BY BARRY JACKSON
Canes fans have reason to feel like they’ve been kicked in the stomach, with the suspensions, the ongoing NCAA investigation and the depleted defense UM will field Monday at Maryland. So you want reasons for optimism, beyond the fact every significant suspended player will be back for Game 2 except Ray-Ray Armstrong and Olivier Vernon? Here are a half-dozen others:
### UM will be better coached, judging from feedback from NFL scouts and former players who have been on campus, plus current players. “Very impressed,” one veteran AFC scout said after attending practice this month. “You see very good teaching, things like blocking technique. The staff is very detailed. They do a lot to test guys when they’re tired, pushing them to finish plays, so they don’t make mistakes in games when they’re tired. The players clearly were buying into it. It’s a different style from the past staff.”
Not only are the quarterbacks convinced there will be fewer wasted plays because they can audible (unlike last year), but Jacory Harris said his knowledge of defenses is much better because coordinator Jedd Fisch has taught and quizzed the QBs about the nuances of every defense – more than past coaches did.
“Watching Jedd’s attention to detail and how he puts so much time in their mental preparation, it’s very impressive,” UM trustee/ex-quarterback Bernie Kosar said. If Fisch really has convinced the QBs to check down more instead of making too-risky throws (they insist he has), that’s a huge step.
And what about defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio? “I’ve never learned as much football in my life as I have with him,” Marcus Forston said. Marcus Robinson said D’Onofrio “has a lot of packages to bring speed from everywhere, and it will be very difficult for offensive lines to pick that up.”
The difference between the old and new regime is stunning to one impartial person who has been at every UM practice. “Al Golden is just so involved,” the official said, noting Golden even has fielded a few punts. “Randy Shannon would stand there with his hands crossed, so uncommunicative. Not only is there more teaching and interaction, but there is so much better use of time. You have both the first- and second-teams running the hurry-up at the same time.”
Randal Hill said: “I was watching Golden closely in the spring and it was like a class with all the teaching.” Packers scout and former Canes great Alonzo Highsmith said UM practices “used to be legendary” and his scouting peers told him the past few years simply didn’t measure up. Highsmith said they’re now on par again with other top schools: “I see structure, accountability and organization.”
And Michael Irvin said Golden reminds him so much of Jimmy Johnson because of “his organizational skills and how direct he is.”
### Though Armstrong will miss four games, evaluators say the defense has several other legit NFL prospects, led by Forston, Sean Spence and Adewale Ojomo (all three will be back for game 2). So there’s high-end talent in place. Yes, having NFL prospects didn’t translate to enough wins last year, but let’s see what they do with better coaching.
### This team should run the ball proficiently, and Lamar Miller and Mike James will turn some short passes into sizable gains. When Golden was asked on a Canes spring tour how they will avoid interceptions, he said by running, running and running some more. Through August, “the offensive line has been creating havoc and opening a lot of holes,” tackle Malcolm Bunche said. “We should be able to get 200 yards rushing per game.”
Said Forston: “The way Art Kehoe has got these guards coming off the ball and finishing plays is amazing. Everybody knows that once Lamar Miller gets to the outside, nobody is going to catch him. But the way I’ve seen him run between the tackles, he’s ready to take it to another level.”
### The boost Allen Hurns and Tommy Streeter will give the passing game, complementing Travis Benjamin (back for Game 2) and LaRon Byrd. In the past week, I asked seven veteran Canes which player will surprise people. All seven named Hurns.
“The thing with Hurns is he has great hand/eye coordination,” Armstrong said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s high or low, he’s going to catch it.” Cornerback Lee Chambers said Hurns confuses defensive backs because he disguises his routes until the last second: “All of them look the same [initially] – full speed.”
Golden said Streeter had the best camp of any offensive player. And the difference, Armstrong said, “is he’s attacking balls more” in the air now.
### More depth and skill at tight end. Forston said this group is better than the Jimmy Graham/Dedrick Epps tandem, and coaches say that will make the quarterbacks better.
