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Shannon's Adjustments Have Hurricanes Hopeful

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



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

August 30, 2007

CORAL GABLES – Many University of Miami football players have been through as many as five offensive coordinators, five defensive line coaches, three offensive line coaches, three linebacker coaches.

You get the idea. A lot of new faces, philosophies and styles.

Despite this turnover – mainly since a 40-3 loss to LSU in the 2005 Peach Bowl – the early talk around Coral Gables is of going all the way. New Miami coach Randy Shannon tells boosters and media there will be no rebuilding.

"If you're satisfied in going 8-4, 9-3, Miami is not the place for you," he said. "When you take the job at Miami, that's the challenge you gotta accept."

Running backs coach Tommie Robinson said the national championship is the goal.

"That's all we preach, that's all we preach," he said. "You don't hear us saying anything about Jacksonville (the ACC title game site). It's all New Orleans."

So why are Miami players willing to believe that? Why are they convinced things will be different this year? There are four main reasons – most of which revolve around Shannon, named coach on Dec. 8.

There is his résumé. He's been part of three national titles at Miami. As the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator from 2001-06, his units regularly ranked among the nation's leaders in total defense. He's ratcheted up discipline. He's tried a number of approaches on bringing his players together. Meanwhile, his coaching staff – some he retained, others he brought in – has jelled well so far.

Will this parlay into double-digit victories? Only time will tell. But for now, Shannon has the best endorsement. His players believe because they believe in him.

Almost blindly, defensive players have backed Shannon's schemes, tactics and game plans. Often, players would either raise their hands or yell out "My bad" when foes made big plays to emphasize that the problem wasn't Shannon's alignment but their own bust.

"Coach Shannon has three national championship rings, one as a player, one as a graduate assistant, one as a defensive coordinator," strong safety Lovon Ponder said. "With that kind of résumé, he has the credentials and he knows what it takes to win. If we follow those things, we'll be a good team."

Now that Shannon has been promoted to head coach, the trust is spreading to all the players, but it took some time.

"In the spring it was real slow," wide receiver Lance Leggett said. "In the summer it picked up, and in the fall, everybody is rolling."

Ponder added: "It took them a little bit before they were on board with it. You can see the offense getting it right now. They're pushing us real hard the past couple of days. It's different. They have a different kind of step about themselves."

First given the title by former Hurricanes reporter Omar Kelly, Shannon has been called "The Sheriff."

Need examples why?

Shortly after being named coach, he met with about 30 players who didn't turn in class materials. They were dressed casually. He took them out and ran them.

When Leggett threw the ball up in the air in a spring scrimmage, drawing a 15-yard penalty, he had to toss a football up in the air for 300 yards.

"When Coach Shannon says something, players aren't scared," Leggett said. "But they respect him."

If players get on Shannon's list – cell phones going off in class, missing class, being late to meetings – they've had to perform a variety of tasks, which include rolling down the field for 100 yards or so.

"You don't want to get on that list," tailback Javarris James said.

If upperclassmen fall below 2.5 on their grade-point averages they will have to return and live on-campus, even if they've signed year leases.

Any player possessing a gun is booted off the team automatically.

Sounds like Wyatt Earp, who made men check in their guns before entering town.

"We have shirts that even say, ‘Accountability'," offensive lineman Derrick Morse said. "That word really has stuck with us. Being accountable says everything. You're not going to do the wrong things off the field. You're not going to do the wrong things on the field."

Despite being a tough guy, Shannon often shows a soft side. Players with children, players with family issues, are allowed to leave the team without repercussions.

"Coach says family comes first," James said.

Shannon's desire for strong personal relationships isn't limited to families. He wants to see it on his team, too.

As the defense remained stout last season, the offense continued to sputter. The losses mounted, and friction increased. A divide in the lockerroom widened among the two units. One of Shannon's first ideas was to change that. So the Hurricanes' lockerroom seating has been changed often the past few months so different players are dressing next to different teammates.

When asked Aug. 16 why he's convinced things will be different this season, Shannon said he not only likes the way players are competing but also the way they are getting along.

"Offensive guys are taking defensive guys home, and defensive guys are taking offensive guys home," Shannon said. "That's the first thing (he wanted to change). Everyone had to get to know everybody else. It can't be a situation where one guy knows one guy and the other guy knows another guy. We're creatures of habit. If you go to a convention, you're gonna be with all media guys. You're not gonna be with anybody else. We gotta get guys out of that little shell they were in.

