Welcome Guest. Login/Signup.
ACC Sports Journal Logo

Miami: Nfl Exits Left Familiar Themes: Strong Defense, Shaky Offense

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

  By Omar Kelly
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

April 26, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW CORAL GABLES — Pride is often a great motivator. After being dominated for most of the spring and shut down for most of Miami's annual scrimmage, the Hurricanes' offense came alive in the closing minutes, putting together three impressive scoring drives that allowed the much-maligned unit to save face in the end. When asked to explain the offense finally executing after being stifled routinely, coach Larry Coker said pride had a lot to do with it. "They were getting their behinds kicked, had their backs against the wall and decided, 'Hey, let's do something,'" Coker said. "If you have pride, that's what happens." The offense's performance this spring under new coordinator Dan Werner often fell into the chicken-egg riddle, as the coaches tried to identify what caused the group to struggle. Did the offense break down because the defense is that good, or is the offense in need of a major talent upgrade? "It's tough because (the quarterbacks) have had a lot of pressure put on them — we throw a lot of stuff at them," Coker said. "From that standpoint, I've been pleased with how they have handled it. They've made some plays, and some plays they haven't had the opportunity." Cornerbacks Antrel Rolle and Kelly Jennings provided lock-down coverage on the receivers for most of the spring, tackles Orien Harris and Teraz McCray routinely collapsed the pocket from the inside, and the UM ends have the speed to cause havoc. Collectively, the defense's performance this spring, which included 14 sacks in the two open scrimmages, made coaches optimistic that the foundation again is there for one of the nation's top units. "As a unit, we're better than we were last year. No doubt about it," Rolle said. "We don't have the big names yet, but by the time the season rolls around a lot of guys will." If the offense can get up to speed with the defense, Miami might be looking at a return trip to the Orange Bowl, playing for the national championship in early 2005. But that's a big if, and it all starts with the play of the quarterbacks, who combined for 321 yards in the final scrimmage, completing 23 of 44 passes with one touchdown and one interception. After a shaky start to his career as UM's starting quarterback in 2003, former Florida transfer Brock Berlin improved this spring. He put together a strong showing in the final scrimmage, completing 11 of 15 passes for 185 yards and one touchdown, ultimately silencing the fans who booed him early during the event. Most disgruntled Miami supporters feel Berlin's erratic, turnover-prone passing last fall, which produced 17 interceptions and only 12 TDs, brought about the losses to Virginia Tech and Tennessee. They credit him for wasting the talent of a team that featured a record six first-round picks in this year's draft alone. That's why the fan support clearly is behind redshirt freshman Kyle Wright, who along with Florida's Chris Leak was the top-rated quarterback in the Class of 2003. Wright, who completed six of 13 passes for 67 yards in the final scrimmage, was participating in his second spring after enrolling at Miami in January 2003. After working exclusively on the scout team last year, Wright shared second-team snaps with senior Derrick Crudup in April. Wright has shown steady progress, but the staff definitely isn't comfortable enough to throw him into the fire immediately. UM's Sept. 6 season opener is against Florida State. "He showed me that he's got the ability to be a great quarterback, and to me it's just a matter of when. Whether it'll be this year, I don't know," Werner said. "I know this: We're not going to put him in there before he's ready." The one thing that is clear is that Wright's presence has shortened the incumbent's leash, which means if Berlin struggles this season the coaches will be quicker to replace him. UM likely will speed up Wright's development by pushing him ahead of Crudup, who failed to pass for 100 yards in his lone start (Syracuse) last season. Coker wants Wright to get more work so he can be ready. The belief among many staff members is that Wright has the potential to be great, a label that seems beyond the reach of Berlin and Crudup. Outside of its quarterback position, Miami still has a couple of areas of concern entering the fall. The linebacker corps, which must replace three starters, is not yet playing as a unit, and their contribution is expected to be as important as the QB play will be. While Tavares Gooden and Roger McIntosh looked solid on the outside during spring drills, Leon Williams didn't appear to be a perfect fit in the middle. Williams' physical play makes him a dominant run-stuffer, but he's not as instinctive or athletic as the departed Jonathan Vilma. Coaches moved redshirt freshman Jon Beason to linebacker instead of having him compete against Brandon Meriweather for the safety spot once occupied by NFL-bound star Sean Taylor. Beason was promoted to a starting role during the last week of spring practice, and the competition between him and Williams is expected to be among the fiercest of the fall. As for Meriweather, he was inconsistent for much of this spring, and there is little behind him, which is another concern for the staff. "(Meriweather) made mistakes at times that will get us beat," Coker said. "At that position, you can play great nine plays, but on that 10th play it's like 'oops, there they go,' and a receiver's hitting you up for a long bomb." Outside of safety and middle linebacker, Miami's defense appears solid, especially the front line, which has been virtually impossible to run on. On offense, the work ethic of projected starter Tyrone Moss was questioned by his position coach, Don Soldinger, who has produced an amazing number of NFL tailbacks during his UM tenure. By the second week of practice, Moss, who rushed for 511 yards and five touchdowns as a reserve in 2003, began to pick it up. He rushed for 95 yards on 13 carries in the final scrimmage, but most of those yards came courtesy of a 43-yard run to the outside. Outside of that burst, UM's offensive line — which is replacing a couple of two-year starters with Tony Tella and Rashad Butler — was erratic. Coker's looking for improvement from that group this summer, particularly in the strength department. His goal is for the line to prevent the offense from getting stuck in the third-and-long situations that often resulted in Berlin interceptions last year. "We tell them all the time that this is the best defense they're likely going to face all season," offensive line coach Art Kehoe said. "Work hard against them, avoid busts and get what you can get by executing, and then when you get into the games for real it will be a lot easier." That will have to be the case if the Hurricanes plan to achieve their goal of taking pressure off Berlin, but Coker's optimistic that his team's offense won't be its crutch. "I saw a lot more confidence out of the quarterbacks than I saw a year ago at this time," Coker said. "You can see some bright spots there and some big-play opportunities. Throw (injured receivers) Roscoe Parrish and Ryan Moore into that mix, and you've got a chance to have a good offensive team."