Before the season began, UM coach Randy Shannon said the strongest units on his team were the offensive line and the running backs. Through eight games, that hasn't been the story. The Hurricanes aren't getting the type of effort they thought they would from those guys.
The numbers don't lie. Through nine games last season, UM was averaging 175 yards a game on the ground. Through eight games this year, the Canes are averaging nearly 50 yards less (127). While UM's passing game is averaging 10 more yards a game than it was last year, the line has been giving up more negative plays than it did a year ago. Last year, UM gave up 10 sacks in its first eight games. This year, the Canes have surrendered 17 in the same amount of time. Miami also surrendered 47 tackles for loss in 2007. This year, they've given up two more than that number. The only real area of improvement for the offensive line has been penalties. In '07, Miami was flagged for holding eight times and called for false starts seven times through their first eight games. This year, the Canes have been only flagged four times for holding and six for false starts.
"We definitely had higher expectations than what we're getting done," said 6-3, 300-pound junior A.J. Trump, who has started the last four games for UM at right guard. "We've been up and down. We played some good games here and there, not as good as some others. We're trying to gain some consistency and run the ball a little bit better. We're trying to get better."
Miami needs to be better at both running the football and protecting the quarterback -- and quick. Virginia leads the ACC in sacks with 23 this season. Clint Sintim, a 6-3, 254-pound senior outside linebacker, has been the menace. He leads the ACC with 10 sacks this season. Shannon said in Tuesday's press conference Miami will run the football more this week. Since Javarris James came back from his ankle injury against Duke, he and Graig Cooper have been stuck in quicksand. They've combined for 28 touches and 128 yards. There should be an opportunity to run this week against Virginia, which ranks 10th in the ACC in run defense and gives up 147 yards a game.
Not only that, but this week will mark the first time freshmen quarterbacks Robert Marve and Jacory Harris will see a 3-4 defense. Nobody in the ACC other than Virginia runs it. Both Marve and Harris talked Tuesday about how confusing it can be when eight guys drop back into coverage. Last week, was the first time since the Florida game neither quarterback threw an interception. "The 3-4 changes it up a little bit," Marve said. "They can cover more with the eight man drop. It's more recognizing where everyone's at. The 3-4 defense goes a lot off formations. It's more understanding your formation and what they've shown on film compared to what you're going to show. It's a little cat and mouse game."
Said Harris: "It's a very difficult defense to scheme because they can also drop eight and it basically ruins your passing game. We got to try and pound the ball until they bring everybody in the box and then that's when the air attack should start."
The good news for the Canes is the 3-4 won't be as new to its offensive line. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said the Canes face it in practice every week because they usually see it a lot on third down. "We work the 3-4 all year, I don't care who we're playing. I have what I call `Musts.' So in practice I work on a head-up nose guard even if we're not playing a team with a head-up nose guard. Everybody we play plays a 3-4 - on third down they play it. So we work on it every single week so when you get to the 3-4 defense it's not like a brand new deal."
> Stoutland talked with me and a few other reporters for about 10 minutes about the good, the bad and the ugly with his unit this season after Tuesday's practice and even challenged me to hit the pads. We got a good laugh out of it. Stoutland, though, isn't laughing as much about the play of his line. It's been a roller coaster year for his guys and he knows it.
Stoutland said he keeps a chart of how many times his unit runs the perfect play. He focuses on assignment,
technique and effort. "o get a perfect play, if you count up all the plays - if there's 80 plays in a game -- you're trying to get 55 percent or better perfect. You're humming if you're 55 percent or better, and I chart that all the time. We've got to be at that number. It tells you how well you're executing together as a group. Every single day that's what we're trying to do. We look at things, say `Hey, maybe we have to minimize some things, maybe add some things. But that's kind of how we decide our game plan for what we're going to do."
