Wednesday, August 12

2009 Miami Hurricanes Preview: A Test Of Wills

It is officially time to begin college football discussions and while we plan on reaching across the country in our coverage we will begin by looking at my own team. Our previews and predictions will branch out into other teams and conferences that we feel will make an impact on the season as a whole. Last year our predictions were not too bold at all and in some cases we were even right but with the state of college football you cannot make an exact science of predictions because the method of championship selection in college football is anything but a science and nowhere near exact. Continue reading for my look at the 2009 Miami Hurricanes.

One Must Be Objective

I believe that any fan needs to look at the situation of his team in a realistic focus if he/she is to be considered a knowledgeable fan. If you are one of these fans or strive to be then you have had much experience with fans who blindly think their team is the best at all times without any doubt. You can visit most any message board for examples of irrational fans or listen to our local radio station. At the same time it does not mean that you cannot attempt through careful wording and evidence to support your case make an argument that may seem on the bias side of caution. That is somewhat of what I will attempt in this preview. I am a realistic person (some would even go as far as to call me pessimistic) so I have no delusions about the Canes running out onto the field in Pasadena in January.

Most of all I just want the team to succeed the right way. There is a contingent of fans of the U out there that have no regard for sportsmanship or class and only focus on the "glory days" of the program for the arrogance and lawlessness that was college football in the 80s and early 90s. Miami has paid the price for that recklessness and then some. While Miami's hands were clean from that era they certainly were not the only program participating in this type of behavior and it is a trend that any program that begins to attain national prominence has these scandals and allegations arise although some do not pay a penalty for it (I'm looking at you Pete Carroll). For most people it is easy to simply label Miami as thugs, it is easier for them to regurgitate what they hear from other fans, sports radio, or the mainstream media. I have given up on trying to discuss this matter with anyone because it is like trying to convince the Catholic Church in the 1600s that the Earth does in fact revolve around the sun. This is our reputation and nothing will change it and in some ways the team deserves it but not to the extent to which they are vilified as a rogue program. One thing to be positive about is that recently Miami has been showing good behavior off the field and were above the NCAA mandated APR of 925 last year showing they are doing their work in the classroom and graduating players. Alright, enough pontificating let's look forward to this season.

The Gauntlet

Before we get into the players, new coaches, the newly named Landshark Stadium or Bernie Kosar filing for bankruptcy, Miami's season will be made or destroyed in the first four games. It may very well be the toughest stretch in the opening quadrant of the season in the country. The Canes begin the season on Labor Day against their rivals Florida State at Doak Campbell. This game was the first contest of the season from 2004-2006 and then they decided it was better to move it later in the season the last few years. For reasons unknown it has moved back to the first game of the season which I hate. I know neither of these programs are what they once were when it comes to national football prominence but it is asinine to have one of the best rivalries in college football played in the first game. However, for both teams the stakes are high for coming out on top. While the scores and play were substandard for these two when the game opened the season, we realize now that was probably because the teams were not as good as they used to be. FSU won in Miami last year in a rain-soaked, wild affair 41-39. The Seminoles have won 3 of the last 4 in the series after UM had a run of 6 straight from 2000-2004. I think there is no doubt that this game will set the tone for Miami's season. Maybe we could see another wide right (or left).

There is no breathing time after the opener as Miami hosts Georgia Tech ten days later. Last year a young and spry Hurricanes team entered Bobby Dodd Stadium with the Coastal Division title within reach if they won the rest of their games. The optimism did not last long as they were disemboweled by the Yellow Jacket spread option and running back Jonathan Dwyer. Tech rushed for 462 yards in the game. Yes, that is not a mistype, that is how much they ran for. This game will be a sure test how much the defense has matured since last year and hopefully they can come up with a better gameplan for the still-evolving offense of Paul Johnson. Randy Shannon had the right idea about stopping the triple option, the only problem was his scheme was based on the defensive personnel he had back in the late 90s and early this decade. Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed, Vince Wilfork, etc. were not on the field that night. Hopes are high in Atlanta as it is being rumored that Johnson is tweaking the offense and hoping to make it more of a passing threat this year. But the strength will still be the ground game. Like all four of these games, the Canes will be a decided underdog.

Well a Thursday night game with Georgia Tech was not enough for you huh? Then pack your bags and head to Blacksburg for a game in a very tough environment to win. Virginia Tech does not lose often at home and even with the unfortunate loss of running back Darren Evans to a knee injury, the Hokies are still heavy favorites to win. Last year I wrote a post about the recent history between the two teams as they both trekked from the Big East to the ACC and previewed the Thursday night game in Miami. I ended by saying "if forced to choose a winner I would give the edge to Miami very slightly because I think the defense has made strides and will limit Evans on the ground." I guess every squirrel finds a nut now and then because the Canes did limit Evans and won 16-14 in not the most aesthetically beautiful games of the year. Miami has not won in Blacksburg since 2005 and I expect the Hokies to win, but I would be happy to be surprised. Virginia Tech has high hopes for this season being ranked in the top 10 and having an opening match-up with Alabama which has huge implications not only for them, but for the ACC. Even with Evans out, the Hokies are confident and an outside contender for a BCS title.

