The No. 1 question asked by Canes fans this week -- and probably this entire season -- has been: What's holding back the Canes offense? And it is a fair one. After all, how can an offense with more talent at quarterback, more talent at receiver, an improved group of tight ends, and veterans on the offensive line and in the backfield still be ranked six weeks into this season the same as it was at the end of last year (110th overall)?
In search of answers this week, I found plenty of explanations. Tight end Dedrick Epps was insightful with from the receivers perspective. Quarterbacks Robert Marve and Jacory Harris continued to fill us in on just how confused they've been by opposing coverages. And Wednesday, offensive coordinator Patrick Nix was about as honest, open and insightful as he's ever been in his two seasons here.
I'll have a story on what Nix said later tonight (YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE COMPLETE 16 MINUTE INTERVIEW HERE). But I'll try to answer your question right now from what I learned.
Basically, it's a combination of a lot of things.
> Opposing teams are indeed throwing defenses at UM their young players have never seen before and while Nix is making adjustments (Epps confirmed it), his players are not executing them. Shannon said Wednesday he began having his defense throw various coverage schemes at the offense -- not just what they see on tape anymore -- to see how they adjust on the fly.
> Poor route running is a problem and all of the interceptions Marve has been throwing lately are not all his fault. Epps talked at length Tuesday about how coaches are emphasizing running deeper, crisper routes to keep defensive backs off of them. Nix talked at length Tuesday and gave us examples how his young receivers are tipping off defensive backs, including twice last Saturday which led to two of Marve's three picks.
> Miami needs to remain healthy on the offensive line so they can keep the rotation running. UM simply isn't deep enough and must have fresh legs to be effective in both the running and passing game. The injury to Reggie Youngblood hurt Miami bad and forced Chris Rutledge to move from guard to tackle, leaving players like Orlando Franklin gassed and ineffective at many points during the game. The return of Barney and Youngblood this week will help.
Truth be told, nobody on this team believes the offense is doing as poorly as it. Kayne Farquharson laughed out loud when we told him the Canes' offense ranked 110th. "For real?," Farquharson said. "I didn't even know that man. Hearing it is tough. You want to be in the Top 5 in every aspect of the game. If we're 110, then we're the best 110 out there then. It's kind of shocking. But it is what it is."
> The good news for Canes fans is that nobody is pointing fingers -- yet. Unlike last year when you felt this team fold, many guys are still stepping up and taking responsibility for the woes. We'll see how long it lasts.
> For those of you who haven't seen it yet, my feature on Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is up on our website already. I covered Thad when he was at Hialeah-Miami Lakes and always thought the Canes made a huge mistake not going after him or his HML teammate Armando Allen, who is now tearing things up at Notre Dame. Imagine where UM would be today if it would have had those guys each of the past two years?
Lewis can run and make plays with his legs. But what makes him effective is his elusiveness and ability to throw on the run. This year, the Blue Devils have learned how to protect him. Last year, Duke gave up an average of 3.8 sacks a game. This year, they've given up 10 in five games. UM sacked Lewis nine times last year, including what turned out to be the game-clincher by Eric Moncur. UM freshman linebacker knows how important it will be to get to Thad quick Saturday. "He's very talented, real mobile," Spence said. "He's not like a typical running quarterback. He wants to run around and look for the throw. He's not going to look for the run and make plays on his own. He's going to look for his receivers."
Chavez Grant admitted Tuesday UM was able to get away with some mistakes in coverage against UCF because the line finally got pressure on an opposing quarterback. UM had five sacks against the Knights and now has 14 for the season. "For the most part we cleaned up a lot of things, but at the same time we made some mistakes," Grant said of UM's secondary work. "I think it was a little less. But the thing about UCF, they didn't capitalize on our mistakes. We kind of covered them up really well because we were playing fast in the pass rush."
> The big news Tuesday was running back Javarris James and offensive tackle Reggie Youngblood were coming back from injury this week to play. But I'm not a firm believer either of these guys are close to being 100 percent healthy. Both talked after Tuesday's practice about how both are still feeling a lot of pain.
James suffered a high left ankle sprain against Florida. He admitted he's still feeling shots of pain when he makes cuts on his ankle, but said he feels confident he'll play and is around 90 to 95 percent. "I feel a lot more positive than Coach Shannon [about playng]," James said Tuesday. "He's going to do what's best for me. If it was up to me, I would have been dressed a long time ago. But it's just going to be some pain to fight through."
Youngblood injured his left leg, the same leg which he injured as a sophomore. Shannon told us two weeks ago Youngblood would be out for the year. Shannon said it was Youngblood who asked him if he could come back out and give it ago. But I'm sure he got some encouragement. Miami needs Youngblood badly at that right tackle spot. Chris Rutledge and Tyrone Byrd have proven they can't cut it without Youngblood at least in the rotation. "I've been playing with pain since 11th grade," Youngblood said. "It's not nothing I'm used to. I just got to gut it out."
Wednesday, Shannon told us he was hoping to get "anything between 35 to 40 snaps" from Youngblood and 25 to 30 snaps for James. Truth is, it might be less. Shannon, by the way, told us Wednesday its up to Youngblood if he wants a redshirt.
> There is a rumor floating around Sam Shields has been moved to cornerback. I don't buy it. Shannon laughed at it when we asked him about it Tuesday. Shields can't catch the ball too well. But that doesn't make him a corner.
> Shannon was asked why UM hasn't developed a go-to receiver through six games. His answer: youth. "Everybody wants us to have one go-to receiver. But these guys are too young," Shannon explained Tuesday. "It ain't like these guys have been in the system for three years. A lot of them just got here six months ago. Aldarius is the oldest guy we've got at 10 months. You can't do that to [those] young guys."
> Linebacker Glenn Cook landed hard on his jaw late in Saturday's game and didn't practice Tuesday. Shannon told us he did return to practice on Wednesday. But I'm worried he may be one of those surprise guys on this week's injury report. If he is, look for Spencer Adkins to start in his place. I also don't expect running back Lee Chambers -- who had a flash in the pan with a 25-yard run against UCF -- to be back this week. Chambers suffered what Shannon called a "turf toe" injury. I saw him walking in a protective boot Tuesday.
As for other injured players, Shannon told us receiver Leonard Hankerson practiced Wednesday. Safety Vaughn Telemaque did not. Defensive tackle Josh Holmes, who hasn't played in forever, is practicing on the scout team. Shannon, though, is hopeful Holmes might be able to return soon. He's doubtful, probably next week he'll be ready to go," Shannon said. "This week, he's getting over the soreness. If nothing doesn't go wrong, he'll be fine."
> I'm beginning to think we'll never see receiver Jermaine McKenzie get into a game unless somebody else goes down with an injury. McKenzie supposedly was on the verge of getting Saturday. He moved from the bench to standing on the sideline. But his number was never called. He was seen going back to the bench and slamming his helmet down in frustration. Shannon offered this on McKenzie Tuesday: "He's at the Z receiver behind Travis Benjamin and Davon Johnson. He's moved his way up on the depth chart, has been doing well in practice. He has to now execute moving forward."
> As for DeMarcus Van Dyke, who has basically disappeared after being a starter a year ago, Shannon said DVD simply isn't winning the battle in competition. "He just has to keep working hard," Shannon said. "When we put seven DB's in the game he's in that package. As players sometimes you go in the tank a little bit. Against Florida State he made a couple of plays. This week we used our dime package, he did a great job. We're not going to shove guys off on the shelf, we'll find packages with him. And that's what we're doing with Demarcus."