December 13, 2004 With NFL Talent Drain Catching Up To Hurricanes, Questions Shift To Intensity, Coaching, Consistency CORAL GABLES The 2004 season served as proof that the NFL finally might have taken too many bullets out of Miami's chamber, stalling the Hurricanes' reign of supremacy.
Year after year, Miami's roster has been feasted upon by NFL teams, but the program had managed to overcome those losses the next season with new stars, at least until now. UM's first three-loss season since 1999 could be the first sign that the pack is catching up to the Hurricanes, who appeared to be rebuilding, not reloading, in 2004.
Miami's roster didn't possess enough top-end veteran talent this fall to overcome its youth and inexperience, and when injuries hit around the fourth game of the season the team's problems began to compound. The end result was inconsistent play, which sent Miami to the Peach Bowl for a New Year's Eve game against in-state rival Florida, instead of the Hurricanes playing in their fifth straight BCS bowl.
"It's totally unacceptable," said senior cornerback Antrel Rolle.
In past years, Miami might have overcome erratic play with a spectacular performance from one, if not more, of the 19 first-rounders who have come through the program over the past four years. This season, the Hurricanes featured only two players Rolle and junior left tackle Eric Winston who had been projected as first-round selections in the 2005 draft.
But Winston tore his ACL in Miami's 27-3 win over Georgia Tech, and while Rolle is a Jim Thorpe Award finalist, he did give up the game-winning touchdown in UM's 16-10 loss to Virginia Tech, allowing the Hokies to win the conference title outright.
"Maybe the expectations were a little bit out of kilter," said coach Larry Coker, who wound up starting seven freshmen this season because of injuries. "In reality, on paper, we probably weren't supposed to be this good. We weren't picked to win this league. We were ranked pretty high (in the preseason), but I think that was on reputation."
This season taught UM's coaches and players about the fine line between winning and losing. The Hurricanes won eight games and could have won all 11, but they also could have lost two more if not for fourth-quarter comebacks against Florida State and Louisville.
"This team has very little margin for error," said junior linebacker Leon Williams, whose erratic play was a source of frustration for UM's coaches. "This is a learning season more than anything. There are a lot of young guys on the team, and I think everyone understands now that every play counts. You can't take one play off if you want to be good."
Coker said the 2004 team didn't do the little things needed to put opponents away.
"It's a mental thing," Coker said. "You have to go out and expect to win, do things to win, and play with the energy that it takes to win."
The coach used Williams' 12-tackle performance against the Hokies as an example of the intensity his team needed to bring, saying he saw more energy and enthusiasm from Williams in that one game than he'd seen throughout the junior's entire career.
"You can't just go out and play the game. You have to have a certainly intensity about yourself, a certain focus. I call it the eye of the tiger," Coker said. "When you really get good, it's every series."
Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, Willis McGahee, Kellen Winslow who all would have been on UM's 2004 team if not for early NFL defections had it. Most of the players on this year's team lacked that type of intensity, and those who possessed it didn't bring it every game.
That's a coaching issue Coker takes the blame for, and he should, along with shouldering the criticism for his staff being out-coached by Louisville, North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech this season.
Opposing teams gained 250 more rushing yards than Miami did, and most of UM's opponents were passing teams. The Hurricanes also ended a six-year streak of rushing for more than 2,000 yards and throwing for more than 2,000, and it was that balance that made the team's offense so unpredictable in the past. Under new coordinator Dan Werner, the Hurricanes got away from that, which Coker said was a disappointment.
"A great running game can't be there sometimes," said Winston, who hopes to be mobile enough to do conditioning and individual work this spring. "It's got to be there all the time."
Winston's healthy return will be vital to the offensive line's success, considering that UM's production took a nosedive when the dominant left tackle got hurt. His return will allow Rashad Butler to move back to right tackle, his more natural position.
Also important to Miami's rebuilding is the return of junior tailback Frank Gore, who led the team with 865 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Gore, who averaged five yards a carry after his return from two ACL injuries, is torn between staying for his senior season and entering the NFL draft. He'll likely be UM's only early defection, because much-hyped defensive tackle Orien Harris had a less than dominant junior campaign.
Gore's draft status probably will depend on how well he performs against the Gators and whether the MRI on his surgically repaired knees say his problem is degenerative. Next season the Hurricanes will have starters returning at every offensive position but two (quarterback and center) if Gore decides to return.
But for UM to get back into national title contention, Kyle Wright, a redshirt freshman who is considered UM's quarterback of the future, has to use the spring to speed up his stalled development. Also, cornerback Devin Hester has to gain a better grasp of the defensive playbook, because Rolle won't be around to hold his hand next season. A dominant middle linebacker must emerge, whether it's junior Roger McIntosh moving back inside, Williams elevating his game, or the coaching staff unleashing freshman stud Willie Williams, who was said to be a star on the rise before he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.
To prepare for the bowl game, Coker said his team needed to get refocused. He believes the Gators provide the perfect outlet, because playing an intrastate rival will get the players excited about its first non-BCS bowl game in four years.
"Florida is playing well, and they have a lot of talent," Coker said. "They didn't relieve Ron Zook of his job because of recruiting. He's going to leave a lot of talent there."
Miami Departing Players
QB Brock Berlin, TE Kevin Everett, OT Chris Myers, OC Joel Rodriguez, CB Antrel Rolle, DT Santonio Thomas
FB Kyle Cobia, QB Derrick Crudup, FB Talib Humphrey, DE Alton Wright
2005 Returning Starters
Special Teams (2)
Other Tested Returnees
OL Andrew Bain, RB/WR Devin Hester, RB Quadtrine Hill, WR Darnell Jenkins, WR Akieem Jolla, WR Ryan Moore, OL Derrick Morse, WR Sinorice Moss, RB Tyrone Moss, TE Greg Olsen, TE Buck Ortega, TE/OL Brandon Sebald, OC Anthony Wollschlager
LB Jon Beason, DT Kareem Brown, LB James Bryant, LB Glenn Cook, DB Willie Cooper, LB Romeo Davis, DB Tanard Davis, DB Devin Hester, DS Curtis Justus, DB Marcus Maxey, DT Teraz McCray, DE Javon Nanton, DE Bryan Pata, DB Anthony Reddick, DB Glenn Sharpe, LB Leon Williams
Projected 2005 Strengths
After losing eight prominent underclassmen in the last three NFL drafts, UM expects minimal (Gore?) such attrition this time. Assuming Winston returns and recovers well from his serious knee injury, the Hurricanes will have a chance to get back to a powerful rushing attack. Olsen has superstar quality at tight end, and his strong blocking will provide a lift for a veteran line and a talented group of tailbacks. Leggett and Parrish, when healthy, can be game-breakers as well. Peattie had a rough sophomore season, but the kicking game appears to be in good hands with him, Monroe and of course Hester on returns. Atkins, Harris, McIntosh and Threat form a nice nucleus on defense, where Hester and Reddick may be rising stars.
Projected 2005 Questions
After four seasons with Larry Coker, should UM fans be concerned that the coach went 35-3 with (mostly) Butch Davis' signees but only 8-3 with (mostly) his own? Will that be a trend? Will UM be able to retain sought-after DC Randy Shannon for another year, and is first-year OC Dan Werner really the right guy for the job? Can much-hyped QB Kyle Wright, who has thrown just nine career passes, really be ready to handle such a high-pressure job as a redshirt sophomore? What happens if he can't? Besides McIntosh, will anyone emerge in the defensive front seven as a dominating performer? Can the Hurricanes rebuild the quality depth they once had on both lines and at linebacker?
CHART BY: EDITOR DAVE GLENN