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Talented, Experienced Defense Ready For "gooneyball" This Time

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

August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Miami Insider: Updates / Analysis

CORAL GABLES – Gooneyball.

That's what Miami play-by-play announcer Joe Zagacki calls the types of offenses run by many Atlantic Coast Conference teams. Three- and four-wide receiver sets. Zero or one back. Option principles. Quarterback draws and options.

"I don't think it's real football," Zagacki said. "You don't line up and go toe-to-toe with the opposition. You're trying to out-trick teams. It's finesse. You're tricking them, you're running a trick on them. Trick or treat."

By last Halloween, Miami's defenders had more tricks played on them than they came away with treats.

But it's the contention of UM defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and his players that the Hurricanes understand this wide-open attack more now and can keep it under control. It also helps that the team has seven starters returning in 2005 on the defensive side of the ball, plus several others with some first-team experience under their belts.

"All the defensive players and coaches do feel better going into this season," Shannon said. "It was a challenge last year. And it will be a challenge this year."

Spread offenses are spreading around the country. Urban Meyer used that offense to take Utah to a Bowl Championship Series game last fall. Now he'll use the same style at Florida. Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden at Tulane when the Green Wave went 11-0 in 1998. Now Rodriguez is running the same basic system at West Virginia, just as Bowden is planning a return to his offensive roots this season at Clemson. Even Ohio State – remember three yards and a cloud of dust? – also uses some spread principles these days.

The fascinating thing is that the spread offense is geared as much for the run as it is for the pass. Last season, Utah threw for almost 264 yards a game but also ran for 236.

"It's more option football," Shannon said. "The quarterback makes a read, then pulls it, keeps it or gives to a back. Or they can pull out and throw."

The key on defense, Shannon said, is that "everybody's gotta be on the same page. Inside guys have to take care of their responsibilities. Ends have to support. They have to do the same thing, and they have to do it all the time."

"It's our second year in the league," senior defensive end Thomas Carroll said. "We know what to expect. It'll be easier to game plan. We're better adapted to that."

If they didn't already, the Miami players certainly have a healthy respect for ACC opponents now. Even though they've had the upper hand (six straight victories) against Florida State, for example, the Hurricanes remain highly respectful of the Seminoles. The same goes for Virginia Tech, which has won its past two games against UM.

"I think if you took any four or five teams in this conference, it would match up with any other conference," Carroll said. "There are some great coaches in this league,
like (Virginia Tech) coach Beamer, both Bowdens."

Then there is the style.

"It's different than the Big East, which plays more I-formation," Carroll said. "This is more spread, with the quarterback running the ball."

When it played in the Big East from 1991-2003, Miami won or shared nine league titles. Boston College, Temple and Rutgers never beat the Hurricanes in that time, and Pittsburgh did so just once. In 13 seasons, the Hurricanes lost just 11 conference games total. Many times, it appeared that no matter what those teams did or how well they played, Miami would find a way to win.

But for the old ACC teams there is no history, no frame of reference. And, in many cases, no fear. Combine that with some opposing coaches who are willing to take chances and several teams' spread offenses, and Miami has found itself in some unexpected dogfights.

"This is something new," senior linebacker Rocky McIntosh said. "Some of the teams shocked us a little bit and stayed in the game longer than we thought. We'll be more than ready for them this year."

"It seems every team has a trick they try to play on us, rather than be a team which comes straight at us," Carroll said. "Some games we gave up a lot of yards. We kind of had to see it."

In their first four games last season, the Hurricanes didn't give up more than 285 yards. But that changed in a hurry once they moved into the heart of ACC play.

Even though it lost 45-31, N.C. State ran for 180 yards and passed for 260 against Miami. The next week, North Carolina ran for 279 yards and passed for 266 in a 31-28 upset. Then Clemson ran for 113 yards and passed for 258 in a 24-17 overtime win.

After a 16-10 loss to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale, Miami went from going to the Sugar Bowl to the Gator Bowl. The Hurricanes' 5-3 mark in the ACC tied them for third place, a pedestrian finish they had experienced only once before (a post-probation rebuilding year under Butch Davis in 1997) in conference play.

"Is (the ACC) a tougher league than I thought? No," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "Is it a good league? Yes. From the coaching and players standpoint, it's pretty good. It's pretty obvious that you can't have a less than stellar day and win on Saturday."

