Finding the University of Miami's weakness last season was easy for opponents. It was the Hurricanes' run defense. The collective numbers were about as ugly as it gets for a program that has always prided itself in stuffing the run.
How ugly was the Canes run defense in 2008? UM allowed 1,974 yards on the ground -- a 151.85-yard average that ranked worst in the ACC and 75th in the country. It's an amazing drop off when you consider in 2006 UM's run defense allowed just 882 yards the entire season -- tied for fourth fewest in the NCAA and tops in the ACC. That season just so happened to be the last year Randy Shannon was defensive coordinator.
The Canes have been getting progressively worse at stopping the run with a different guy calling the shots on defense. In 2007, UM ranked 40th against the run (133.75 ypg) and eighth in the ACC under Tim Walton. Bill Young obviously didn't do any better last year.
UM didn't just give up more yards collectively, they were often gashed by long runs and big plays. N.C. State and California each ran for more than 200 yards on UM in the final two games of the season.
But nobody had more success against the Canes running the football than UM's first two opponents this year -- Florida State and Georgia Tech. The Seminoles, behind scrambling quarterback Christian Ponder and running back Antone Smith, ran for 281 yards and had 14 runs of 10 or more yards against UM. Georgia Tech carved up the Canes for 472 yards and 13 runs of 10 or more yards.
So what makes linebacker Sean Spence feel like the Canes will not get pushed around in 2009?
"We're all bigger, heavier, stronger," Spence told me two weeks ago. "We're not little freshmen anymore."
Size definitely matters when it comes to college football. And if you watched the Hurricanes last season on defense you know it was more than just the size of the depth chart and injuries that held UM back. Sure, Spence earned ACC Defensive Rookie of The Year honors. But he played most of the season right at or under under 200 pounds. For all of the great plays he made as the team's third-leading tackler and leader in tackles for loss, he admits he often got bounced around by bigger linemen and was out of position to make plays.
"Last year, I was more like a ping pong. I'd bounce off a guy, bounce off another and then make a play," said Spence, who came to UM weighing 193 pounds. "Now, I'm taking on blocks, breaking through the blocks, making tackles."
Spence is now 212 pounds. His linebacker mates are bigger too. Ramon Buchanon, who moved over from safety where he was weighing 200, is now 220 and backing up Spence on the strongside. Jordan Futch, considered UM's first linebacker off the bench, came to UM weighing 205 pounds. He's now up to 230.
"We were probably the smallest linebacker group in the nation last year," Futch said. "We had no depth because guys were hurt and we had no size. Now, we're knocking heads off literally. I feel like it's helped me a lot. I know its helped Sean a lot. Sean was always a big hitter. But he's filling holes. Buchanon lights people up. When you see that weight and the speed we have, it's awesome. We're going to be much better stopping the run than we did last year."
The return of Colin McCarthy from a season-ending shoulder injury is another reason Spence is excited. McCarthy, the projected starter on the weakside, has made a huge difference just in practice according to Spence.
"Colin is a great player, vocal leader," Spence said. "He's another playmaker. He'll make interceptions, pick up fumbles. He's a great open field tackler. I watch him a lot and where he fits up on guys. We missed him bad."
While the Canes have sustained a few injuries to its defensive line this fall (Adewale Ojomo, Eric Moncur, Dyron Dye), Spence said he sees improvement in the guys in front of him. Defensive tackle Marcus Forston and Micanor Regis, both freshmen last season, have been praised repeatedly throughout camp by Shannon. A healthy Allen Bailey in the middle has also made a difference according to Jason Fox.
"Our d-line got a lot better," Spence said. "Guys are sitting in the right gap, wrapping up, anticipating and reading assignments. We're not going backward anymore.
"Last year, guys weren't really buying into what we did last year. Guys are all on one page now. We're ready to stop the run."
The first test is Monday.
We've reached the end of our Top 60 Countdown and by now you've figured out Sean Spence is the player No. 1 on my list. When I set out to rank these players, I factored in what they've already accomplished, what they mean to the team and what they are expected to do in 2009. Spence ranked No. 1 in two of those categories (accomplished, expectations) and thus earned the top overall spot.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: The leader and three-year captain of Miami Northwestern's defense, which won back-to-back Class 6A state titles. An Under-Armour All-American, he made more than 250 tackles in his final two season combined and was ranked the 13th best outside linebacker in the country by Rivals.com and the second best by ESPN.com.
