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A deeper look: Offensive line

Among UM's many reasons for its offensive struggles the past two seasons, no unit likely received more criticism or blame than the offensive line. An eye-opening 36 sacks was part of the reason former line coach Art Kehoe got the boot after 2005.

But as porous as UM's line was in Kehoe's final season, most didn't expect much more from the o-line in 2006. Mario Cristobal started the season with one player -- Anthony Wollschlager -- who had any real significant playing time from the previous season and a rash of injuries. Yet, somehow, Miami's offensive line improved in 2006 even with a true freshman making 12 starts at tackle. Under Cristobal's leadership, the team cut its sacks allowed by 14 from 36 to 22.

Jeff_stoutlandThis season, as Miami looks to improve on probably its worst offensive showing I've seen since I began following the Canes at age four, the offensive line is likely in the best shape its been in a while. This weekend as Camp Shannon began I took time to speak with several offensive lineman, defensive lineman and new line coach Jeff Stoutland to see how much progress has actually been made since last season. In my estimation: substantial.

Part of coach Randy Shannon's spring and summer conditioning program under strength coach Andreu Swasey was to whip Miami's fatboys into shape. Did he ever. Saturday, as Shannon pushed his entire team with 50-yard sprints to finish practice, only three lineman were straggling way behind. And most of that was due to dehydration and the need to vomit.

Rutledge"Coach Shannon just focused on us being quick and being fast and moving faster. I think the whole o-line lost between 30 and 40 pounds,'' fourth-year junior Chris Rutledge said Saturday. "I’m proud of our whole o-line as a whole. I couldn’t have done it on my own. Coaches helped, the players as well. The competition we had on a daily basis, that was big.”

Rutledge said he dropped from 333 at the end of last season to his current weight of 304. While he was among the bigs to cut weight, progress was also made in other ways. Freshman phenom Jason Fox, who began last season at 6-6, 265, now tips the scales at 6-6, 290. Most, if not all of that, was muscle.

"I don’t think I lost anything far as speed or agility goes," Fox said. "I don’t want to go into exact numbers. But I've gotten 30 to 40 pounds stronger in about every lifting category. I’m feeling good and so is the rest of our offensive line. We’re ready to go."

Truth is, it doesn't look like everybody is ready. After speaking to players and coaches, I got the sense Jason_fox Miami has a core of about seven lineman -- Derrick Morse, Fox, Reggie Youngblood, Andrew Bain, A.J. Trump, Rutledge and Orlando Franklin -- who could probably start and hold their own this season. The next group -- Matt Pipho, John Rochford and Tyrone Byrd -- could play if needed. And a final group -- Cyrim Wimbs, Chris Barney, Harland Gunn, Joel Figueroa, Tyler Horne, Ian Symonnette -- probably just will never really be able to cut it or aren't ready yet. Of course, Monday was only the third day of practice (heck, these guys aren't even really hitting yet). And in the coming weeks, things can always change -- especially with injuries. But Canes fans should be happy because the situation is without a doubt improved on the o-line.

For starters, I think its pretty safe to say the tackle jobs have been won -- with Fox (at left), Youngblood (at right) and Rutledge (the key backup at either spot). Rutledge, once considered a project after leaving Miami Dr. Krop, certainly looks like he's really ready to contribute more than he did in his six starts a year ago when he looked lost.

"I think Rutledge has done a nice job in making transition from guard to tackle in the spring," Stoutland said. "I thought he did a really nice job. All of that does is make us thicker and make us a little thicker by position."

Guard is where it gets tricky, but only if sophomore Trump stumbles at center. If Trump, who is coming Aj_trump off nine months of rehab on a torn ACL, can hold his own, then Morse should be able to start as Miami's pulling guard on the right side and not at center. Trump, a redshirt sophomore from Clearwater, will be given a shot though and it appears Stoutland likes him a lot. And even if he struggles, John Rochford, once the long-snapper, may be able to step in if he steps up some more. Stoutland said he likes Rochford's quickness.

"What I like about A.J. is that he’s a good leader," Stoutland said. "He’s a very smart and intelligent player and he’ll make the appropriate calls when he’s there. But he’s got to do it physically. I have total confidence in him from a mental standpoint."

In my mind part of that opinion is formed from the idea having Morse at that guard spot is far more important for Miami's offense, which should be more run-based this season with Javarris James and Graig Cooper.

"Derrick is just a freak," Fox said. "He’s got an unbelievable motor. He’s the type of guy you want on your offensive line. At the end of every play, everybody is walking back to the huddle, he’s running downfield trying to cut some guy."

"Guards, I think we’re really starting to solidify that position," Stoutland said. "D-Mo is an All-American and that’s why I really don’t want to move D-Mo. He kind of solidifies s. He’s kind of in my mind one of the top players in this whole conference at the guard position. Although if Orlando comes on, then maybe you got three of them. It’s a lot of scenarios that can kind of happen."

Orlando_franklinFranklin is probably the one freshman on the team who has impressed most. After sitting out last season because he had to retake two high school English classes, the 6-7, 326-pound 19-year old freshman has turned heads enough now that the left guard spot is considered open for competition.

"Orlando is a new guy, but among the freshman he's furthest along," Stoutland said. "He’s so physical. He’s as strong and as quick on his feet as a fifth-year senior would be. So, he’s way advanced in that category. Now, I got to get him mentally advanced to play."

Said Fox of Franklin: "For how big he is, he’s an unbelievable athlete. Ive never seen him with pads on, but I can’t wait. I'm excited about it. He could [be one of those freshman that plays right away]. He’s that type of guy. He’s studies hard. Im really excited about what he can do."

In the end, I expect senior Andrew Bain, the only Canes lineman to start all 13 games last season, to edge out Franklin for the starting job (who appears prime to be a key contributor at either guard spot). But should an injury knock someone out, Franklin is likely the first man in.

Stoutland, of course, will say otherwise in the coming weeks. He's got to keep his guys competing on a high level and getting the most of his backups for progress sake.

"They look different than when I first got here," he told me when I asked him for an assesment of their growth Monday. "There’s still room for improvement. Now it’s a matter of putting this group together, finding out the right combinations of people playing next to each other. Because you know, during the season, guys are going to get dinged up. You’re going to have several different players going in there. So, I want to make sure I have a preseason that gives me a good understanding of who should be in the game if something would happen here, something would happen there so I can have the right people in the game."

As for Stoutland, he might be the perfect replacement for Cristobal. One player said he's a cross between Kehoe and Cristobal, fiery, but also a great tactician. One player told me, Stoutland spends more time correcting mistakes than any coach he's ever had. He's also apparently fair in distributing pain.

"He’s all-around -- funny and serious," Rutledge said. "He wants what he wants when he wants it. You can watch its kind of like NFL. If you work hard, you get a little rest. If you don’t work hard, then you get run into the ground all day. That’s how he is. He’s about hard work, work ethic and working hard."

For those of you who would like to listen to some of my interviews, check out our audio page. Throughout the season, I'll load the audio clips I collect from the lockerroom and after practice. Also, don't forget to check out Susan Miller Degnan's daily features and notebooks online and in the paper.

** Tonight (Tuesday) from 7 to 8 p.m. I'll be on Canespace.com to answer the questions from Canes fans left behind in this blog this afternoon. Next week, we'll return to do the same thing here at Eye on The U at the same time and same day. It will be an alternating feature from week to week.