By Jorge Milian
Palm Beach (Fla.) Post
August 30, 2006
CORAL GABLES - A 53-9 record and national championship don't go as far as they used to. Just ask Miami coach Larry Coker.
Despite a record of success surpassed only by Texas coach Mack Brown (55-8) since 2001, Coker enters his sixth season as the Hurricanes' leader under fire.
An abysmal end to the 2005 season placed Coker directly in the crosshairs of Miami's fickle fans, who are beginning to wonder if the
58-year-old coach has lost his magic. A humiliating 40-3 loss to Louisiana State in the Peach Bowl - the Hurricanes' worst postseason defeat in history - is the final memory of a tumultuous campaign that finished with a second consecutive 9-3 record.
Three days after the Peach Bowl fiasco, Coker overhauled his staff by firing four veteran assistants. That began an offseason that was anything but quiet for the Hurricanes.
The turmoil in Miami's program caused virtually every preseason football publication to place Coker on its list of coaches on the "hot seat." But the only thing that appears to be making Coker sweat is the broiling South Florida summer heat.
"I really haven't thought whether I'm on the firing line or not on the firing line," said Coker, who is beginning the second season of a five-year contract that averages just under $2 million. "I'm just making decisions and coaching and preparing and trying to win every game. In football, there are a lot of naysayers. You just can't let the naysayers get you down."
Coker seems to have the firm support of university president Donna Shalala and athletic director Paul Dee. That could change with another uninspiring season, of course, but Dee went out of his way during the offseason to voice his public support for Coker's staff changes and the overall direction of the program.
Many predicted that Miami would dominate the ACC when the school gained membership into the conference in 2004. But instead of championships, the Hurricanes have filled their trophy case with disappointment.
Last season, Miami needed only to win its final two regular-season games at home to capture the ACC's Coastal Division. But the Hurricanes fell in the Orange Bowl to unranked Georgia Tech. The loss to the Yellow Jackets was Miami's fifth in its first 15 ACC games. It took the Hurricanes nearly seven seasons to lose five games in the Big East Conference.
"Back in the glory days of Miami, other teams were scared," junior quarterback Kyle Wright said. "I don't know if we have that going for us right now. The other (ACC) teams, I'm sure they respect us. I don't know if the fear is there."
If ACC teams softened Miami's bully image, LSU drove a stake through it in Atlanta on Dec. 30.
"I take it personally," Wright said. "I have that 40-3 loss attached to my name, and that's not how I want to go down in Miami history. I want them to say, 'Kyle Wright? He was one of the national championship quarterbacks.'"
Any aspirations of a national title this season will depend largely on Wright and an offense that has dragged the Hurricanes down for the past three seasons. After setting school scoring records each year from 2000-02, Miami's point totals have dropped dramatically. Last season, the Hurricanes scored 356 points, marking their lowest output since 1997, when the program was on NCAA probation.
The lack of production has stymied the Hurricanes repeatedly in recent seasons. In six of Miami's eight losses dating back to 2003, the offense has failed to score more than 10 points.
With that in mind, Coker cleaned house three days after the LSU game by firing offensive coordinator Dan Werner, as well as assistant head coach/offensive line coach Art Kehoe and running backs coach Don Soldinger. Curtis Johnson, Miami's receivers coach, resigned in February to take a job with the New Orleans Saints.
The only holdover from last season's offensive staff is Mario Cristobal, who was promoted to offensive line coach after working with the team's tight ends for two years. He passed up an opportunity to leave for the NFL.
"It was time to make a change," Coker said. "I've been asked, 'Was it painful?' Sure, it was painful. But it was something that needed to be done for our program and our players. I think we can coach better than we have in the past."
Enter Rich Olson, who was Miami's offensive coordinator in 1994, before leaving with former UM coach Dennis Erickson for the Seattle Seahawks. Olson spent the ensuing years in the NFL, including a two-season stint as coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, before accepting Coker's offer to return to South Florida. Olson, whose 18 years of college experience also includes stints at Arkansas, Fresno State, Southern California and Southern Methodist, was the quarterbacks coach for the Minnesota Vikings last season.
Olson's challenge is simple: Put some life and excitement back into the Hurricanes' offense.
"We're going to attack people and attack people and attack people," said Olson, 58. "We're not going to let the defense zero in on us. I don't have all the answers, but we'll find the right answers."
Olson has installed a one-back, multiple-receiver offense that calls for Wright to take more three-step drops and get the ball quickly to the team's playmakers. The main idea is to find the best one-on-one matchups and exploit them with the team's steady flow of top-notch athletes.
Wright played well last year in his first season as a starter. He led the ACC in touchdown passes (18) and was second in passing efficiency (137.22). But to raise his game to a higher level, Wright will need to prove he can torch the Florida States and Virginia Techs as easily as he did some of Miami's lower-level opponents last season.
Of Wright's 18 touchdown passes, 12 came against doormats Duke, Temple and Wake Forest. He threw only two touchdown passes and four interceptions in the Hurricanes' losses to FSU, Georgia Tech and LSU.