A big reason for the optimism that surrounds UM's 2005 defense is the experience that returns just about everywhere. Carroll and tackle Orien Harris are fifth-year seniors, while tackle Baraka Atkins and end Bryan Pata are seasoned juniors. Linebackers McIntosh and Leon Williams also are fifth-year seniors, as are cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Marcus Maxey. Williams, Maxey and battle-tested senior safety Greg Threat may not even start this fall, thanks to the strong competition at their positions. Sophomore safety Anthony Reddick and redshirt freshman linebacker Willie Williams are rising stars.

"We got a lot more depth now," McIntosh said. "If a guy goes down, another guy can step in. There's no change. I feel very confident in this group. It's the most athletic group of my years being here. Bar none, it's the best. We're waiting to go out there defensively and just play."

"Competition is the biggest word," Shannon said. "If everyone competes every down, you become a better team, but if everybody is not competing every down, we'll be an average team. That's the biggest thing we have as a team. Nobody is feeling relaxed. It's not, ‘Oh, I got my position.' It's, ‘I got another guy behind me, I'm in trouble, I gotta keep competing and doing the right things.' This team is doing a great job with that."

Linebacker Tavares Gooden, another junior with starting experience, said all the time on the field translates into players talking together and being on the same page.

"Everyone knows their role, knows their assignments," Gooden said. "Safeties are talking to linebackers, linebackers are talking to defensive linemen. We're playing like we know what to do. That makes life real easy."

Players also exude an obvious confidence because of Shannon. A former linebacker for the Hurricanes, he has presided over a group that regularly ranks among the NCAA leaders in a number of categories. Even with last season's struggles, Miami held Florida State and Florida to 10 points each, while ranking ninth in the nation in pass

The feeling among many UM players is this: Give Shannon a second look at an offense, and he'll find a way to shut it down.

"I don't believe a team can out-coach ours," Atkins said. "Randy Shannon plus our defensive line and secondary. I believe in our players. We can't get down on ourselves. We have to implement what we're taught and stick to our game plan."

Shannon's constant message to his players is to listen to the coaches, challenge every yard and work to get better.

"I think the guys know what to expect out of me," he said. "Win today. Don't worry about tomorrow, don't worry about the season. Worry about getting better every day.

"Everyone has a role on defense. And I'll do something for the defensive linemen, something for the linebackers, a lot of things for the safeties. And everyone feels comfortable that if Coach Shannon does this call for us, we gotta make a play."

Atkins said the defense won't be perfect every week. Somebody may light them up for a couple hundred yards on the ground. There will be flaws.

"We have things to improve on," he said, "and we're trying to eliminate those mistakes."

But many Hurricanes feel this defense can be one of the school's best ever. Junior cornerback Devin Hester said one goal of the group is to give up no more than 10-12 points per game.

"Then it's up to the offense," Hester said.

The UM players especially want to see that defensive consistency in ACC play. Giving up 10 to Florida State, seven to Wake Forest and three to Georgia Tech, then 31 to North Carolina and N.C. State, wasn't acceptable.

Whether it was a result of no fear, no history or no shortage of gambles, ACC teams gave the Hurricanes a rough inaugural season in their new conference. After winning five national titles since 1983 and later dominating the Big East, Miami now will look for a way to have the upper hand in the ACC and build on its storied tradition.

That challenge will begin this fall, led by the Hurricanes' full-scale attack on what Zagacki calls "Gooneyball."

"Let's see Gooneyball win a championship," Zagacki said. "USC won by playing conventional football. Every action has a reaction, and Miami will have a much better handle on it this year."

The Big Picture  

Miami is trying to get back to being the team that intimidated its opponents on and off the field not long ago. It's been two seasons since the Hurricanes played for a national championship, and to UM fans that's a drought. Changing leagues, and joining a beefed-up ACC, hasn't helped. Neither have early NFL defections. But the Hurricanes have underachieved for two seasons, losing to teams such as Clemson and UNC. The ACC has improved, so even a conference title will be a huge challenge, but this team has the talent to return to the national championship game.

The PooP
Devin Hester's a phenomenal athlete, a potential game-breaker every time he touches the ball, but he appears to be a player without a position. He moved to cornerback after his freshman season because he struggled to learn the playbook as a receiver, and it appears that learning to be a corner has been just as difficult. Sure, he led the team with four interceptions last season, but the receivers he was defending often were wide-open because of his faulty technique. Miami's coaches repeatedly have pushed Hester to straighten out, but little headway is being made because he relies so much on his athleticism to save him.

