At the Rose Bowl post game press conference, UM Coach Larry Coker quipped that he was returning for the 2002 season amidst speculation of some early Hurricane entries into the NFL Draft.
Indeed, three of Miami’s key contributors to last season’s championship run – cornerback Phillip Buchanon, running back Clinton Portis and tight end Jeremy Shockey – all decided to forgo their senior year of eligibility, opting for the riches of the NFL instead.
Compound this with the loss of nine other starters and one would think that the Hurricanes would be a long shot to repeat.
According to players and coaches, that’s not the case at all.
“We expect to (remain at a high level),” said Coker, who will try to follow up on a perfect rookie campaign. “Year in and year out, we should compete at a high level at the University of Miami.”
Said departing offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie: “We’ve got a lot of young guys who played a lot this year. They should be fine.”
McKinnie, the 2001 Outland Trophy Winner who did not allow a single sack, along with guard Martin Bibla and tackle Joaquin Gonzalez, were members of the best offensive line in the nation. Behind their strength, quarterback Ken Dorsey was sacked just four times and Miami’s offense wracked up the most points in school history. Sophomore Carlos Joseph will try to fill the big shoes of McKinnie and protect Dorsey’s blind side. Junior Vernon Carey, a heavily recruited 369-pound tackle from Miami, will replace the veteran Gonzalez. Both Joseph and Carey saw extensive playing time in fourth quarters last year, as the ‘Canes usually blew out opponents.
Left guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli started the first seven games of last season before tearing his ACL. He is expected to make a full recovery and start at one of the guard positions. Ed Wilkins replaced Haji-Rasouli after the injury and the line didn’t miss a beat. He will likely start at the other guard position.
The anchor of the five will be senior center Brett Romberg – the main signal caller on the line. Reserves such as Joel Rodriguez, Chris Myers and Joe McGrath, should provide depth for the most underrated but possibly the most important position.
Who will play alongside the line will be determined in the fall. Sophomore Kellen Winslow II and David Williams will battle for the starting tight end position left vacated by Shockey. Tight end was a big part of the offense in 2001 as Shockey led the team with 40 receptions. Winslow is the early favorite, but coaches believe that right now Williams is a better blocker.
“I’d say right now (Winslow)’s probably a better runner, but I think he may end up having the total package,” Coker said.
Coker was also really impressed with Winslow’s intensity during spring practices.
“If you had every NFL tight end out here to compete for the job, I don’t think it would really bother him,” Coker said. “He’s just going to go out and catch and run.”
The battle shouldn’t be as stiff for the starting wide receiver jobs. Rose Bowl co-MVP Andre Johnson had a breakout sophomore season and may be one of the top receivers in the country next season. Johnson was second on the team with 37 receptions for 682 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Lining up opposite Johnson will probably be either junior Kevin Beard or senior Ethenic Sands. Beard played in all 1l regular season games last season, starting five, en route to a 25-reception, 409-yard campaign. He also started in the Rose Bowl, collecting four receptions for 41 yards.
Sands was suspended for the title game, but also played in every regular season contest. He caught 26 balls for 385 yards and one touchdown.
Junior Jason Geathers (nine catches, 112 yards in 2001) should see more extensive playing time, while red-shirt freshman Roscoe Parrish could should glimpses of the next Santana Moss. If those weapons weren’t enough, Moss’s brother, Sinorice, is one of five incoming freshmen that could see time at receiver.
Injuries may shake up another of Miami’s skilled positions, specifically that of phenom running back Frank Gore. Gore tore his ACL in spring practice and may be out the entire 2002 season. There is hope that the sophomore will return to follow up on his inaugural campaign, in which he averaged 9.1 yards per carry.
The likely opening game starter will be red-shirt sophomore Willis McGahee, who was ahead of Gore in the depth chart before a midseason knee injury. McGahee returned after a month and was used as a fullback in the Rose Bowl after Najeh Davenport was hurt. McGahee carried the ball 67 times for 314 yards and three touchdowns last season. His backup will likely be Jarrett Payton, who carried the ball only 14 times for 26 yards in spot duty last season. While both have been hampered by injuries at one point, they should pick up where Portis (1,200 yards) left off.
The two struggled mightily, however, in the annual Spring Game, combining for just 69 yards on 25 carries. Coker knows those numbers have to, and will, improve before the start of the regular season.
“For us to be a good team we need to run the ball better than we have this spring,” Coker said. “Our inability to consistently run the ball is our biggest problem.”
Quadtrine Hill, a red-shirt freshman from Sunrise, should push Payton for the No. 2 job.
Blocking for the tailbacks will be projected starting fullback Kyle Cobia. Cobia, who might be known by Hurricane fans as the guy who dropped an easy touchdown pass at Virginia Tech last season, has impressed with his blocking skills. The 6-2, 231-pound red-shirt sophomore will be relied upon for that very reason, as the fullback spot was sparingly used in 2001.
Talib Humphrey, a junior college transfer, impressed coaches during spring practices and will push Cobia for the starting nod.
The head of the offense will once again be quarterback Ken Dorsey, a senior who has compiled a 25-1 record as a starter. Dorsey finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting last season and is expected to be a frontrunner again this year.
Dorsey completed just under 58 percent of his 318 pass attempts last season, throwing for 2,652 yards. He tossed 23 touchdowns passes compared to nine interceptions and is the UM career leader in TD passes thrown. Dorsey also has an incredible 4:1 TD:INT ratio over his career, and is the clear leader on the field.
Dorsey said he was pleased with the way the new guys on offense played during the spring game.
