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Refresher course: The backfield

As we inch closer to the start of fall practice Saturday, I wanted us to take a quick look back to last year, look at what is currently in stock and take a peak forward at each position for your Miami Hurricanes.

Today, we'll start with the offensive backfield where Miami returns perhaps its top two offensive weapons at running back and starts over with little experience at the most important position on the field -- quarterback.

QUARTERBACK...
> Who is gone:
Kyle Wright (graduated); Kirby Freeman (transferred to Baylor).
> Who is back: Robert Marve, R-Fr. (6-1, 203)
> Who is new: Jacory Harris, Fr. (6-4, 170);  Taylor Cook, Fr. (6-7, 230); Cannon Smith, Fr. (5-11, 200)

> What happened in '07: In a word, Miami's passing game was a flat out Kyle_and_kirby"Disaster."  Wright and Freeman combined to throw 20 interceptions and only 16 touchdowns for a passing attack that finished last in the ACC and 108th out of 119 teams nationally. Marve, Mr. Florida Football 2006, missed the season and most of practice after suffering deep cuts and severe scarring on his left hand following a car accident.

> Spring recap: Marve, Harris and Smith each participated, although it clearly developed into a two-man show with Marve and Harris taking the lead. In the spring game, Marve finished 10 of 22 for 93 yards and threw 2 INTs; Harris was 9 of 17 for 64 yards; Smith finished 1 of 5 for 66 yards and 1 INT.

> The big question: Who gets the starting nod and who plays? In the few press 030408_qbs_2conferences he's had since the end of the spring, coach Randy Shannon has told reporters he'll name a starter the week before Miami opens its season against Charleston Southern (Aug. 28) at Dolphins Stadium. Shannon has also told reporters the starter will play the majority of the game with the backup seeing duty too.

> What to expect: Forget the fact nobody on this team other than safety Lovon Ponder has 022708_marvethrown a pass at the collegiate level. Both Marve and Harris are better -- at least through most observers eyes -- than Wright or Freeman ever were. Marve and Harris both ran high-octane, spread offenses in high school and have better arms and accuracy than Miami's two previous signal callers. Marve should emerge with the starting job -- having had a bit more time to learn under offensive coordinator Patrick Nix than Harris. But expect the former Miami Northwestern and Mr. Florida Football 2007 to be hard on Marve's heels. Shannon loves competition and I expect him to probably keep it "an open competition" from week to week -- especially if Marve struggles in the early going.

> Sidenote: It will be interesting to see how Cook, who played in a run-oriented attack in Texas, develops and if he supplants Smith (who appears to be out of his league) as the team's No. 3 QB. But there's a chance -- and Cook has been saying this since the day he was recruited -- he could end up switching to another position (likely tight end) down the road.

RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK...
> Who is gone:
RB Charlie Jones (quit team in '07), FB Jerrell Mabry (transferred).
> Who is back: RB Javarris James, Jr. (6-0, 214), RB Graig Cooper, So. (6-0, 202), RB Shawnbrey McNeal, So. (5-11, 190), RB Derron Thomas, Sr. (5-9, 204), RB Lee Chambers, R-Fr. (5-10, 180).
> Who is new: RB Damien Berry, So. (5-11, 198, moved over from safety), FB Pat Hill (5-9, 260), FB John Calhoun (6-3, 235).

> What happened in '07:  If there was a bright spot on an offense that finished 022608_jjames110th overall (315 ypg) and 101st in scoring (20.5 ppg), it was the tandem James and Cooper created last season when healthy. The duo combined for 1,264 yards and eight touchdowns despite facing many eight-man fronts and defenses who knew the run was coming because the passing game was so bad. Cooper (who averaged 5.5 yards per carry) ultimately finished as the leading rusher with 682 yards and was the only back to crack the century mark in a game. James (who suffered from a few nicks) slowed down a bit after a freshman season in which he ran for 800-plus yards. McNeal, meanwhile, had his moments, flashing his speed with a 39-yard run against Georgia Tech. But he too was injured. Thomas provied to be a valuable backup in spots.

> Spring recap:
While most eyes were on the guys at quarterback, Cooper and James had a solid spring -- flashing signs when healthy the two can be one of the most dangerous combos in college football. In the spring game, Cooper ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries and caught two passes for 12 yards while James (who carried 1 time for 25 yards) caught four passes for 60 yards. McNeal had four carries for six yards, but a 66-yard burst on a screen pass. Thomas left the spring game with an apparent ankle injury. Chambers had 11 carries for 36 yards in mop-up duty. Hill provided several bone-jarring blocks and excited running backs coach Tommie Robinson with his effort.

> The big question: Can James and Cooper stay healthy and if not, who emerges Graig_cooperas the No. 3 option? Rumblings out of UM this summer are that McNeal (who found himself in Shannon's doghouse some last year) is battling academic issues. Even though James appears to be fully healthy now and Cooper has added 10 pounds of weight in muscle to bulk up for the hitting in college football, it was painfully apparent last year Miami needed a solid, go-to third option. If McNeal isn't around, then most expect Thomas to be that guy with Chambers and Berry to play in spot situations.

> What to expect: Cooper and James to be the focal point of Miami's offense. With an inexperienced arm at quarterback and receivers with a lot to prove, it seemed like Nix made it a point to get the ball into the hands of his experienced playmakers this spring -- including through the air. After talking about doing it in '07, Nix lined up Cooper and James in the backfield together this spring and sometimes in the slot, creating safe opportunities to catch the ball underneath coverage. They combined to catch 27 passes last season, but appear to be headed toward much more in 2008.

> Quote of the spring: Robinson on what the addition of Hill at fullback means to the team: "Patrick Hill has been a blessing to us. We love what he brings. He brings exactly 022708_phill_jjwhat we thought he would. He’s one of those kids we really recruited. When I recruited him, I told this kid I wanted him to tell me that he wanted to run the football. Because if he told me he wanted to run the football, I was going to leave him in California. But he never told me once he wanted to run the football. I asked him once, 'What would be your idea of a great game?' He said 'If I can just go and knock a couple guys out. If I can just knock about five guys out.' I said you got a scholarship offer from the University of Miami son. And he’s done a great job for us. We didn’t need a guy griping and frustrated because he’s not running the football. No, we needed a guy who would bring some toughness to our offense and we can go inside and bang around the tackles and get some movement."

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