> What he's done as a Cane: Spence wasn't the biggest name UM landed from Miami Northwestern or even the best linebacker in his class (Arthur Brown was rated higher). But he's certainly risen through the ranks quickly. He heard ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 after finishing third on the team in tackles (65) and starting in nine games. He returned his first interception for a touchdown against Florida State and made a SportsCenter Top 10 hit on Tim Tebow and Gators running back in the loss at Florida. But his biggest play was coming up with the fumble at Virginia in UM's overtime come-from-behind victory.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Spence climbed to No. 1 on my list because he embodies all three characteristics I set out when I began ranking players. He's already made a huge imprint win Freshman All-American honors, he's the bonafide leader of UM's defense (say what you want about Randy Phillips, Spence is the man) and without question he's talented enough to be a first round pick in two seasons. At 6-feet, 212-pounds, some people may question if he's big enough to handle the strongside linebacker position. Spence (4.55-speed, 425 squat) is more than qualified. What has always been his strength aside from desire and play making ability is his understanding of the game. This a kid who was breaking down film for seniors at Miami Northwestern when he was a sophomore. Now, he's doing the same at Miami. Players who make it big aren't just physically talented, but they're smart and they're great leaders. Spence embodies it all. And he's just a sophomore. Without him, Miami's defense is at a huge disadvantage. With him a junior, Miami's defense could once again become one of the best in college football. He should not only be top three in tackles again (Colin McCarthy will lead in tackles if he's healthy), but biggest defensive plays (he won that one last year). That's why he's No. 1.
FYI... I decided to take this week off (knowing the Canes start prepping for Florida State next week). So, there updates here from practice later this week. Our Susan Miller Degnan will be out there covering it all when practice resumes this morning. I'll be back out at UM beginning Monday.
As we roll along in the countdown of the top 60 players at UM, we reach No. 2 on the list: Quarterback Jacory Harris. Make no mistake about it, he's not just the startng quarterback for the Hurricanes. Jacory Harris is the heart and soul, the leader and perhaps the reason this program climbs back into the national landscape.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: Harris was a nobody at Miami Northwestern as a sophomore. But as a junior, he became somebody quickly. The skinny and tall former receiver led the Bulls to a 15-0 record and the Class 6A state championship. He followed it up by starring at the Elite 11 quarterback camp as a senior and leading the Bulls to another state title and perfect record. He shattered Miami-Dade records in the process, throwing 49 touchdown passes and only six interceptions while completing 222 of his 333 passes for 3,445 yards. EA Sports decided to name him the National Player of the Year and he was ranked the 7th-best pro style QB by Scout.com and 20th best by ESPN. He chose the Canes over Oregon.
> What he's done as a Cane: He wasn't the starter in 2008, but he was the better quarterback and proved it in 13 games, out-dueling Robert Marve who decided to transfer to Purdue after the season. Harris wasn't spectacular. But he was gutsy and was named the ACC's Rookie of the Week three times and completed more than 60 percent of his passes and finished with 1,195 yards, 12 TDs and 7 INTs. His best work came late in the game as he engineered a come-from-behind win at Duke with five TDs and led the game-tying and game-winning drives against Virginia.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Bigger things. Harris has been ridiculed for his lack of girth, but not once in his career have I seen him take a hit and not be able to remain in the game. This year, he's added more bulk to his frame (6-4, 190) and his shoulder has healed. Teammates in camp say he can throw the deep ball just fine and he's become even more of a leader. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has the reputation for being the kind of coach who puts his players in situations they can succeed in. If that's the case, look for Harris to thrive in the mid-range passing game. He has a collection of the finest receivers in the ACC and if he has any sort of time to throw the ball the saavy on where to put it. If everything goes right by season's end, then there is no reason Harris won't head into the start of his junior year with some Heisman talk. And if things go amazingly well, then we might just see that afro, pink suit and pimp cup at the podium in December 2010. Jacory Harris is a winner. And if he gets enough help, he'll make Miami a winner once again too.
FYI... Seeing how I didn't get a lot of time off this summer covering the Marlins, I decided to take this week off (knowing the Canes start prepping for Florida State next week). So, there will be no updates here from practice this week. Our Susan Miller Degnan will be out there covering it all when practice resumes Thursday morning. I'll be back out there beginning Monday.
With the Canes participating in their third closed scrimmage of the fall and school set to begin Wednesday, I figured this was the perfect time to wrap up the countdown of the Top 60 players at Miami. By now, you've figured out who the final three are. Here's why Graig Cooper is No. 3.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '07: Cooper graduated from high school in 2005 as Mr. Football in Tennessee after leading Melrose High to the state title with 2,123 yards and 30 touchdowns. But he wasn't academically eligible to qualify for college and headed to prep school at Milford Prep where he maintain a strong relationship with former coach Larry Coker. At Milford, Cooper ran for 1,327 yards and 15 touchdowns (averaging 12.5 yards per carry) in a backfield that also featured current Philadelphia Eagles rookie LeSean McCoy. He stuck with the Canes despite Coker's firing.
