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The Hot Stove: The Nix Effect, Weekend at Randy's, & Ham on Haith

TALLAHASSEE -- Since I'm sitting up in my hotel room here in downtown Tally bored, I've spent the past few hours reading up on new Hurricanes offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. Not the ideal way to spend a Friday night. But I'm in Tallahassee. What else is there to do? Anyway, since I know football is what makes Eye on The U go round, what better topic to rattle Canes brains than Nix? Before you give me your perspective on the hiring, here's my opine in a nutshell: Nix?!?

PatricknixFirst off, let me start off by saying this is not an attempt to put coach Nix down. Just an observation I'm making after doing some reading on his background and how I think he fits into The U. I don't know Nix from Adam. And neither do most of you. But when you study the history of who this coaching search included, how long it took to find an offensive coordinator and who UM ended up with, I get the sense this could have been a bit of a panic hire on coach Randy Shannon with talented QB recruit Robert Marve coming to town this weekend. Miami wants Marve and Marve wants a warm body to speak with about Miami's future offense. Nix does that. We will get to the big recruiting weekend in a bit, but let's stay with Nix first.

According to research, the 34-year old and former Auburn quarterback has been a coach at the I-A level for five seasons. He's moved his way up from running backs coach to offensive coordinator in only three seasons. Yet, despite the move, he only began calling plays for the first time this past season when Chan Gailey gave him the duties. Let me repeat that. Nix was offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for three years at GT, but didn't call the plays until this past season. Shouldn't that be a big deal? One year of actual play-calling experience.

Nix of course didn't do too bad when he was given his chance, which is the upside of this deal. Georgia Tech's offense improved, despite quarterback Reggie Ball, scoring 24.2 points per game in 2006 (up from 18.5 in 2005) and scored 30 or more points in six games, one fewer than the previous three seasons combined. And in eight Atlantic Coast Conference games, Georgia Tech's offense led the league in scoring at 26.6 points per game and ranked among the top-three ACC offenses in rushing (second at 151 yards per game), passing efficiency (third), total yards (third at 328.5 yards) and turnover margin (third with 12 giveaways vs. 19 takeaways). Of course, we all know how explosive the ACC was on offense this past year (that's sarcasm).

CalvinjohnsonOK, those numbers are all fine and dandy. But what could Georgia Tech's offense really do? What were they good at? Everyone knows the Yellow Jackets were known for one player -- receiver Calvin Johnson, who is likely to be the first non-QB taken in April's Draft. Johnson made Ball good and made Georgia Tech's offense flow. But according to research, when Ball wasn't getting the ball to Johnson and the Yellow Jackets weren't hitting on big plays, they weren't scoring or moving the football. Here's a stat from an Augusta Chronicle Story that might open up your eyes: The Yellow Jackets scored 22 of their 40 offensive touchdowns through the air, with 13 of those 22 of those scoring passes measuring 15 yards or more. "If we don't hit big plays like that, our chances of winning are slim," Johnson told the paper.

Miami obviously has lacked big plays and playmakers for several seasons now. The last time UM had such a talented receiver was Andre Johnson (2002). Which raises the question: Was the only reason Nix's offense successful because of Johnson and the big play? And if so, does UM have the personnel right now to make that philosophy work at The U right now? I'm sure you can answer that one yourself.

I'm not going to say Nix can't come to UM, grow as a coach and make UM better (anything better than 7 points at Virginia is an improvement). Many young coaches have made themselves at The U. Nix is young, bright and obviously did enough to impress Chan Gailey, one of the brighter offensive minds in football, to take him under his wing. But how much confidence do you put into a coach who spent one year calling plays at Georgia Tech and whose only success really came when the top offensive player in the country could get open?

Which brings this discussion back full circle to Shannon. It's obvious Nix wasn't his first, second or even third choice. The Jacksonville Jaguars nabbed his first choice, Dirk Koetter. Kevin Rogers couldn't get away from the Vikings and Oklahoma wasn't going to let Kevin Sumlin get away. And Shannon deserves credit for trying. But the one thing in common with all three of those other guys is experience -- and they all had far more than Nix. So, did Randy simply go with the best and quick available solution? Only time will tell. But it sure smells like it.