But it isn't necessarily bigger numbers that Coker is looking for this season from Wright.
"We want Kyle to be a more outspoken leader," Coker said. "With the experience he has now, we want a Peyton Manning-type guy that's a leader, that's really demonstrative and really takes charge."
Wright may be the surest thing on an offense that has plenty of talent, but nearly as many questions.
The biggest area of concern is the line, which is replacing four starters along with Kehoe, the only coach to earn each of the program's five national championship rings.
There also are concerns with a talented but underachieving group of receivers and at tailback. Leading rusher Tyrone Moss, a senior, showed up to August practice slightly out of shape, in the aftermath of the knee surgery that cut short his 2005 season.
As if the offense didn't have enough to overcome, the unit got a double dose of bad news a few days before preseason camp. Coker announced that Moss and starting receiver Ryan Moore, another senior, would be among a group of four players who will be suspended for the opener against Florida State for undisclosed violations of team policy. Moore also will have to sit out the Sept. 9 game against Florida A&M.
The suspensions, which also included receiver Rashaun Jones and linebacker James Bryant, were part of an offseason in Coral Gables that was newsworthy for all the wrong reasons.
Apart from the coaching overhaul and the suspensions, Coker had to deal with the transfer of troubled linebacker Willie Williams, a shooting incident involving safeties Brandon Meriweather and Willie Cooper, and several other turbulent situations.
"I'm getting depressed just listening to that," joked Coker, when asked about the laundry list of incidents. "It's been a tough offseason from the standpoint of some of the decisions that were made. But that goes with major college football. There are things that always go on with a major college program that you have to deal with. The key is to be up-front and deal with them. That's what I want to do."
But it's not all doom and gloom for the Hurricanes, despite their recent travails.
For one, Miami's defense again figures to be one of the nation's finest, under coordinator Randy Shannon. That should keep the Hurricanes in games no matter how much the offense struggles. The three-man safety combination of Meriweather, Kenny Phillips and Anthony Reddick may be the best in the nation, and the defensive line is deep and talented.
Miami also should benefit from a friendly schedule that features home games against Florida State, Virginia Tech and Boston College. A Sept. 16 matchup against Louisville looms as the Hurricanes' biggest road hurdle, although a meeting on Oct. 28 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta also might prove to be formidable.
There may be more uncertainty revolving around Miami's fortunes heading into 2006 than there has been in years, but few believe that the Hurricanes' program is in a freefall.
The ACC media that gathered in Jacksonville in late July picked, by a comfortable margin, Miami to beat Florida State in December for the conference championship.
"We've still got the 'U' on our helmets," junior linebacker Jon Beason said. "People know we're probably going to be more talented than you are. It's just a matter of us going out and proving it."
At Miami, of course, it's not a conference title that fans want.
"Are you going to win the national championship?" was the question Coker said he was asked most frequently during the offseason.
"I tell them our chances are as good as anyone's," Coker said.
How close the Hurricanes come to that goal may determine whether the heat on Coker lasts long after the summer months in South Florida are gone.
MIAMI INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Senior receiver Ryan Moore has been suspended indefinitely, and while he hasn't been kicked off the team, coach Larry Coker said it's uncertain that the three-year starter will step on the field this season.
"Not that he won't return," Coker said, "but it'll be pending some action."
Moore, who has been plagued by on- and off-field issues going back to his suspension from last year's Peach Bowl, is the Hurricanes' most experienced receiver. He caught 28 passes for 464 yards and four touchdowns last season. He already was going to sit out the first two games of 2006 via a team suspension, but continued violations of team policy intensified his punishment.
- There is some internal debate among Miami's players over whether Sam Shields is already the team's top receiver, despite being only a true freshman. While that type of talk is a compliment to what Shields accomplished during August camp -- he routinely made acrobatic catches and big plays -- the buzz also should serve as a slap in the face to the Hurricanes' veteran wideouts.
Moore and fellow upperclassmen Darnell Jenkins and Lance Leggett have done little to extend UM's run of playmakers in the mold of Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Santana and Sinorice Moss, and Roscoe Parrish. That trend could become problematic in the team's new offense.
UM's recent lack of production from its receivers forced the coaches to drastic measures, such as supplementing the squad with three converted cornerbacks -- Terrell Walden, Rashaun Jones and rookie Ryan Hill -- and the team's starting punter, Brian Monroe.
"Our numbers are fine," Coker said, referring to his 11 scholarship receivers. "We've just got to make sure the numbers we have stay healthy."
- The biggest dropoff the Hurricanes will face this season may come in the return game, since UM hasn't identified a playmaker in the mold of Parrish or Devin Hester to return kickoffs and punts. Both were naturals at the job, fielding kicks with ease before darting downfield like a pinball.
Their success "spoiled" UM's coaches, according to Coker, who admits that his team is struggling to find suitable replacements. The only experienced return man on hand is Jenkins, a senior who is expected to be a starting receiver. He has returned 32 kickoffs in his career, averaging 17.8 yards, with the longest 34. His numbers are more pedestrian on punts, with an eight-yard 2005 average.