Stoutland said the line has been humming at times, but not enough. But he's encouraged by the improving health of his team. Reggie Youngblood, who went down with a knee injury last month as is playing hurt, is getting healthier by the week. Chris Barney, who went down in fall camp, is starting to progress and might be able to contribute more than just on extra points and field goals. And he said Tuesday he feels like sophomore Orlando Franklin is starting to come on. He also praised Chris Rutledge saying "he didn't grade as high this game, but in the past he's really come on. I'm proud of him for what he's done."
Truth be told, Miami's line may have been miscast as the strength of this team before the season. Aside from three-year starters Jason Fox and Youngblood at tackle, UM had to replace its entire interior starting lineup. And as Stoutland said Tuesday, opponents have been "throwing the kitchen sink" at the line this season to try and rattle the Canes young quarterbacks, who obviously haven't struck enough on those deep passes to keep defenses off. Stoutland said the long run Marve made against Wake was the perfect remedy because it keeps defenses honest.
"Their mission is to break the quarterback's will," Stoutland said. "Get him confused, break his will, get him discombobulated. Our young quarterbacks have made some big plays now. That play Robert pulled and ran it - they're running a game on the back side of that thing and we hit it perfectly. That was a perfectly executed play. When you start to do that, people start to get a little nervous - `Whoa, hold on.' The more we can crack it when people are doing that, the more plays we can make, the more people back off. They'll try you. Last week you see them stemming the whole line back and forth, trying to get you to come off with a false start. I thought our guys handled that really well."
> For those of you wondering if center Xavier Shannon is ever going to bring those high snaps down, don't bet on it. Stoutland said while he's been bothered by the high snaps Xavier Shannon has been releasing lately, he isn't trying to over coach it. "I don't like to over-coach it, because when you start to over-coach it, start go nuts on it, then it goes all over the place," he said Tuesday. "The shotgun snap is a very delicate issue. We monitor that, check it at practice if it's going to the right or left. I don't go overboard with it, though, because I used to do that and then it went haywire. It shouldn't be a bullet snap, just get it back to the quarterback."
> While UM has plenty of veteran lineman this season, we know that won't be the story going forward. We
know UM is trying a strong push to land offensive lineman and are in the chase for some of the country's best with their next recruiting class. Stoutland gave us an update on how the guys here are doing now and how he's working to bring them along. "A name that hasn't been mentioned in a while is Ian Symonette. He's starting to come on. I've been working with him, having individual meetings and trying to get him. I'm looking forward to working with him to the point where he can compete for a job. He's been here long enough, let's go," Stoutland said. "Tyler Horn last week was unbelievable. Harland Gunn had a really good day. The defensive coaches let me know what they're doing and I'm hearing good things."
Stoutland said Symmonette, a 6-9, 351-pound sophomore, has to focus on his change of direction. "A lot of that comes down to knowing what your doing," Stoutland said. "It's all about angles. But if you don't know what angle to take, it's not going to look real good."
Stoutland said he's also spending extra time with freshman Ben Jones, who has worked his way back from injury to the scout team. "He's going to be a very good player. I do some stuff with him after practice to bring his development along. He's like in the minors. I'm trying to bring him on faster - I haven't had a chance to coach him that much because he was injured."
> Speaking of the injured, linebacker Darryl Sharpton, who was nicked up in the Wake Forest game, should be fine for Saturday's game at Virginia. So, should running back Javarris James, who said he's closer to being 100 percent. "I'm starting not to think about," James said of his ankle injury. "My first week back it was in my mind a lot. It's something hard to overcome. I finally feel like I'm almost all the way back. They said there would always be some type of pain the rest of the year and it's just something I got to deal with."
> Count Randy Shannon as a fan of Dancing With the Stars -- especially now that Warren Sapp is involved in the competition. Shannon said he exchanges text messages with Sapp, who is still in the running for the top spot. "I'll tell him `Great move, but you have to get more pizzazz.'," Shannon said Tuesday. " He's always been one of my funniest guys. I knew that it would be great because Sapp really has great feet and is truly a great athletes, has great dance moves."
> As usual, I've uploaded a ton of audio interviews. Feel free to check them out on our UM audio page.