I haven't had a lot of time to devote to this blog since Tuesday's live Q&A which featured Northwestern QB Jacory Harris and freshman cornerback and new starter DeMarcus Van Dyke (hint: go check out some of their answers. It was probably the most fun I've had yet on a live blog).
But I wanted to come and share some thoughts and extra insight from this week before we turn our full attention to Saturday's season-opener against Marshall.
For starters, what struck me most about Tuesday's press conference wasn't the decision to pick Kirby Freeman as the team's starting quarterback. It's the fact Randy Shannon stayed true to his word. It's not that I ever really doubted Miami's new sheriff. It's just that maybe I was Cokerized (yeah I'm stealing the phrase from The Legion). For all the talk about taking Miami back to the old school -- where the competition in practice is what really determines who starts -- I somehow always believed through camp that the usual suspects would end up earning the starting spots come game time. I thought Randy was simply trying to light a fire under his veterans. But now I know Randy is beyond the head games. He really is going to do all he has to do to take The U back to the old Cane ways. If you get hurt, you move to the end of the totem poll, he said. If you don't bring it everyday, you ride the pine.
The fact he and his staff picked Freeman and in my eyes these other four surprise starters -- Khalil Jones at receiver, Dwayne Hendricks at defensive tackle, DeMarcus Van Dyke at cornerback and John Rochford at center -- sent a strong message to the team. Let's not forget the Sam Shields' suspension too. Tuesday, as players filed into The Edgerrin James room following Shannon's press conference, they got a chance to start looking at the depth chart for the first time. In some cases, there was genuine surprise. In all cases, there were smiles -- even from the guys not slated to start. The reason? Shannon stayed true to his word with them too. Just as Barry Jackson wrote in Wednesday's editions -- there is no longer entitlement on this team.
As I learned from somewhat revealing conversations with tight end Chris Zellner and safety Lovon Ponder, that wasn't always the case last season -- especially on offense. Both told me starters were often given preferential treatment and if they were hurt, they were allowed to return to their starting jobs even while the other guy was out busting his butt in practice. The only place where that didn't seem to happen was on defense. Oddly enough, that's one unit where the Hurricanes continued to play at a national championship-type level.
"Last year, you knew you had a lot of people that knew they were starting. So, a lot of guys would come to practice and would be like, well, I'm not really starting, so I'm not giving my best effort," Zellner told me. "... I saw Kyle one time where he hurt his knee a little bit. Last year, they probably would have sat Kyle because he's a great asset to our team. This year, I was like Kyle 'You going to play?' He was like, 'Yeah, it's a competition... And that's just the way it was. I think we needed it."
Ponder echoed those same sentiments. "We had a team where a lot of people were put ahead of other people,'' he said. "But now, people are on the same level. We don't have big-headed guys or guys putting people down. Going into games, guys were being treated differently -- with practice reps and all that. Now, coach Shannon treats everybody equally bad, equally good."
I'm sure hearing some of those responses must make the Cane familia angry and even more resentful toward the Coker regime. But at least you can take solace in the fact LC (I always used to giggle when I would see his initials on his practice shorts) can only now give his opinion from a studio off in TV land. When asked what he thought of the QB selection recently, Coker said he was surprised but not shocked Shannon and his staff picked Freeman.
Truth is, now I wonder how this team might have been different last year if Shannon was making all the big decisions. There's no doubt in my mind Kyle's injured throwing thumb wasn't just a problem that surfaced when he was hurt in the Virginia Tech game. Had Shannon been running the show, would Wright have been pulled before then? I guess we'll start finding out just how different this team is now with a different leader and different standards.
PROGRAMMING UPDATE: Almost forgot! I need to promote The Herald's new high school football show, the Big Show, starring yours truly as host. With the help of Recruitflix.com, we put together a countdown of the top 20 high school teams in Miami-Dade and Broward with video highlights and interviews of key players. As the former high school writer, this is sort of a dream come true for me. I've always felt the high schools in Dade and Broward were so richly loaded with talent they deserved better coverage than they received. It took me and a staff of three at Recruitflix to put this thing together. It's finally online. There will also be clips every week following games uploaded to the Herald website. We'll improve the quality as the season progresses. But for now, please, please, please, check out THE BIG SHOW. And let me know what you think of it.