So after facing their rivals to open the year, the team that gutted and embarrassed them on national television a year ago, and going into one of the most hostile stadiums in college football to play the favorite to win the ACC, all the Canes have to do is face Oklahoma. The Sooners are ranked 3rd in the preseason coaches' poll and return to the very stadium where they lost the BCS championship to Florida in January. There is no way I can spin this positively for Miami; they are likely to fall in this contest unless they can find a way to force pressure on Bradford playing behind a (slightly) inexperienced offensive line. Miami will have to play a near perfect game to pull this off. Hopefully the humidity will get to the Sooners but the last time these teams squared off in 2007 Oklahoma won 51-13.

So what can we expect out of these four games? It is very plausible that UM will be sitting at 0-4 and out of any title race and scrapping for a bowl game with their tales firmly between their legs. I think any realistic Miami fan would look at 2-2 with only one ACC loss as a successful venture through the gauntlet. Talk of 3-1 and 4-0 starts are really a dream and the 4-0 scenario is akin to the Lions winning the Super Bowl this year. If they do the impossible and win all 4 of these games they will no doubt be ranked in the top ten and be a BCS contender when the first rankings come out. My blood pressure is certainly going to be above normal the month of September this year.

The rest of the schedule is not exactly a stroll through the park either. After the gauntlet the Canes have a breather against Florida A&M and then play at Central Florida. Then they play Clemson and at Wake Forest, two tough conference opponents before hosting Virginia who is supposed to be down this year. They then face North Carolina and former coach Butch Davis in Chapel Hill against a Tar Heel team that has had Miami's number recently. The last two games are hosting Duke and then traveling to Tampa to play South Florida in a wild card game. Predictions about a final record swirl but I think most Canes fans would be miserable at 6-6, annoyed at another 7-5 campaign, happy with 8-4, and ecstatic with anything better.

The Quarterback Controversy Is Over

Last year Miami went with a two quarterback system which is usually a recipe for disaster but when you have a redshirt freshman and a true freshman as your only options, Randy Shannon decided it was for the best. Robert Marve was the starter all year for Miami until he missed classes and the rumors of transferring began to arise and Jacory Harris started the Emerald Bowl. After the season it got a little testy and dare I say a tad ugly in the press as Marve's father accused Miami of hamstringing Robert's options of choosing another school. The other side was that apparently Marve's father had been soliciting other schools for his son's services while the season was going on. Shannon and Miami eventually relaxed on the policy and allowed Marve to transfer to a more wide range of schools. He chose Purdue and will be eligible to play next year. He will not be practicing until October though because of a torn ACL. That leaves Jacory Harris as the unquestioned starter at the prime position. The Hurricanes run a pro-style offense and just as in the pros, the quarterback position is the key. Harris completed 60.8% of his passes for 1195 yards and threw for 12 TDs and 7 INTs. Marve was below Harris in every passing category except attempts and interceptions as he had 13 of them. Harris also led Miami on some key comebacks against Virginia and Duke (yes Miami had to comeback against Duke). However, Harris struggled to lead the Canes to victory against Cal in the Emerald Bowl down the stretch with poor clock management and a key fumble that reminded everyone he is still young and still learning.
While Harris is now a true sophomore and did manage to put on a little weight in the offseason, he is still maturing and it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table this year with the full reigns as starter and the guidance of new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Harris may look like a thin version of Vince Young but hopefully he has a better head on his shoulders and he is truly a pass-first QB. Harris only rushed for 101 yards last season and it is more of a last resort for him. Whipple comes from the NFL after working with Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb who both concentrate on passing and only use their legs to elude and buy time and take off if necessary. I expect that kind of play from Harris and hopefully he can put this team on his somewhat slight shoulders.

Bad Things Could Happen To Good People

This goes without saying but Randy Shannon is a good guy, hell he is a great human being. But the thought that keeps entering my mind when I say that to myself is, "so was Larry Coker". When Miami jettisoned Coker it was nothing against the great man that he was, but in the end, you have to rule the program and produce on the field. Shannon is drawing closer to that boiling point with Hurricane fans. There are those that feel he should be gone already but I am willing to see how this season and especially next season play out. But Shannon apparently was offered a contract extension by the school and turned it down. The story goes that he is banking on success this year and showing enough improvement to earn a quality contract. Shannon is essentially putting his money on the line with his team. It is a sign of confidence in his players and coaches, but if the year goes south, it is likely Shannon will be out before ever inking a new contract. For some Canes fans to wait eagerly for Miami to fall this year so Shannon can be replaced is ridiculous. Randy is a man who made it out of poverty to become a national champion as a player, assistant, and defensive coordinator. He has run the program well and seen players almost completely stay out of trouble with the law and do the job in the classroom. He is the type of man you want to be leading your football team but at the same time, you want to win. If the season goes poorly and all the Canes can manage is another 7-5 campaign, the cries for Shannon's job might be too loud to ignore.