Done For Me Lately
Year Big East Overall Postseason 1995 6-1 (1) 8-3 None

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)

Big East/ACC: 58-13 (.817)
Overall: 95-26 (.785)


Building Blocks
The Brock Berlin era was, in many ways, painful. His lack of height and limited ability to digest a complex playbook handcuffed the offense for two seasons. That won't be an issue with sophomore Kyle Wright and redshirt freshman Kirby Freeman. Wright has NFL written all over him; he's strong, fast and has a cannon for an arm. Freeman, a coach's son who possesses 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, isn't much of a dropoff.

Coming On Strong
It seems that Miami's secondary has been its strength forever, pumping out playmakers such as Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon, Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle annually. But this crop of cornerbacks and safeties might be the deepest unit the Hurricanes have had. Safety is so deep that senior Greg Threat, the first player other than a linebacker to lead UM in tackles, is finding it hard to retain his spot. That's understandable, considering how well Anthony Reddick, Brandon Meriweather and true freshman Kenny Phillips have performed.

Cause For Concern?
UM's offensive line may have a big, worrisome hole in the middle. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Byrd and junior Anthony Wollschlager are the most viable candidates to start, and each has shortcomings. Woll-schlager, a three-year understudy, is a better snapper, but he provides little to the running game. Byrd, a prep All-American tackle who moved inside during the spring, is a physical freak who can open up running lanes, but his snapping is erratic. If the Hurricanes continue to have issues, expect some bad snaps and costly turnovers.

The Whole Truth
"I think this is a hungry football team. We've sensed that, have seen it. You see the eye of the tiger in those players. … We hated to end (last) season with three losses. We've got a new resolve. Now it's an opportunity to come back and get back on track and be one of the elite football teams in the country."

--Miami coach Larry Coker



Much like last season, middle linebacker continues to be a sore spot for the Hurricanes. Part of the problem is that UM is running out of people to try at the heart of its defense. The bottom line: Nobody has been able to replicate the type of instinctive play Dan Morgan and Jonathan Vilma once brought to the position.

Senior Leon Williams hasn't been the answer, and he likely never will be. He plays too stiff, struggles in pass coverage, and is slow to react to developing plays. The team's most experienced linebacker, Rocky McIntosh, would be a viable option, but he's having trouble staying healthy after missing the spring with a herniated disc and sitting out much of August camp following minor knee surgery. The Hurricanes also have tried youngsters such as Jon Beason (who's excelling on the outside), Glenn Cook (struggles to hold up physically) and Willie Williams (still learning schemes), without much success.

Romeo Davis, who is effective at finding his gaps, battled Leon Williams for the starting nod into late August. If they fail, and the coaches can't get promising true freshman Darryl Sharpton ready in time, don't be surprised if the Hurricanes try senior safety Greg Threat in the middle. Threat, 6-0 and 196 pounds, became the first non-linebacker in 20 years to lead UM in tackles (136) last season, and this team has plenty of quality safeties to make up for his potential absence in the secondary.

Fullback James Bryant was one of the team's most pleasant surprises in the spring, but in August he was one of the staff's biggest disappointments. Running backs coach Don Soldinger said the converted linebacker, on whom UM was counting to provide a boost to its stagnant running attack, is "as physical a football player as it gets." But Soldinger now is quick to add that Bryant is not bringing the mental approach needed to earn playing time. Half the time in practice, Soldinger still has to go over the basics of the position, such as being in the proper stance, instead of instructing Bryant on making the right read on a particular play.

"He has great intensity, but being intense and doing the wrong things aren't good," Soldinger said. "What's the good of being intense and running over and cutting the wrong guy or going the wrong way? That's not good."

Sophomore Lance Leggett might be Miami's most talented receiver. But if you conducted an unscientific survey with both players and coaches regarding who may be on the verge of a break-out season, you'd probably find that senior Sinorice Moss would be the hands-down winner.

Moss, the younger brother of former UM standout Santana Moss (Washington Redskins), has become one of the team's vocal leaders, and he's backing up his words with production on the field. The 5-8, 185-pounder is said to be faster than his brother, although he certainly hasn't been as durable. Sinorice's career has been hampered by hamstring and quadriceps injuries over the past three years, but this fall, if he stays relatively healthy, he should put up Roscoe Parrish-like numbers.

Leggett, who led UM in yards per catch last season (20.5), likely will continue to be the Hurricanes' primary deep threat. A word of warning, though: The leg injury he suffered during the spring hasn't fully healed. He walked with a noticeable limp throughout August, although somehow his running stride still appeared smooth.