“This is one of the best springs our offense has had in recent years and we played well today against probably the best defense we will have to face,” he said.
Dorsey alluded to a unit that led the nation in scoring defense (9.4 points per game) and takeaways (45). Almost the entire starting front seven is back with another year of experience under their belt. Experience is an understatement considering Miami sports seniors along the starting defensive line and has two extra seniors backing up. The combination of Andrew Williams and Jerome McDougle at ends and William Joseph and Matt Walters at tackle give the ‘Canes a formidable pass rush. If Williams or McDougle need a breather, Jamaal Green and Cornelius Green (no relation) can replace them. McDougle and Jamaal Green had six sacks apiece while Williams recorded four. Joseph led all Hurricanes with 10 sacks and was tied for third on the team with 59 tackles. Walters record 63 tackles and added four sacks.
If that wasn’t enough, 6-2, 350-pound sophomore Vince Wilfork and 6-4, 302-pound junior Santonio Thomas have extensive experience behind the tackles.
The ‘Canes return everyone at linebacker except for the late Chris Champbell, who passed away in a tragic car accident in February. Middle linebacker Jon Vilma led the team with 73 tackles last season, and impressed with bone jarring hits at the Rose Bowl. D.J. Williams (51 tackles) gets the nod at one linebacker, while Howard Clark (29) may get the start at the other. Also in the mix is super athlete Leon Williams, a red-shirt freshman from Brooklyn, NY, and Rocky McIntosh, who burst on the scene during spring practices with his incredible development and speed. The front seven should continue to put incredible pressure on the opposing quarterback, as witnessed in the Rose Bowl.
The big question mark on defense, and on the whole team for that matter, is the secondary. The Hurricanes lost all four starters and the nickel back from a defensive backfield second to none last year. Safety Ed Reed picked off his nation-leading ninth pass in the final game of the season against Virginia Tech and had a nose for the ball. Phillip Buchanon added five interceptions, while Mike Rumph stymied opposing receiver at the other cornerback spot. James Lewis, the least known of the foursome, was tied for third with 59 tackles at the strong safety spot.
Along with Markese Fitzgerald (two interceptions, 37 tackles), the secondary held opponents to only 138 passing yards per game.
That puts plenty of pressure on Kelly Jennings, Al Marshall, Maurice Sikes, Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle – none of whom have ever started a game in college.
“We’ve just got to go into it thinking that we’re not them,” Taylor, a sophomore, said. “We have to make a name for ourselves. We’re working right now to try and be one of the best (secondaries) in the country.”
During the spring game, they began towards that goal. After picking apart the secondary in earlier scrimmages, Dorsey completed just one pass over 20 yards. The quarterback said that the more experience they get, the more they’ll improve.
“They just need a good summer of working with our receivers and hopefully we’ll get them to the point where we have shut down corners and safeties that people are scared of,” Dorsey said.
Coaches have said that the main factor for the young group will be consistency, something they hope to achieve by the time the season begins in August.
“We can’t play good for eight plays and then give up a big play,” defensive backs coach Mark Stoops said. “You have to play well all the time in the secondary.”
Said Sikes: “With football, and being a (defensive back), you can’t have bad days. Your bad day has to better than guys’ good days.”
With the exception of Jennings, a red-shirt freshman, the defensive backs had the opportunity to play during fourth quarters of games last year. Marshall, a junior, played in dime situations.
Projected starters in the spring included Sikes at one safety and hard-hitting Sean Taylor at the other. Jennings, Marshall and Rolle will vie for the two corner positions with both spots up for grabs.
“Our coach said no one has a starting job right now,” Rolle said after the spring game. “We just have to go in there in the fall and battle it out and may the best man win.”
The unit lived up to its name in 2001, delivering key plays when the Hurricanes needed them the most. Kicker Todd Sievers connected on all four of his field goals in a narrow win over Boston College. Sievers was consistent throughout the year, hitting 21-of-26 field goal attempts (81 percent). That included 7-of-8 in the 40-49-yard range.
Although not used very often, punter Freddie Capshaw had another solid season. Capshaw boomed 36 punts, 15 of which landed inside the 20. He compiled a 41.8-yard average including a long of 59. Both Capshaw and Sievers will be counted upon again in their senior campaigns.
“Todd Sievers and Freddie Capshaw will be very productive for us next season just as they were in our championship run,” Coker said.
The Hurricanes won’t have the services of Buchanon to return punts. Buchanon averaged 15 yards per return and ran back two punts for touchdowns. Compared to his 31 punts fielded, the next closest returning Hurricanes were Beard and Sands. Each fielded just two last season.
Parrish, who could have the most explosive speed on the team, will probably get a chance to return punts as well.
Miami did not return many kicks last season because the opponents usually didn’t score, but when they did, Johnson was the regular return man.
He averaged 19.5 yards on 13 returns and will be back in that role this season. Parrish or McGahee may line up across Johnson in the end zone.
At long snapper, the ‘Canes will be happy to return to Chris Harvey to the lineup. Harvey, the snapper on all punts, field goals and conversion kicks the last two seasons, missed the last six games of 2001 due to a major knee injury that required surgery. Joe Fantigrassi took his place, but had some difficulties. Harvey participated during the spring and should be ready to go come August.
Despite losing almost half of the starting lineup, the Hurricanes are ready to defend the crown they worked so hard to earn. The 2002 ‘Canes may look young at some positions, but what they lack in experience, they make up in talent.
“With a program like Miami, we reload,” Rumph said. “You don’t lose too much talent too fast.”
Hurricane Sports Writer Brian Poliakoff contributed to this report.