Negative criticism is one of the biggest challenges for a national championship team to overcome. Just ask the 2002 Miami Hurricane football squad, who fresh off their 12-0 championship season, constantly hear the echoes of facing a daunting schedule minus 12 of last year’s starters, along with injuries to several players figured to be a key part of the puzzle this time around.
However, the Hurricanes, like many other championship teams before them, choose to ignore all the criticism and questions. Instead, the team is concentrating on extending their nation-long 22-game win streak, and are looking upon the shoulders of a dozen returning starters as well as many other talented veterans and newcomers to get them through the country’s toughest schedule.
Miami currently holds the No. 1 spot in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Although the team certainly hasn’t been paying attention to the polls at this point of the season, head coach Larry Coker uses the ranking as an indicator to describe his squad’s expectations.
“Expectations are sky high and I don’t see them any lower than they were in the past,” Coker said. “We expect to be a good football team, we expect to play well, and we expect to meet our own expectations.”
On offense, the focus again shines on senior quarterback and Heisman hopeful Ken Dorsey. Coming off a season in which he passed for 2,652 yards and 23 touchdowns, Dorsey is chasing the Big East mark for career touchdowns, as he enters this year just three behind Boston College’s Glen Foley. More importantly, though, Dorsey has three full seasons under his belt and the coaches will look to him more than ever to supply the majority of the offensive load.
Dorsey has his own ideas about what to do with the negative criticism against the Hurricanes.
“It just makes it easier to block out,” Dorsey said. “People telling us how complacent we are just gives us more motivation to try and prove them wrong.”
Dorsey’s favorite target, at least at the start of the season, will be junior Andre Johnson. The 6-3 Johnson transformed from obscurity to greatness last year, with 37 catches for a team-high 685 yards, capped off by a Rose Bowl performance that garnered him the Co-MVP Award with Dorsey. Fellow junior Kevin Beard looks to repeat a strong 2001 performance, while sophomore Kellen Winslow shifts into the starting tight end spot.
Several other receivers, including senior Ethnic Sands, freshman Roscoe Parrish, and sophomore David Williams figure to be included in a lot of three and four receiver sets. Sands, in particular, wants to erase a disappointing junior campaign.
“Everyone said that we were the weak link of the team last year,” Sands said. “This year, we come in as an experienced core and we feel that we can all make plays and be comfortable.”
Injuries hit the Hurricane backfield hard, where this year’s projected starter Frank Gore, will miss at least five games after recovering from spring knee surgery. Sophomore Willis McGahee, who in addition to his 4.7 yards per carry last season, has impressed during August practice, will start at the tailback. Junior Jason Geathers moves from receiver to tailback in place of Jarrett Payton, who has been hampered by recurring back problems.
Kyle Cobia, sidelined with an injury to his upper fibula, looks to return for the Sept. 7 Florida game. Until then, freshman Quadtrine Hill starts at fullback, with junior transfer Talib Humphrey getting a lot of downs as well.
Senior center Brett Romberg anchors a talented, but young offensive line. The Outland Trophy candidate will be joined by sophomore Carlos Joseph and senior Sherko Haji-Rasouli. Surprise starter Chris Myers occupies the right guard position, while big Vernon Carey, generously listed at 330 pounds, moves into the right tackle spot. Carey understands the void left by the departure of Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez, but doesn’t think that will affect much.
“We have potential for a great season, just like last year,” Carey said. “Me and Carlos want to show that you can forget about Bryant and Joaquin.”
The front seven is arguably the strongest part of the Hurricane squad. Both defensive ends and tackles return this season, as William Joseph looks to repeat his 10 sacks from a year ago. Senior Matt Walters has gotten playing time at both tackle and end in training camp. Jerome McDougle and Andrew Williams are recovering from mild injuries, and for the time being, are backing up Jamal and Cornelius Green.
Williams doesn’t really care who is starting out of this talented bunch.
“We will all be out there rotating,” Williams said. “With all of us out there, we can go out and hopefully make things happen.”
The linebacking core, which showed the most improvement as the 2001 season progressed, returns at two-thirds strength. Junior Jonathan Vilma certainly promises to be one of the most exciting players at his position, while weak side linebacker D.J. Williams joins Vilma on the Butkus Award watch list. Senior Howard Clark will finally get his chance to start at the strong side. Freshman Rocky McIntosh could eventually challenge Clark for playing time.
Finally, there’s the secondary, which will undergo a complete transformation of personnel. Freshman Kelly Jennings and Sophomore Antrel Rolle start at the corners, with Al Marshall as the primary nickel back. Sophomore Sean Taylor, considered the most talented of the bunch, holds down the free safety spot, while Mo Sikes starts at strong safety.
This is, without a doubt Miami’s biggest question mark, but Rolle is confident that the secondary will produce, when need be.
“I don’t feel that we have a weakness, but rather things we can work on,” Rolle said. “I think with preparation, we can get the job done.”
The Hurricanes return two of the nation’s best special team players, in senior placekicker Todd Sievers and fellow senior punter Freddie Capshaw. Geathers and Rolle begin the season as Miami’s likely kick return duo with Rolle a candidate for punt returns as well.
The Hurricanes, as everyone has repeated many times, face the nation’s toughest schedule. Although the obligatory cupcakes like FAMU, Connecticut, and Rutgers appear on the schedule, Miami will host a vastly improved Florida State squad, as well as a Virginia Tech team with two star running backs. On the road, the ‘Canes travel to Gainesville for the first time since 1987, as well as face a Tennessee game that many people are pointing to as a possible national championship preview.
No one on the 2002 Hurricanes will argue about the difficulty of repeating as national championships. However, the players, like Dorsey, know that it can be done.
“If you take the wrong attitude, then [repeating] is even more difficult,” Dorsey said. “But, if you take the right attitude, it’s still hard, but the right attitude also alleviates pressure.”