"Now running backs know defensive backs. Defensive backs know who the kickers are. Quarterbacks know who the defensive linemen are. So it's a mix and mingle, and everyone gets to know each other."

Shannon also knew coaches needed to set that example. He likes what he has seen of his staff's cohesiveness. So have the players.

"I see how our players are bonding together," defensive back Bruce Johnson said. "I know that comes from us, but it also comes from the coaches. We've got a good relationship with the coaches. We have a good relationship with players. I see a lot of defensive players joke with the offensive coaches. We didn't really have that last year."

Despite all this influence, all this discipline, all this forced interaction, Shannon said players taking ownership of their team will play a key role in the success.

"We really are committed to the team," offensive guard Andrew Bain said. "It's not about coaches or any other people that come in and out of here. The players always will be here. The players are what makes the University of Miami.

"We have adversity and challenges. It's like that always. Who's gonna step up and take on leadership and play hard for each other?

"Coach Shannon said in the early meeting, ‘This is our team. It will only be what we make of it.'"

MIAMI INSIDER: UPDATE/ANALYSIS

  • The most talked about position battle in the preseason was between quarterbacks Kirby Freeman and Kyle Wright. It will be bittersweet for whoever wins the job for the Sept. 1 season-opener against Marshall. Yes, one gets the nod, but will no doubt have to look over his shoulder.

The competition was so close coach Randy Shannon waited as long as possible before making the decision. Shannon doesn't seem like a coach who will take his time pulling the trigger on making a quarterback change. If the starter struggles out of the blocks, look for him to go to the backup.

Wright entered the offseason as the favorite, having started 21 games the last two seasons. The problem was he was never spectacular and unable to gain the support of the fans.

Freeman started the last four games with Wright out because of a broken thumb. He led the Hurricanes to two victories, including a win against Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl. Freeman was the game's most valuable player after throwing two touchdowns, causing Shannon to open the QB competition in the spring. The most important thing during Freeman's time as the starter was winning trust in the fans.

The competition for the starting nod ended with Wright and Freeman because freshman Robert Marve, who might have competed for the spot, suffered a broken wrist in a car accident in July. He will likely redshirt. Without Marve, the Hurricanes only have two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Junior Matt Perrelli, a walk-on, is the third-stringer.

  • The Miami coaching staff has refused to let running back Javarris James get comfortable. Despite having one of the best freshman seasons in school history last year, James had a fight on his hands for the starting job.

James was pushed in the preseason by freshman Graig Cooper, who is expected to receive playing time. The two split time with the first team most of camp and should give the Hurricanes a solid tandem.

While James and Cooper battled it out for the top two slots, the picture was less clear for senior Charlie Jones. Jones, who suffered a foot injury in early August, will miss at least the first three games of the season. Jones started the season-opener last year against Florida State.

  • Linebacker has been the position most hurt by injuries. It was learned during the summer that senior Romeo Davis is likely out for the season with a knee injury. Then senior Glenn Cook suffered a foot injury before the first scrimmage of the preseason. He is expected to miss at least three games and maybe more.

Sophomores Colin McCarthy and Darryl Sharpton have also been limited with minor ailments. The unit is so depleted that running back Kylan Robinson was moved to linebacker. It has left Tavares Gooden as the only active senior, but juniors Eric Houston and Spencer Adkins have received playing time in the past. A surprise addition could be freshman Allen Bailey. At 6-4, 270, he has impressive athleticism and quickness.

  • Special teams have always been strong at Miami from kicker Todd Sievers to returners Santana Moss and Devin Hester. This year, there is no clear-cut standout at any position.

The kicking and punting jobs could wind up being held by one player. Redshirt freshman Matt Bosher and junior Daren Daly can play either spot, but they received some unexpected competition at kicker when Francesco Zampogna was granted a sixth year of eligibility this summer.

The kick and punt return spots are just as open. Running backs Lee Chambers, Shawnbrey McNeal and Graig Cooper have all received opportunities. Wide receiver Kayne Farquharson and safety DeMarcus Van Dyke are also possibilities. The most intriguing player on the list is tight end Richard Gordon. Yes, he's a tight end. At 6-4, 260, Gordon is athletic as just about anyone previously mentioned. He returned kicks during his one season at Milford Prep Academy in New York, taking one 99 yards for a touchdown.

  • Senior Andrew Bain had his share of ups and downs during his career, but finally seems ready to have a solid senior season. Bain dealt with weight issues the last three years that even led to a demotion entering the preseason. He was benched in favor of freshman Orlando Franklin because of his poor conditioning during the spring.