Every day, Jenkins and UM's other five return candidates -- Shields, Hill, Walden, Jones and cornerback Bruce Johnson -- practice fielding kicks in some extraordinary fashion. Either they're allowed to catch the ball with only one hand, or they are required to do a push-up with their backs turned to the kicker before popping up to locate and catch the ball.
"It's all about helping them become comfortable back there," said first-year special teams coordinator Joe Pannunzio, who has coached those units in stops at Auburn, Mississippi, Minnesota and TCU. "In my opinion, the hardest thing to do in football is stand there in front of 80,000 people, fielding a punt from 40 yards with 11 great athletes coming right at you."
- While most offensive coordinators call plays from the coaches' booth, Rich Olson, Miami's new-but-old coordinator, plans to patrol the sidelines on game days this fall. That's where Olson said he's felt most comfortable during his play-calling stints at Fresno State, where he spent eight seasons, and with the Arizona Cardinals, one of his five NFL stops over the past 10 years.
"Calling plays from the sideline is the way I've always done it," Olson said. "I want to be able to communicate with the quarterbacks and the players, looking them in the eyes."
In his last stop with the Hurricanes, then-coach Dennis Erickson made Olson work in the booth. Coker left the decision in Olson's hands. Olson said quarterbacks coach Todd Berry will be positioned in the booth instead.
THE BIG PICTURE
Two seasons in the ACC without a BCS bowl berth is considered unacceptable for one of college football's great dynasties. Miami administrators and coaches knew that the league would be more difficult than the Big East, but they didn't factor in that UM would be in position to win the conference twice before shooting itself in the foot. A season-ending loss to Virginia Tech cost the Hurricanes the title in 2004, then an upset by Georgia Tech prevented them from advancing to the league's inaugural championship game.
The PooP Senior receiver Ryan Moore has been suspended indefinitely, and while he hasn't been kicked off the team, coach Larry Coker said it's uncertain that the three-year starter will play this season. Moore has been plagued by on- and off-field issues, going back to his suspension from last year's Peach Bowl. He recently got into trouble for an altercation with a woman at an on-campus watering hole. That confrontation extended the two-game suspension he already faced. While his decision-making clearly is suspect, Moore is the Hurricanes' most established and experienced receiver.
Done For Me Lately
Year BE/ACC Overall Postseason
1996 6-1 (1) 9-3 Carquest Bowl (W)
1997 3-4 (5) 5-6 None
1998 5-2 (2) 9-3 MicronPC Bowl (W)
1999 6-1 (2) 9-4 Gator Bowl (W)
2000 7-0 (1) 11-1 Sugar Bowl (W)
2001 7-0 (1) 12-0 Rose Bowl (W)
2002 7-0 (1) 12-1 Fiesta Bowl (L)
2003 6-1 (1) 11-2 Orange Bowl (W)
2004 5-3 (3) 9-3 Peach Bowl (W)
2005 6-2 (2C) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
ACC: 11-5 (.688)
Overall: 96-26 (.787)
Building Blocks Considering that nobody on Miami's starting defensive line weighs less than 270 pounds, the defense should be able to match the solid three-yard-per-carry average of last year's unit. Baraka Atkins and Bryan Pata are entering their fourth year as starters. Pata was moved inside to tackle after he lost his starting end spot to sophomore Calais Campbell, who has blossomed into a mammoth force. Kareem Brown has been UM's most consistent reserve for the past three seasons, registering 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, but will he be as dominant as a starter, especially when he's drawing double-teams?
Coming On Strong While the linebacker unit has been a sore spot for Miami's stingy defense over the past two seasons, the Hurricanes believe those issues are over. Coordinator Randy Shannon finally is coaching the position he played at UM, and it appears that weak-side LB Jon Beason has developed into a dominant performer. Tavares Gooden, returning to the starting role he held in 2004, is a freak of an athlete (4.5 40, 350 bench) on the other side. All that's left is shoring up the middle, where two of the team's smartest players - Glenn Cook and Darryl Sharpton - will get most of the work.
Cause For Concern? Last year's offensive line allowed the most sacks in the ACC and routinely failed to handle zone blitzes. Those trends ultimately cost UM assistant Art Kehoe the job he'd held for more than two decades. Replacing Kehoe is Mario Cristobal, one of his protÈgÈs. Can the student do what the teacher couldn't? Center Anthony Wollschlager returns up front. The rest of the unit has potential, but they've barely sniffed the field. The most troubling area is right tackle. A sore knee bothers Tyrone Byrd, the projected starter. Alternatives Chris Rutledge (too soft), Cyrim Wimbs (too slow) and Jason Fox (too young) aren't yet ready.
The Whole Truth "There is a legacy and tradition at UM that we're not holding up to, and we know it. The older guys come back, and they let us know it. It's definitely something that's the focus and the goal. Nothing else really matters. It's either you're with us or you're not. Whatever it takes, we've got to get back on track, and we know it."
- Miami linebacker Jon Beason Chart By: The Miami Insider