Marve_1Speaking of smell, this weekend has the odor of the biggest recruiting weekend at UM and for Shannon yet. Why? Because the quarterback of the future -- the real quarterback Miami wants -- Robert Marve will be in town along with UM's best receiver commitment, Jermaine McKenzie, their No. 1 linebacker of choice Allen Bailey, No. 2 linebacker target Brandon Hicks (who is likely headed to Florida) and Homestead safety Joseph Nicholas (Rutgers commit). Not that I want to add pressure to the situation, but the truth is this is going to be the last chance Miami and will Shannon get to make those guys fall in love. And it won't be easy. Marve (Alabama), Bailey (his last trip is to hometown Georgia), Hicks (Florida) and Nicholas (Rutgers) are all basically engaged to other schools right now. If Shannon can somehow pull it off, it will be the best magic trick pulled off this side of David Copperfield in quite sometime.

If they get all the guys I mentioned above -- and they won't -- UM can go from having an average recruiting class back to the type it used to draw when it was a perennial BCS team. Marve is paramount because he's better than current QB commit Nick Fanuzzi, who my hunch tells me could end up defecting to Kentucky (the school his father went). Who will UM ultimately get? I think Marve, McKenzie and Nicholas turn out to be Canes while Hicks and Bailey head to the SEC. Just a prediction.

For the immediate future, re: the current quarterback situation, I'd like to see which quarterback -- Kirby Freeman or Kyle Wright -- Nix likes most for the 2007 offense. If you look at what Nix ran at Georgia Tech, the selection should be Freeman, who is obviously a better runner and passer on the run. Either way, it will be interesting to see what Nix says about how he envisions the offense in the coming weeks.


Now to hoops.

Leonard_hamiltonLeonard Hamilton is in his fifth year at Florida State. And with the former Canes coach taking on his former team this weekend, I took advantage of my interview request to rehash the old days a bit, what it took to make Miami a power and to get his thoughts on the job he thinks Frank Haith has done in his three seasons as coach at UM and the path he thinks the program can take with the way Haith is running things. In a lot of ways, coach Ham is still considered the best coach Miami has ever had. Under Hamilton's leadership, UM advanced to postseason play five times in his final six seasons including three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1998-2000 that included a Sweet 16 appearance. Then, he left when Michael Jordan called him to take on the head coaching duties with the Washington Wizards, a stint that lasted one painful 19-63 season before getting the Seminoles job in 2002.

Coach Ham was successful at Miami, but it took him time to get the program going. He went through a winless season in the Big East and it took him six seasons to get UM to the postseason and that was the NIT. With that in mind, I conducted my interview to pick Ham's brain and where he sees UM going with Haith at the helm.

When I asked him to talk about the job Haith has done in his three years, he was a bit taken aback -- as if I wanted him to say something negative. But I wasn't fishing for dirt. I wanted an honest assessment. After all, Haith is 3-1 against him and took UM to the postseason (NIT) faster than Hamilton did. Here's some of what Coach Ham had to say:

Q: In the eyes of a lot of fans, UM has taken a step back this season and many are disappointed in Coach Haith even though he led UM to the NIT twice in his first two seasons. How do you think the program has done?

"I think he's done an amazing job. A superb job. Developing a program is not as easy as people think it is. It took me a long time time when I was there to get the players in, to bring the depth in needed to win. We didn't get Tim James and Mario Bland and those guys overnight. The nature of the process is to establish a foundation. I think he's done a great job keeping the best players in South Florida to stay at UM. A much better job than we did when we were there. I don't have any doubt in my mind Haith will get that program where he wants it to be."

Q: Even still, there are some that say he has not taken  the program to the next level. They say the NIT isn't good enough and he still has yet to sign that big McDonald's All-American recruit. Are expectations at UM too high?

"Getting a McDonald's All-American recruit isn't going to make Miami or Florida State better from one day to the next. Duke and North Carolina and other great programs have tradition. The big time recruits only come with time, tradition. When I was at Miami, we never got a McDonald's All-American. We won because we had depth. We got quality kids, who worked hard, who played defense hard. And when we played the McDonald's All-Americans we went at them hard all game with a lot of different quality guys and you hoped that at the end of the game you had a chance to win. The one thing he has going for him down there now that I didn't was an on-campus facility. That's going to help. But building tradition takes time."

Q: Do you think the program underachieved when it had Guillermo Diaz and Rob Hite and yet still failed to make the NCAA tournament. Now they are 9-10, albeit with injuries. Do you think they are a disappointment now?

A: "Are you kidding me? What do you want me to say? It was his first two years there man. Diaz was a junior when he left right? If King is healthy and Diaz is there, Miami is a totally different team this season. We lost two big players -- Alexander Johnson and Jon Kreft. I sympothize with coach Haith. When you start the season, you have a team you intend to play with and then you lose what four players in the post? But it's an unforgiving league. Every night you are expected to go out and play and go against quality teams, and no matter what the circumstances go out and get victories."