The Wingmen

Randy Shannon has a lot riding on this year for himself, so he brought in two new coordinators to take the team in the direction he wants. John Lovett is the new defensive coordinator coming from North Carolina where he was the special teams coordinator and defensive assistant under former Randy Shannon boss Butch Davis. This is the 3rd defensive coordinator in 3 seasons for the Canes and hopefully Shannon has found the right fit. Shannon, a former defensive coordinator and winner of the Broyles Award, has high expectations for the defensive performance and is looking for Lovett to provide it. Before North Carolina Lovett was an assistant at Clemson and Auburn where (inexplicably) former head coach Tommy Tuberville, a former Miami assistant himself, sees Lovett flourishing at UM.

I was excited by the hiring of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple which is a nice way of saying I was happy to see former O coordinator Patrick Nix hit the road. Whipple's experience is impressive and as I mentioned he has NFL experience working with upper echelon quarterbacks. He has also shown the players that he is not fooling around. He has created a culture of competition for the players where no spots are guaranteed. A nice quote from Whipple about the competition at wide receiver and whether there will be a set rotation, "We'll rotate when they drop the ball."

Ultrasonic Youth

A year ago Miami was fielding one of the youngest teams in the nation and at times, it showed. They had the flashes of brilliance that comes with youth; thrilling plays, big hits, and great displays of athleticism. Of course they also had the frustrating qualities of youth in stupid penalties, blown assignments, inconsistency and inexperience. While Miami still remains a team full of young talent their freshmen of last year have had a chance to grow up a little and have actual in-game experience and they do have senior leadership, particularly on both lines. The entire Canes O-line will be upperclassmen with senior tackle Jason Fox leading the way. Where last year you could not find good experience and depth at most positions, Miami has the talent and now possibly the maturity to succeed.
On offense Shannon has made it clear that he wants to run a pro-style offense which makes sense because if you want to prepare players for the next level, it helps to have run a similar offense they run in the pros. Patrick Nix made it clear on his way out that he had wanted to open things up and spread the offense out, and Shannon was not in-line with that. Enter mark Whipple and Shannon will have the style of offense that he wants. There are murmurs around Coral Gables that Jacory Harris and the other players are picking up the offense well, but of course they said that last year. The running back position has been a strong point for Miami since the late 90s with Edgerrin James. The two-headed attack of Graig (don't call him Craig like Phil Fullmer did- sorry Tennessee!) Cooper and Javaris James (did you know he is Edge's cousin? Also FYI Jerome Bettis is from Detroit.) returns and hopefully Baby J can stay healthy this year. Last year he was hindered by an ankle injury and was limited to 286 yards but had a 4.2 yards per carry average. This led to the Canes hangin' with Mr. Cooper (I'll show myself out thank you) a majority of the season and the electric tailback did not disappoint. Cooper finished with 841 yards, 4 TD and 4.9 YPC. The Canes also add freshman Lamar Miller to the mix, who has been turning heads in practice. The ground game will be a huge factor in taking pressure off Jacory Harris and as I mentioned hopefully the beefy (average weight 313.8 lbs), experienced line will aid in that.

The wide receiver position has become suddenly abundant with possibilities. As per the Whipple quote, the competition will be open but twin sophomores Aldarius Johnson and Laron Byrd are the returning leaders in receiving yards and receiving TDs respectively. Much is expected from junior Leonard Hankerson this season as well. Hankerson has been working out with former Dolphins receiver Mark Duper over the summer. Hankerson has had the key problem in his career thus far that plauged Miami receivers last year, drops. Canes receivers dropped more passes last year than Michael J. Fox drops quarters at snack machine (too soon?) Travis Benjamin will be in the mix as well and hopefully return to his role as kick returner. Benjamin had some electric plays last year but after a muffed punt in the Virginia game and a late-season injury he was seldom heard from. Travis has some Hester-like qualities to him and hopefully he displays them this year.

