I was going to start this first blog entry of the new year with a look forward to what UM football fans should be looking forward to in the next month. Then, Ant Harris got stuck in my eye. 33 points? What in the world got into him?
So last night, while watching the Orange Bore first hand, I text messaged coach Frank Haith exactly that question when I heard Harris had resurrected UM's fading season with the game of his life in a stunning -- yes stunning -- win at UMass.
"We just need him to be himself," Haith responded. What a refreshing idea: Be Yourself. I think The U as a whole has stopped being itself, especially on the offensive side of the in football. In Harris' case, being himself is having the ball in his hands and creating, something the team has obviously needed to fuel its two biggest wins of the season (Georgia Tech and now UMass).
I'll get back to the basketball later, but the concept of "being themselves," is paramount to what I believe once made the University of Miami football program great and will once again. What does that mean for football: Being aggressive, maximizing the talent and being fun to watch on offense. Which is why I believe getting the right offensive coordinator in the next few days for new coach Randy Shannon is the biggest decision he'll make as coach.
UM has stopped being aggressive, maximizing its talent and being fun to watch (which is huge with recruiting) the last three seasons. Some can point to a lack of talent. But I don't buy that as an excuse. UM obviously hasn't had the same number of offensive weapons it has had in the past, but to claim that the cupboard was bare for Dan Werner and Rich Olson the past three seasons during UM's descent is flat out stupid. Devin Hester and Sinorice Moss have already proven to be special players who were underutilized. Greg Olsen, who announced his departure a few days ago, will be the next. With the lack of talented tight ends in football, Olsen's size, speed and skill will be gobbled up by someone in the first or second round of the April draft. And by next year, we'll all be saying yet again... why didn't he do that at The U?
The answer is simple and very much like Hester and Moss's: His coaches weren't creative enough in getting him the football. Yes, Olsen had some drops. But how many of them were on five-yard outs when Kyle Wright or Kirby Freeman was throwing them a rocket? And how many big plays did Olsen make when he had space? When UM was great, it never had that problem. Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Kellen Winslow, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Edgerrin James all got the ball enough times and in open spaces -- on screens, reverses, deep balls -- to create excitement, yards and points. While the 2006 Canes had far less talent, I never got the feeling the ones that did have talent -- Javarris James, Sam Shields and Olsen -- were given the ball in circumstances to create big plays. Everytime James was given the ball, he was told to run straight ahead against a defense that knew what was coming. Most times when Shields or Olsen caught the ball they were only 8, 9 yards down the field with safeties and corners closing in.
For all the talk Rich Olson created about wanting to get the ball in his playmaker's hands downfield, on swing passes or backs out of the backfield it rarely happened. And it seemed the few times UM did decide to go down field, UM's biggest plays usually happened (look up the end to the Virginia and Georgia Tech game and the bowl win). Part of the problem obviously was quarterback, and the impending battle between Kirby Freeman and Kyle Wright figures to be a story to follow through the spring and into the fall. But Problemo Numero Uno was the man calling the plays. In my eyes, the job of the offensive coordinator is to figure a way to create points and excitement. One look at UM's struggling offenses the past three years tells you the guys calling the shots haven't gotten it done.
Dirk Koetter has been rumored for weeks to be the guy Shannon wants calling plays. But is he really the right choice? In a lot of ways, I think Koetter might be the perfect fit, ala a Larry Coker who appears to be a far better coordinator than coach. For all the hoopla Koetter created over his offensive prowess, he wasn't exactly a great head coach. His last six years at Arizona State proved that and the three before at Boise State weren't as good as the one the Broncos just finished with that spectacular Hook 'N Ladder and Statue of Liberty plays in their Fiesta Bowl win versus Oklahoma.
For the record, UM fans should get those crazy plays out of their minds. Despite his connection to Boise, Koetter doesn't run those wacky plays. His history as an offensive coordinator began in 1985 as the offensive coordinator at San Francisco State, then UTEP (1986-88), Missouri (1989-93), Boston College (1994-95) and finally Oregon (1996-97). I don't know about you, but when I think of those programs offense isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But his reputation, much like Rich Olsen's was, was his thirst for downfield passing and an attacking, creative offense. And if Shannon likes him (he did go to Arizona State to hang out with Koetter last summer), then it might be the perfect marriage between an offensive mastermind and defensive mastermind UM fans have been looking for.
