October 18, 2004 CORAL GABLES Miami coach Larry Coker didn't like that fact that the Hurricanes put themselves into dangerously precarious situations against the only two strong opponents (Florida State, Louisville) they faced in their first five games of 2004.
But the coach admires the character, resiliency and work ethic of his top-five team, and he especially liked the way it responded to large doses of in-game adversity early this season. Most recently, in a nationally televised Thursday night game, UM bounced back from a 24-7 halftime deficit against Louisville to win 41-38 in front of a raucous Orange Bowl crowd that had booed the home team at intermission.
"I'm really proud of our team," Coker said. "We never gave up, and it certainly didn't look good at times. I was just very, very pleased with the way we fought through the game. We beat a good football team. I'm proud of the way we hung in."
Coker won't get any sympathy cards from other coaches, who universally admire his talent-laden roster, but it's fair to say that this isn't a vintage Miami team. The Hurricanes have plenty of imperfections, especially at quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and on the offensive line. Some (quarterback, linebacker) are problem areas the UM coaches knew they had heading into the 2004 season, while others (receiver, o-line) are things that have popped up, largely because of injury woes.
Nevertheless, much-maligned senior quarterback Brock Berlin continues to be a shining example of the good things Coker sees in his team this fall. Even the UM coaches themselves publicly stated in the preseason that they didn't see potential greatness in Berlin, and Coker harshly criticized him just a month ago after a poor performance against Houston. But everyone around the program coaches and players understands and accepts that the quarterback's mental toughness and resiliency are worth emulating.
Building on his pair of home-run touchdown passes that broke open the Georgia Tech game, Berlin sparked the Hurricanes' fast and furious second-half comeback against Louisville. He was booed by the Orange Bowl crowd in the first half, a development that led to a mini-tirade from Coker after the game, but Berlin finished 25-of-37 for 308 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals. Through five games, he completed 78 of 130 passing attempts (60 percent) for eight TDs and three interceptions, easily distancing himself from everyone's favorite QB-of-the-future, redshirt freshman Kyle Wright.
"The way (Berlin) works, the way he studies, the toughness and just the competitiveness he has and the respect other teammates have for him, it's very gratifying to see that as a coach," Coker said. "You're really pulling for a guy like that to do well. When things are looking bad, that's his persona, that 'I'm not going to fold.' There are five fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories (for Berlin). I believe he's closing in on John Elway's record."
Coker said he sees similar characteristics in his entire team. Miami has delicate depth-chart issues at tailback, receiver, linebacker and in the secondary, but the coaching staff reportedly has seen minimal complaints about playing time. Winning helps that situation, of course, as does the staff's consistency in rewarding productivity in practice and games with additional snaps. But Coker sees something special in this year's Hurricanes.
"Work ethic and practice habits are making us better," Coker said. "That's encouraging."
Butkus Officials: Forget Hurricanes
Nobody can blame the people associated with the Butkus Award, which is handed out each year to the top college linebacker in America, for looking toward Miami. After all, more than a dozen former Hurricanes have been nominees for the award, which was created in 1985 to honor former Chicago Bears star Dick Butkus, and UM sent elite linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams to the NFL earlier this year.
But here's a piece of advice to whoever was involved in selecting UM middle linebacker Leon Williams as one of 12 semifinalists for this year's award: Pay attention!
There was simply no reasonable explanation in mid-October for Williams to be included in a star-studded group with Ahmad Brooks of Virginia, A.J. Hawk of Ohio State, Derrick Johnson of Texas, Lance Mitchell of Oklahoma and seven other presumably deserving candidates. Could the Miami mystique really be that strong?
Put aside the fact that, as a unit, Miami's linebackers have not played exceptionally well this season, as they attempt to rebuild without Vilma and D.J. Williams. (The line and secondary both have been better.) Put aside the fact that redshirt junior Roger McIntosh was by far the Hurricanes' most impressive and most productive (44 tackles) linebacker through the first five games of the season. Forget that, if there was a second-place finisher in that race, it was true sophomore Tavares Gooden (39 tackles).
Just consider this: Leon Williams didn't even start four of Miami's first five games this fall, and he missed two contests altogether. After breaking his right hand on the first play of the season opener against Florida State, he finished the game against the Seminoles but then sat out against Louisiana Tech and Houston. He had a very good game (10 tackles, 2.5 sacks) in his return against Georgia Tech, while playing with a protective soft cast on his injured hand, but that was the lone highlight.
Through five games this fall, Williams ranked 10th on the team in tackles with 11 and he wasn't exactly the subject of ringing endorsements from the UM coaching staff.
"Leon was a little rusty (against Tech)," Coker said. "Leon made some mistakes, was a little rusty, but it was great to have him back."
So, coach, is Williams your starting middle linebacker?
"Not really," Coker said. "We're going to play Leon. We're going to play (Jon) Beason. We can move Rocky (McIntosh) there. We'll continue to evaluate there, see how guys are playing."
A redshirt junior, Williams arrived in Coral Gables in 2001, a consensus prep All-American from New York City. He was mainly a special teams player in 2002 and 2003. Heading into the 2004 preseason, with a depleted linebacker corps on hand, the Miami coaches were so uninspired by Williams' performance that they planned to give very long looks to Beason, a converted fullback, and controversial true freshman Willie Williams.
Willie Williams suffered a serious knee injury in August, taking him out of the race, but Beason jumped to the No. 1 spot at middle linebacker on several occasions when the UM coaches shuffled the depth chart. When Beason struggled with his assignments, Leon Williams moved back into a starting role, but both middle linebackers went to the sidelines whenever the Hurricanes implemented their nickel package.
"Leon is getting better," linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said in late August. "He has plenty of ability, and he's getting better at recognizing what's going on out there. For right now, he's the starter (at middle linebacker). We should be OK there."
In the best-case scenario, perhaps the Butkus Award folks simply were confused by their extensive knowledge of Miami history. Beloved former UM star Dan Morgan received the honor in 2000, and Maurice Crum (1990), Michael Barrow (1992) and Ray Lewis (1995) also were finalists. Just this year, eight former Hurricanes are playing linebacker in the NFL: Barrow, Lewis, Morgan, Vilma, D.J. Williams, Jessie Armstead, Darrell McClover and Nate Webster.
The Butkus selection committee, which allegedly consists of 30 of the nation's "foremost media members," initially nominated 68 college linebackers for its 2004 watch list. The next cut, from the 12 semifinalists to three finalists, will come Nov. 11. Fortunately, that leaves three full weeks for the committee members to start taking their jobs seriously.