It wasn't too long ago the University of Miami consistently housed some of the top defensive lineman in all of college football. From 2001-04, the Canes had four first round draft choices on its d-line -- Vince Wilfork, Jerome McDougle, William Joseph and Damione Lewis.
The tradition of top-tier lineman has continued over the last three years with Baraka Atkins, Orien Harris, Kareem Brown, Calais Campbell and the late Bryan Pata. But entering the 2008 season, Miami not only doesn't have a recognizable star, but it lacks the experience and established talent it once had on a regular basis. The D-Line returns just one starter (Eric Moncur) and must replace Campbell (who left early to the draft) and 10-game starter Teraz McCray at tackle.
If that wasn't enough of a chore for defensive line coach Clint Hurtt, fall practice has begun with Moncur and very promising sophomore Allen Bailey sidelined and rehabbing from injuries. Tuesday, I caught up with Hurtt after practice to talk about how the defensive line is progressing. Among the topics, Scout Team MVP redshirt freshman Adewale Ojomo (YOU CAN CHECK OUT HIS VIDEO INTERVIEW LATER TODAY) and the progress others are making.
Hurtt, who is always upbeat and positive when we talk, sounded a lot like the Coach Hurtt I spoke to at the end of last year when he was running a short-handed ship. The good news is, that although most of Miami's talented linemen are young, at least they're making strides.
"Adewale is a high motor kid, has gotten a lot better rushing the passer," Hurtt said of Ojomo. "He's a very strong kid in the run game, has great explosion, great hands. We expect him to come in and be a key contributor, keep pushing Eric (Moncur) and the other guys because we want to get the best four linemen on the field. He's doing a great job of that. The offensive linemen come up and talk about him, but everybody's improving as a group."
When asked who is currently shining at end, Hurtt said he couldn't name just one.
"Right now you're always looking at playing about five," Hurtt said. "We like to keep that rotation heavy so guys stay fresh. Hopefully around five or six. It all depends on who is game ready. That's what dictates it. Ideally you want five, but you don't want to throw a guy out there who isn't ready to go."
But Ojomo, whom I spoke with Monday, said incoming freshman Marcus Robinson is providing signs he might be. Randy Shannon compared Robinson Monday to former Cane Javon Nanton, a third-down pass-rush specialist, and said he hoped to get 20-30 plays out of him a game. Hurtt and Ojomo said Robinson (who played linebacker and defensive end in high school and has 4.5-speed) has had several sacks in the early going of fall practices and has even deflected a few balls. Hurtt negated one of my primary concerns about the freshman by saying Robinson (who told me Sunday he's up to 240 pounds) will put on the weight he needs to because he will be eating right in college.
"He has more natural skills right now coming in the door than Javon did," Hurtt said. "I worked with Javon a lot, and Javon did some good things as a freshman. He was a little stiff. Coach Swasey and those guys did a great job in the weight room getting him together. Marcus Robinson has some unbelievable tools, great tools. So he's got a lot of potential."
As for the defensive tackle spot, Miami feels confident Antonio Dixon's weight loss this offseason will allow him to be better conditioned. Who starts alongside Dixon remains a mystery though. Hurtt said Tuesday Joe Joseph, who made five starts as a sophomore last year (primarily because of injuries to others) has had the most improvement of the returnees.
"He's definitely improved," Hurtt said. "Getting Dwayne Hendricks back healthy definitely helps out. Guys are working hard to get better, and there's competition. Micanor Regis has come in and done a lot of things. Competition makes us all better."
> The fight for the starting center job -- the only position on the offensive line really in doubt (I don't care what people are saying about Chris Barney at left guard it's Orlando Franklin's job to lose) --apparently is becoming Xavier Shannon's job by the day. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland told our Susan Miller Degnan Tuesday Shannon has done the little extra things to outshine his competitors, Tyler Horn, Matt Pipho and A.J. Trump.
"I feel very confident with him," Stoutland said. "I was amazed at how fast he was able to learn all this stuff. I have children myself. And I know coaches who talk to me and say I know your son is a coach's kid. Because he listens. He absolutely listens. And he tries to execute what we're saying. Xavier is a coach's kid. He's been around it his whole life.
"Here's a for instance. During the practice session, whoever is getting the play, I will look at the script and I look at whoever is getting the play and whoever is not getting the play. And I look over to a group of them and I'll look over to see who is not paying attention. And if your not paying attention, I might say to you "What's the play?' Now, you don't have a script, but you got somebody calling out the plays. And if you don't hear the play and I call on your name, then I know your real serious about learning. A mental rep to me is as important as a physical rep to me. And so Xavier, I was looking around when he wasn't in the game and someone asked what's the play. He rehearsed it to me(snaps his finger) like that. It's a maturity factor. It's the ability to focus and listen when coaches are coaching. And that's what some of the younger guys to be honest with you have to learn."
> Go ahead and scratch CJ Holton off the list of missing incoming freshmen at camp. That leaves linebacker Brandon Marti, defensive back Joe Wylie, defensive tackle Jeremy Lewis and defensive end Gavin Hardin.
Holton was at practice Tuesday, but didn't participate in team drills. "He has to go through the acclimation period, so it takes time," Shannon said. "You have to go through two days in helmets, the whole day. He did some conditioning stuff, which is good for him because he can't just come in and (play). A kid could get hurt that way."
I've spoken to the family of at least one of those players who is still waiting, who tells me they've had a hard time getting a phone call back from UM coaches or school reps. Among the remaining recruits, there is growing fear one of the four will be asked to greyshirt (enroll in January) because UM might be over its scholarship limit of 85.
> Junior cornerback Chavez Grant, who has played nickel back most of his career at UM, told me Tuesday he's spending most of his time on the outside this fall. "My role, I'm pretty much outside on the corner," Grant said. "Brandon Harris is right behind me, pushing me, so is DeMarcus Van Dyke. I'm trying to be somewhat of a mentor to Brandon because he's working a lot at the nickel. And I kind of look up to Bruce, he's a great corner. We're all just working together."
> Shannon said running backs Lee Chambers and Damien Berry left practice because of "hydration issues." Berry was seen by a reporter leaving in a cart. Shannon has been extending practices a little longer than the usual two hours because he says he wants to get his younger players more reps.
> Despite not having a tight end on his roster who caught more than 13 balls or had more than 105 yards receiving last season, Shannon sounded optimistic Tuesday the tight ends will be more involved in the offense this fall.
"When you have guys only the first time playing last year it's kind of hard to get them going," Shannon said. "With a new offense coming in, guys never touched the field. Now these guys are making catches left and right in practice, big key catches. So we're kind of excited."
> Safety Anthony Reddick didn't practice for the second consecutive day. But Shannon said, "Everything's fine with him. He's doing well. We're just monitoring Reddick because guys come off knee injuries, you go and practice him every day you won't get much out of him. It's one day off, one day on, trying to ease him back into it. But he's doing fine."
Fellow safety Lovon Ponder didn't practice either. No reason was given.
> BY THE WAY... Don't forget to check out the two video interviews I've uploaded including a close look at Orlando Franklin's new mohawk and Damien Berry talking about his move to running back.