in fourth-quarter losses to North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
The two players who were tested the most this spring were quarterbacks Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman, who competed for the staring spot vacated by Brock Berlin. Outside of the final scrimmage, which was toned down from a defensive standpoint because it was being televised, UM's defense, which returns 10 of 11 starters, applied pressure to the two inexperienced quarterbacks in an effort to prepare them for what's in store for them later this year.
While the QBs weren't put on the ground, the pressure the defensive line applied had them under fire for much of the spring. To make matters worse, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon often applied linebacker and safety blitzes that forced Wright and Freeman to either make quick reads or run for safety.
Despite the pressure, Wright, a sophomore who has a year more experience in UM's offense than Freeman, proved himself worthy of the starting spot. While Freeman's performance this spring was either hot or cold, Wright was steady throughout. He concluded the spring by completing 10 of 13 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the final scrimmage.
Miami typically likes to go into the summer with a clearly defined starting quarterback, because that player generally leads the players-only offseason workouts. So once the UM coaches evaluate film of every practice, expect Wright to get the starting nod.
"This is really the first spring since I've gotten here that I've gotten a lot of reps, and I think it's definitely been beneficial," said Wright, who has participated in three spring sessions since graduating from high school early. "I've just been trying to come out every day and improve steadily. It's been tough, because we're going through some growing pains as an offense. But once guys really get acclimated to each other, get on the same page, we'll really start rolling."
The one thing that always helps to ease in a new starting quarterback is a productive running game, and this spring UM showed signs of re-establishing its once-potent attack.
The offensive line, which was missing injured starters Eric Winston (knee) and Tony Tella (shoulder), struggled to protect the quarterback. But it improved in the run-blocking department. Line coach Art Kehoe had his linemen pushing blocking sleds after each practice, and he credited the toughness drill for teaching his linemen the importance of staying on blocks.
The work should benefit UM in the fall, when Tyrone Moss, who missed all of the spring with a shoulder injury, gets back. A junior who gained 956 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons, Moss is a physical inside runner who rarely goes down on the first hit. Sophomore Charlie Jones, a shifty inside runner, is efficient at finding running lanes.
Then there's the surprise of the spring, redshirt freshman Derron Thomas, a home run hitter who uses his 4.4 speed to outrun defenders when he hits the open field. Thomas rose to the top of the depth chart by the end of the spring, after breaking a big run just about every other practice. Coker compared him to former NFL standout Thurman Thomas, whom he coached at Oklahoma State.
"Going into the spring, I thought Derron would be an outstanding third-down back," Coker said, "but it looks like he might be a good first-down back, too."
Running backs coach Don Soldinger said he intends to utilize all three tailbacks in a manner similar to how he rotated former UM standouts Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore during Miami's 2001 national championship season.
Meanwhile, fullback James Bryant, a converted linebacker, may be the player who sparks the most improvement with the running game. A sophomore who is agile despite his 6-3, 240-pound frame, Bryant is not as polished as senior Quadtrine Hill, who has started 21 games.
But Miami's coaches can't recall having as forceful a lead blocker in the program. Kehoe insists that a healthy Bryant can be worth an extra 100 yards per game, because the force he hits the holes with allows the guards to effectively insert on pulling plays.
"He's definitely stood out. That's one of those things the kids call a no-brainer," Coker said. "He's got to learn to play the game and learn the offense, but he's going to get a lot of work. He's a special talent."
"That's one tough football player," Soldinger said. "Physically, he's got all the talent he needs to be great."
As Miami knows, talent and toughness is a very difficult combination to beat.
Spring 2005 Overview
Fifth-year coach Larry Coker clearly is at a crossroads in Coral Gables. Many fans are concerned that the coach went 35-3 with mostly Butch Davis' recruits, then a disappointing 9-3 in 2004 with mostly his own players. At Miami, ACC championships and national title contention are not just goals on a year-to-year basis; they're expectations. The 2005 Hurricanes have question marks at quarterback and elsewhere, but they also have enough talent (several preseason All-Americans) and the right schedule (non-conference: Colorado, South Florida, Temple) to make an undefeated regular season possible and 10-1 within reach. If UM and Coker can't agree on a contract extension soon, his performance this fall will set the tone for future negotiations.
Probable 2005 Starters
redshirted ^ six/more 2004 starts
injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
If the Hurricanes can get everyone healthy and adequately fill their vacancy at center, they could have the best offensive line in the ACC. There are four seniors up front, and even some reliable depth (a rarity) at guard and tackle. Rock-solid returning starters: DT Baraka Atkins, RT Rashad Butler, DT Orien Harris, CB Kelly Jennings, WR Lance Leggett, LB Rocky McIntosh, SS Brandon Meriweather, P Brian Monroe, PK Jon Peattie, FS Anthony Reddick, LT Eric Winston (2003 starter). Also looking good: CB Devin Hester, WR Ryan Moore, WR Sinorice Moss, TE Greg Olsen, DE Bryan Pata, RB Derron Thomas, SS Greg Threat, LB Willie Williams.
Cause For Concern?
Nobody likes breaking in a new quarterback, although both Bernie Kosar (1983) and Steve Walsh (1987) led UM to national championships in their first seasons as starters. Kyle Wright beat out Kirby Freeman during spring drills, but his performance still hasn't even approached his vast potential. Stay tuned. Also: injuries to key players, inexperience at QB/OC/TB, promising but unproven defensive front.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: CB Carlos Armour (knee), LB Glenn Cook (seizures), DT Orien Harris (shoulder), TB Andrew Johnson (knee), WR Lance Leggett (foot), LB Rocky McIntosh (shoulder), RB Tyrone Moss (shoulder), LG Tony Tella (shoulder), LT Eric Winston (knee).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: DB Travarous Bain (transfer/ Hampton), OL Robert Bergman (chose to graduate), RB Frank Gore (NFL draft), WR Roscoe Parrish (NFL draft), TE Brandon Sebald (transfer/Hofstra).