Spring football practice begins Tuesday at the University of Miami. In order to prepare you, I've compiled a list of important story lines and players to follow throughout camp, which ends March 28th with the BankUnited Canesfest at Lockhart Stadium.
This year, unlike the previous two under coach Randy Shannon, the media will be allowed to watch some of what goes on behind the scenes as the first four practices (Feb. 24-25, 27-28) will be open to the press. Two practices will be open to fans (the spring game March 28th, and a scrimmage at Traz Powell Stadium in Miami at 6:30 p.m. on March 12th). The team will sandwich some time off from March 13-23rd for spring break, but will basically practice on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On the days I'm in town (and not following Frank Haith's basketball team) I'll be around to provide updates from football practice.
One thing I think needs to be understood about spring football (and all of the reports you'll be reading in the next few weeks) is that this time of year is really used by coaches to create depth and to experiment with their players more than anything else. Anything you read in the next couple of weeks should be used simply as a progress report heading into the fall. In nearly every case, it's fall camp where positions are really won and lost. So, just because you might hear Randy Shannon say Kylan Robinson is practicing with the first team at outside linebacker should by no means be taken as Robinson is going to be a starter in the fall. A lot of what is said by coaches this time of year is used to feed their players motivation (not only for the guys healthy and who have served as backups for most of their career, but for the guys who are hurt and need a little push when they return in the fall).
Anyway, here are the important storylines/questions the U will be trying to solve during the next few weeks of spring practice.
> 1. Does UM have the talent on the team right now to patch up the holes on its offensive line? According to the coaches I've spoken with the answer is yes. Here's what UM wants to accomplish this spring: find an everyday center, at least two solid rotating tackles to start alongside and backup captain Jason Fox and find at least three guards to rotate in the interior. That's not an easy task for position coach Jeff Stoutland, who really got average at-best performance out of Xavier Shannon, Chris Rutledge and Reggie Youngblood last season before they graduated.
The center job will most likely fall to senior A.J. Trump (6-3, 300), who is more experienced and more talented than redshirt sophomore Tyler Horn (6-4, 289). Trump, who has plagued by injuries most of his career, started nine games at guard last season and is definitely considered one of the top five linemen for UM behind Fox and junior Orlando Franklin. So, if Horn were to emerge at center, there is a very good chance he would move back to guard and remain in the starting lineup.
As for the interior, Franklin will begin the spring at left guard, where he started 11 games last season. But the ideal place the 6-7, 328-pound behemoth would like to play is at right tackle (where he could get a shot if others step up). The question is will they? Redshirt sophomore Harland Gunn, highly-touted freshman Brandon Washington and 6-9, 351-pound junior Ian Symonette will all be given an opportunity to show what they've got inside. Washington, a former standout at Miami Northwestern, is the most likely to emerge although Gunn will reportedly begin with the first team at right guard with junior Joel Figueroa (shoulder surgery) out for the spring.
The right tackle position will begin with a battle between senior Matt Pipho (6-7, 307) and redshirt freshman Ben Jones (6-5, 310). But as I said earlier, ultimately, Shannon wants the best five on the field come the fall. Look for prep school freshman Jermaine Johnson, slated to backup Fox on the left side, to get a shot in that rotation too.
> 2. Who will emerge in a secondary loaded with question marks? Ask Shannon to give you a depth chart at cornerback and safety and he simply can't. There is no area with greater unknowns on the team than here where every starting position is really up for grabs heading into the spring. While six veterans return with defensive back playing experience, each has plenty to prove. At corner, sophomore Brandon Harris, junior Demarcus Van Dyke and senior Chavez Grant will be joined in competition by seniors Ryan Hill (moving down from safety to corner) and Sam Shields (moving over from receiver) and true freshman Brandon McGee.
At safety, senior Randy Phillips is back after missing nearly all of last season, along with junior Jojo Nicholas among the veterans. But the name everyone expects to see a lot from is redshirt freshman Vaughn Telemaque, whom Shannon compared to Ed Reed at the end of last season. Those three are likely to be in the mix with the first team while redshirt sophomore Jared Campbell, redshirt freshmen C.J. Holton and Joe Wylie compete behind them. While more help will arrive in the fall in the form of players like Prince Kent, Ray Ray Armstrong and Jamal Reid, it's often very hard for true freshman to see the field immediately and beat the guys who have been competing since the spring for starting spots. But in this case, where so many guys have yet to prove they are the man, I would be surprised if it happened this year.
> 3. Whom, besides sophomore Sean Spence, is going to prove he is worthy of playing time at linebacker? Say what you want about the lack of big-time playmakers in UM's secondary last season, I thought the bigger problem was finding guys at linebacker who could make the basic plays (like tackling and stopping scrambling quarterbacks from carving the Canes defense). With John Lovett taking over for Micheal Barrow (who is now classified simply as a defensive assistant), task No. 1 will be finding guys who not only consistently wrap up, but have the speed and ability to make those special plays. The talent is said to be there with sophomores Arthur Brown, Jordan Futch and Ramon Buchanon, but we'll have to see how much they've really grown.
As it stands, the loss of Glenn Cook, Spencer Adkins and Romeo Davis means UM only has Spence (weakside) and senior Darryl Sharpton (middle) as healthy players on the roster this spring who have played actual real minutes at linebacker in games. Shannon said seldom-used junior Kylan Robinson (strongside) will get an opportunity to compete on the outside along with the young guys. The ideal goal for UM is finishing this spring knowing they've got playmakers behind Spence, Sharpton and Colin McCarthy (when he returns from his shoulder injury in time for the fall).
> 4. Will Richard Gordon get his act together or will the tight end position at The U disappear until real help arrives? Since the day he arrived at UM all we've heard about Gordon is what an athletic freak he is. At 6-4, 260-pounds, he's been used just about everywhere. He even handled a job as a kick returner for a few games two seasons ago. The bottomline is Gordon simply still hasn't found a place to contribute. This spring, with Chris Zellner gone (graduation), Dedrick Epps out until September at the earliest (torn ACL) and Tervaris Johnson battling injury woes, Gordon will have every opportunity to work with the first team and try and impress a new coordinator. When he needs some rest, sophomore Daniel Adderley, a recruiting bust, and Steven Wesley, who could move over from defensive end, are expected to share the snaps at tight end. Still, it's Gordon who is the only healthy Cane who has any of the ingredients to be a legit tight end. Last season, he had only three catches for 24 yards. Gordon's biggest problem according to position coach Joe Pannunzio has been route running. There's a chance new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple could devise an easier way to utilize Gordon. But if that doesn't happen, I seriously wonder if UM might just go into the fall deciding to abandon the tight end position until real help arrives.
> 5. Who will take a step forward as the backup quarterback to Jacory Harris? A year ago we went into the spring knowing Robert Marve would likely go into the fall with Harris as his backup. This year with Robert Marve gone, we know who the starter for The U will be for the next two seasons. But one of the biggest keys according to Randy Shannon this spring will be finding a backup to Harris. The candidates are the two guys who were red-shirted last season as freshmen, 6-7, 225-pound Texas native Taylor Cook or 5-11, 200-pounder Cannon Smith. Most expect Cook, who has the stronger arm and ideal size to emerge as the frontrunner to backup Harris heading into the fall. But we'll have to see how far along he's come since last year when the former option quarterback looked like he was struggling with his basic mechanics. For what it's worth, Smith actually took a few snaps last spring before getting injured on the scout team in the fall.