UM believes Clive Walford (who has impressed teammates with his eye-opening athleticism and difficult catches) and Asante Cleveland will be big assets in the passing game. Players say Chase Ford has improved, but we need to see that for ourselves. Blake Ayles’ eventual return from injury will help. John Calhoun is a skilled blocker.
### Young talent. Growing pains are inevitable, but these players will get the teaching to improve. That includes a bunch of sophomores such as Jimmy Gaines and Hurns, and at least nine newcomers (led by Anthony Chickillo) who should play Monday.
Forston said freshman linebacker Gionni Paul “reminds me of Spence the way he gets to the ball and makes the tackle” and “two guys have to block [defensive tackle] Darius Smith at all times.”
And the freshmen receivers have surprised everybody --- Golden likes Rashawn Scott’s ability in the red zone and Phillip Dorsett “has been making a ton of plays,” cornerback Michael Williams said.
Concerns? There are several - especially defensively - both Monday and beyond, with Armstrong out four games and Vernon for six. With Forston suspended and Curtis Porter injured, defensive tackle is a huge worry Monday. So is Spence’s absence.
Cornerback is shaky, with UM starting a player (Williams) who was beaten out by two freshmen at Wake Forest. But if we see a team that plays smarter (fewer foolish penalties), cuts turnovers, wastes fewer timeouts early in halves and maximizes its talent, that would be a huge start.
### Though the Dolphins told Kendall Langford that extending his contract beyond this season is a priority, Langford said last week “we’re still far apart” and “it’s a little frustrating.” Three of Miami’s top six defensive linemen could be unrestricted free agents after 2011 – Langford, Paul Soliai and Phillip Merling.
### Saturday’s roster cuts leave the Dolphins with more than $12 million in cap space – some of which might be used on extending contracts of a few current players. Bottom line is Miami clearly had more money to spend in free agency than it chose to use. That will be a second-guesser’s delight if the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw is much more productive than Reggie Bush this year.
### Not only have a couple hundred premium seat holders stiffed the Dolphins on 2011 payments, but season ticket sales are in the low 40,000s, the worst in 28 years. The team hopes to end up around 45,000, way down from 61,000 in 2006 and 51,000 last year. We’ll need a near miracle to avoid a few TV blackouts.
### Bush’s durability should be helped by playing home games on grass for the first time; he blamed past injuries on New Orleans’ artificial turf. But here’s the flipside to keep in mind: In his career, Bush has averaged 4.3 yards per rush on turf, 3.4 on grass.
### Among numerous former Canes players released by NFL teams Saturday: Damien Berry and Tavares Gooden (Baltimore), Graig Cooper and Sinorice Moss (Philadelphia), Brandon Meriweather (New England), Ryan Hill (Minnesota), Jared Campbell (Arizona), Javarris James (Indianapolis) and Baraka Atkins (Pittsburgh).
### Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria’s meeting with his top executives produced no decisions on players last week, though changes are coming. “You definitely need to add one starting pitcher, and I would like to see two,” said manager/advisor Jack McKeon, who attended the meeting. “And another experienced bat would take pressure off the younger guys.”
Among issues the team will discuss further: whether to keep arbitration-eligible Leo Nunez (his recent struggles have raised concerns) and impending free agent Omar Infante (he wants to stay but the Marlins haven’t offered a new contract, his agent said). Jim Fleming, the Marlins' vice president for player development/scouting, is being re-assigned.
### Though the Heat isn’t very optimistic about its chances, expect one of the Miami’s first post- lockout calls will be to Denver free agent center Nene, who opted out of his $11.6 million contract for next season. It’s difficult to see Nene accepting a mid-level exception from Miami if there is a $6 million one in the new labor deal, but he told us previously that Miami is appealing to him. And he told The Denver Post: “If people think it’s about money, they’re wrong. I’ve saved my money. I could retire today.”