Bain has since dropped down to 320 pounds and should start at guard along with Franklin. Some may ask about All-ACC guard Derrick Morse, but he could end up playing center. Morse has spent a lot of the time there the last few weeks. Although he prefers guard, Morse is willing to do whatever it takes for the offensive line to have success. It was a problem unit last year largely because of inexperience. A lot of fans pointed the finger at the quarterback play, but on several occasions they had little time to throw the ball because of blocking breakdowns.

  • The defensive backs are the Hurricanes' best position. The group is led by free safety standout Kenny Phillips, a preseason All-American and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. Phillips has been everything as expected when he arrived out of Carol City (Fla.) High as the nation's defensive player of the year in 2005.

Phillips became a starter early in his freshman year and has only improved. The lone question remaining is whether he decides to skip his senior year at the end of the season and enter the NFL draft.

  • Phillips is joined by experienced players such as strong safety Lovon Ponder and cornerbacks Randy Phillips (no relation) and Carlos Armour. Ponder was on crutches with a foot injury early in the preseason, but he has returned to form. Phillips and Armour could get competition from the often-injured Glenn Sharpe, who is entering his sixth year after receiving two medical hardships.

  • Defensive end Courtney Harris could become the surprise of the defensive line. A sophomore, Harris is called the Hurricanes' best pure pass rusher by defensive line coach Clint Hurtt. The problem is experience. Harris played sparingly, making seven tackles and one sack. But the entire defensive line should benefit greatly from playing alongside All-American defensive end Calais Campbell. Campbell would have been a high pick in the NFL draft last year, but he returned for his junior season.

Campbell will once again have to contemplate after this season because the pro scouts are all over him because of his talent and size. At 6-8, 280, he showed how tough of an assignment he was by recording a sack in seven consecutive games last season. The inside position will likely be filled by senior Teraz McCray and junior Antonio Dixon. Junior Dwayne Hendricks also figures to play a key role.

The Big Picture

Miami finds itself in an underdog role for the first time in years. It was picked to finished third in the Coastal Division, and unranked in the first coaches' poll. Randy Shannon takes over for Larry Coker, who was fired, and looks to return the program to prominence. He does so under the high expectations of a UM fan base that doesn't accept anything less than competing for a national championship. With tough games against Oklahoma and Texas A&M and late conference matchups at Virginia Tech and Boston College, the Hurricanes certainly will have to earn back that respect many feel they have lost.

The PooP

Offensive coordinator Patrick Nix has the task of revamping a unit that has struggled lately. The Hurricanes have relied too much on the defense because of their offensive woes. Miami scored just 255 points last year, its lowest output since 1982. Nix, hired away from Georgia Tech, had turned the Yellow Jackets into one of the top offenses in the league. At Miami, he has a better grade of athlete, so he should be in position to turn things around – eventually.

Done For Me Lately

Year BE/ACC Overall Postseason
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)
2006 3-5 (4C) 7-6 MPC Computers (W)

ACC: 14-10 (.583)
Overall: 94-29 (.764)

Building Blocks

The secondary should be the Hurricanes' strongest unit. The group is led by preseason All-American and Thorpe Award candidate Kenny Phillips. A junior, he is one of the nation's top free safeties and could be a high pick in next year's NFL draft, if he chooses to skip his senior season. Phillips is joined by strong safety Lovon Ponder, cornerback Randy Phillips (no relation) and cornerback Carlos Armour, among others. They should help the Hurricanes once again have one of the best defenses in the conference.

Coming On Strong

Running back Javarris James had one of the best freshman seasons in school history last year. His 802 rushing yards were second only to Clinton Portis among UM rookies. James already has drawn comparisons to his cousin Edgerrin, now with the Arizona Cardinals. James is considered a power runner, but he has the speed to outrun defenders, too. He remained the starter through preseason camp, but freshman Graig Cooper may have even more pure talent.

Cause For Concern?

Quarterback play is the biggest concern entering the season. Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman competed back and forth for the job in August. Shannon declined to name the starter until the week of the opener against Marshall. Wright, a senior, has been up and down in his 21 career starts but looks at this as his last chance to live up to his high billing. Freeman was impressive in four starts last year when he replaced Wright, who was out with a broken thumb. Freeman gives the Hurricanes more mobility in the pocket and on broken plays.

The Whole Truth

"Everybody in Miami doesn't want anything else but winning it all. You can go other places and they're happy with 8-4, 8-3 and 9-3. They're jumping up and down. At Miami, it's not like that. As a coach, you want that kind of challenge."

– Miami coach Randy Shannon

Chart By: The Miami Insider