Assuming Koetter ends up with the job soon (I don't see why he wouldn't take it), it's obvious he's already going to have a pretty good assortment of young weapons waiting for him. In addition to James and Shields, UM has grabbed a few pretty good offensive recruits. The latest, running back Graig Cooper, is the best of the bunch. Rated the No. 1-prep school player in the country by Rivals.com, Super Coop told me he will not have a problem sharing the spotlight with Javarris James (LISTEN TO THE AUDIO). And I think he will end up being the perfect compliment to James' tough inside running for at least two future Cane seasons. Super Coop has great hands out of the backfield and is also apparently studly on returns, an obvious need for the Canes. Check out his YouTube highlight video here. There's are also a slew of talented incoming receivers who I suspect starting with Kayne Farquharson will be immediate impact players like Shields was this past season.
The biggest recruiting targets, though, to watch in the coming weeks are arguably the two most prized possessions in South Florida -- Belle Glade Glades Central receiver Deonte Thompson and St. Thomas Aquinas safety Major Wright. For all the headway Shannon has made since Coker got fired, those two players are future NFL stars and would make UM's class special instead of pretty good. Stay tuned for updates. Both by the way will be playing against two UM recruits -- QB Nick Fanuzzi and OL Harland Gunn -- when the East takes on the West Saturday afternoon in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The other big-time possible UM recruit is LB Allen Bailey, a 6-3, 260-pound future defensive end from Georgia who has maintained UM in his top four for most of the season. The game will be televised on NBC at 1 p.m.
OK, now back to basketball. The UM bandwagon obviously lost quite a few riders with its recent run of losses -- including one to Binghamton no less. But the road win at UMass in my opinion is a sign this UM team is much better than what it has shown of late. While many online message boards have already begun a fire Frank Haith campaign, I've got to say Tuesday night's road win is a reason why people should still have Faith in Haith.
Yes, he has been stubborn to get out of the zone defense, which has been exposed by opponent's 3-point shooting this season on a regular basis. But he finally reportedly did against UMass and it paid off. UM was only 6 of 18 from 3-point range and my guess is because UM finally began contesting some of those shots. Despite the losses of Guillermo Diaz and Rob Hite, this UM team has talent. Just young talent. And until a Tuesday night, a senior leader in Harris who looked more like a bewildered follower. Miami probably won't make the post-season this year unless Harris plays like he did Tuesday at least 70 percent of the time for the rest of this season.
For the past few years, even with Diaz and Hite, Haith would always say the team goes as far as Harris takes them. There's a reason. He's a scorer who makes the players around him better when he's making shots. Through the first 13 games of the season, I got the sense he was deferring too much, scared almost to take the reigns and "be himself." When he did briefly earlier this season, UM beat Georgia Tech. Haith needs Harris to be the No. 1 option on this team especially know with King likely out for the rest of the season. He needs Harris to make Jack McClinton the best No. 2 option in the league and Brian Asbury the best No. 3 option, and so forth.
Ultimately, the real building blocks of the future success of this team are guys like Asbury, Dwayne Collins, Denis Clemente, James Dews and McClinton. None of those guys are honestly ready to be The Man. And while this team can be competitive in the ACC -- we're talking middle of the pack -- with Harris playing the way he did Tuesday, the best case scenario realistically for this team is for Harris to help nurture its future five along and get into a tournament like the NIT where the team can go into next season with some positivity and a realistic shot of being an ACC contender next year.
Haith doesn't want to throw the towel in for 2006-07 and he won't publicly do so. But behind the scenes, he knows this season is really about next year. He knows his best shot at making this program a winner and taking a step forward lies with what this young nucleus does over the next few years. With national champion Florida in town for the OB Classic last week, I asked Haith point blank if he thought UM would ever ascend to be a national title contender. His response: "Yes. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't so."
Haith is certainly making a push on the recruiting front. Miami High's Edwin Rios is the player Haith is already plenty excited about. In fact, Rios, who is averaging more than 30 points a game at The High, could end up being his first McDonald's All-American. There are whispers his strong season have gotten the attention of the selection committee, who think the once No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2007, might be worthy of one of the 15 East invitation.
Then, there's the Class of 2008. Haith is reportedly hot and heavy not only on the best local talent, Pace forward Ray Shipman, but also the nation's No. 1 swing man according to Scout.com, 6-7 Devin Ebanks of Connecticut. Ebanks said UM has recruited him the hardest of any program in the country and ranks them in his preliminary top five with St. John's, Louisville and Georgetown. And down the road, Haith already has his eyes on perhaps the best South Florida product yet, Ely High sophomore Kenny Boynton, rated in the Top 10 nationally of the 2009 class.
OK, I'm done with my rant -- it was a long one. Hopefully it was enough to fuel some thoughts of your own. I'll start with this... What would you like to see UM do in the next month leading up to National Signing Day? What would you like to see out of the basketball team as it resumes ACC play Saturday against Wake Forest? What is your New Year's resolution?