Fans may notice a new familiar face at the Tight End spot this year. While senior Derrick Epps while get a lot of work (4th on the team in receptions last year) Jimmy Graham has come over from the basketball team to use his last year of eligibility a la Greg Paulus (minus the teabag). If this goes well this could lead to Graham ending up in a similar position as Antonio Gates of the Chargers. Gates did not play football at all at Kent State but was taken by the Chargers and quickly became a force in the NFL. If Graham shows the hands and blocking ability to go along with his size and athleticism, some team may take a flyer on him next April. But back to the present time, so far Graham has been "impressive" on the field, including scoring in practice.

On the defensive side of the ball, the boys up front are literally and figuratively going to be the anchor of the defense. The unquestioned heart of the line is 6-year senior Eric Moncur. The 6-2, 250 lb. defensive end has endured much in his time at Miami. In 2006 friend and teammate Brian Pata was murdered, his mother passed away from cancer last year at age 42, and he went down with a sports hernia injury that kept him out for a majority of last season. Thankfully the NCAA granted him another year of eligibility and he plans to make the most of it. Defensive tackle Marcus Fortson shined last year as a freshman as did end Adewale Ojomo so big things are expected from them this year especially in games like Georgia Tech. Sean Spence came in as good as advertised last year and even though he is only 212 pounds, he can hit. Spence looks to be the next great middle linebacker at Miami, following the likes of Beason, Vilma, Morgan, Ray Lewis, etc. Colin McCarthy has played well at linebacker when he has been on the field but injuries have been a problem.

The defensive backfield has some senior influence to it as CB Chavez Grant and Safety Randy Phillips return. Reshirt Freshman Vaughn Telemaque is looking to make a big splash after going down to injury last year and following in the great line of recent Miami Safeties. The addition of highly-touted recruit Ray Ray Armstrong also gives a glance of a bright future. I mentioned him because I like saying "Ray Ray". It may look like a misprint, but that is definitely Sam Shields' name listed on the defensive depth chart. Shields came into Miami with great expectations at wide receiver but after three years of lackluster performances and dropped passes, Sam is getting a new lease on his career by trying out Cornerback. I hope Shields does well though at times he has tested my patience as a Hurricane fan like last year in the FSU game when he inexplicably ran onto the field causing a "too many men" penalty moving UM off the goal line costing them possibly a TD and the win. Shields does have one positive feather in his cap thus far this season; he clocked the fastest 40 time on the team at 4.20.

Keys to Success

What does it all mean Basil? There are multiple signs that would lead one to optimism for the upcoming season, although last year started the same way. Perhaps the extra year of maturity for all the young players and in my opinion the improvements on the coaching staff will give them the extra edge to make it a major bowl game this year or possibly win the conference. But those first four games present a tough challenge. The following items are what need to happen for the Canes to have a successful season:

Control the Ball: Miami cannot afford to go 3 and out as much as they did last year. It is asking too much of your defense to make stop after stop if they are always on the field.

Score Special Team and Defensive touchdowns: This was a staple of the successful Miami teams of 5-10 years ago. Lately it has been absent. Only one punt return taken in last year but hopefully with John Lovett's special team experience the Canes can get back to using their athleticism to put points on the board outside of the offense. This will also mean forcing turnovers on defense which need to be increased as well.

Punt the F*&%^^% ball: This is a reference to a yelling incident I had during the Georgia Tech game last year. I went over to watch the game at our friend Xtra Medium's house. I explained that I was going to remain calm during the game and not blurt out any profanities or negative language. This of course went down hill as the Jackets obliterated UM and on a certain punt Matt Bosher seemed to be taking his sweet time getting the punt off and had it partially deflected. The entire frustration of the night came forth as I uttered the phrase that headlines this paragraph. XM has not let me live it down but despite my yelling at Bosher he has entered the Lou Groza Award conversation and made some good long distance field goals last year as a freshman. The Canes will need every FG they can get this year from the man with green shoes.

Do not shut it down early: No matter what the record is after the first four games, Miami has 8 more left. Even if it is 0-4 Miami has to finish the season strong. last year UM lost its last 3 games and ended what could have been a high-flying season on a very sour note. I know Shannon is preaching to them that this is a long race and the gauntlet is only the first third of it, but we need to see it on the field.

Playmakers: More than just a tribute to former Cane Michael Irvin, this term is in reference to the need for big time plays to be made. These guys have the talent and athleticism, we need to convert that into points. Long drives are great but sometimes a quick strike can finish off the other team or put you right back in a game.

In the End

I can spin it anyway I want but the direction, attitude, and focus of this team all depends on those first four games. Mel Kiper has listed Miami as one of his sleeper teams for this year. I can honestly tell you that does absolutely nothing to my confidence about the season. Others believe that the Canes will struggle and finish in the bottom half of the Coastal Division. You never know until they take the field but I am hoping win or lose we see the brand of Miami football that has made the U what it is today. My final prediction is 8-4 and Gator Bowl appearance. If that happens I will be more than happy enough to light up a victory cigar with Sebastian.

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