> What he's done as a Cane: Since his arrival, Cooper has led the Canes in rushing and scoring (11 TDs). In 2007, he shared the Rookie of the Year award with Orlando Franklin after finishing with 682 yards and five touchdowns. It was the third most rushing yards by a true freshman behind Clinton Portis (838) and Javarris James. As a sophomore, he was named UM's Most Versatile Player after rushing for 841 yards and catching 29 passes for 113 yards and scoring six times (four rushing, one receiving, one punt return). He broke the century mark three times and carried it a career-high 24 times for for 131 yards in the OT win at Virginia.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Cooper had a boot on his foot last week for a day, but was back out at practice making moves and showing his teammates why he's still most capable running back on the team. At 6-feet, 205-pounds and 4.37 speed in the 40 (he timed as the third fastest on the team this spring), Cooper has all the ingredients to be even better this year. But the question is if he'll be able to breakaway from the rest of UM's backfield. Coach Randy Shannon has been quoted as saying he'd like for one back to do most of the primary work. Nobody is better fit to do that than Cooper, who has the best hands out of the backfield, picks up the blitz the best and has averaged 5.2 yards a carry in his career. Personally, if he can stay healthy, I expect Cooper to reach his goal of reaching 1,000 yards this year and being a serious contender for ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
FYI... Seeing how I didn't get a lot of time off this summer covering the Marlins, I decided to take this week off (knowing the Canes start prepping for Florida State next week). So, there will be no live Q&A today at 2 p.m. or any updates from practice later this week. Our Susan Miller Degnan will be out there covering it all when practice resumes Thursday morning. I'll be back out there beginning Monday.
Are you ready for the start of this season or what? If not, maybe this will get you ready. Check out Orange on One Side, Green on the Other Side (Warning, there are explicit lyrics), a song produced by a cast of mysterious unknowns. Not sure if any players were involved, but I know Jacory Harris has been rapping since he was in high school. Here's to hoping nobody gets suspended. No question, however, this will get the Seminoles fired up. Got to give credit to Early Edition Is dead for posting it first.
Among my favorite lines...
> If it's close FSU is going to blow it up with a wide right...
> You Seminoles can't bear it when the ball is in the hands of Jacory Harris...
> Damn, it looks like they ran into a fence, but all they really did was meet Sean Spence...
> Orange on One Side, Green on Another, McCarthy hit you so hard you're going to cry to your mother...
> No more [Robert] Marve (expletive) is going to be great, Jacory finally getting four quarters of play...
I just got back home from Atlanta from covering the Marlins-Braves series. So, I missed Sunday's and Monday's practices. With the Canes participating in a closed scrimmage Tuesday and the team off Wednesday for the start of school, I figured I'd wrap up our countdown of the Top 60 players at UM.
I'll be taking the rest of the week off (I didn't get to take more than a week of vacation this summer) before I return on Monday when the Canes really start preparing for Florida State. Our Susan Miller Degnan has done a great job with features and stories throughout camp. Keep looking to her for updates from camp this week.
With that said, before I unveil my final three in order, I'll give you an opportunity to be heard. Who do you think No. 1 should be and why? Vote in the poll below.
University of Miami defensive end Steven Wesley visited Adewale Ojomo at the hospital Tuesday night -- not long after he had surgery to work on his broken jaw.
Wesley said the 6-4, 253-pound sophomore defensive end, who was sucker punched by a walkon Sunday in the team's lockerroom, is trying to stay positive after what teammates have described as an "unfortunate incident."
"I told him to keep his head up, stay focused and be in a good mood," Wesley said. "We were still clowning around. He's still in good spirits and stuff. I've been texting him everyday to make sure his mind is right. He's just saying what he can, appreciating the support."
Said defensive tackle Marcus Forston: "We just keep telling to stay positive, let things go. He's taking things slow, taking the surgery well."
UM coach Randy Shannon still hasn't acknowledged or addressed the locker room incident publicly other than to say Ojomo was injured "horsing around." But chances are Shannon may be more forthcoming tonight during WQAM's Hurricanes Hotline show. From what we've heard from team members, the walkon, a former offensive lineman at Miami Norland who joined the team at the start of fall camp, was kicked off the team shortly after the incident.
The loss is the second big injury to a UM defensive end thus far. Senior Eric Moncur saw a specialist for his groin in Philadelphia Wednesday, but has been on and off the practice field since camp began. It is unclear how long either he or Ojomo could be out. But both injuries could potentially be season-ending. Redshirt freshman Gavin Hardin is expectd to miss the season also, but wasn't expected to see major minutes anyway.
UM's strength defensively entering the season was its depth at defensive end. But that's obviously thinning. Welsey said he and sophomore Marcus Robinson are now the primary players rotating at left end and freshmen Olivier Vernon and Dyron Dye are getting most of the work on the right side. There are reports that Allen Bailey and Marcus Forston are seeing more reps at end now, too. But I was told by Forston he and Bailey are still getting the majority of their work at tackle. If any defensive tackles could move outside, it is Bailey and Forston.
A FEW MORE NOTES...
> The Canes will scrimmage for the second time this fall on Friday, but will be off Thursday and Saturday. Expect Shannon to talk about it Sunday.
> WEDNESDAY'S HIGHLIGHTS (Provided by UM's Sports info staff): Randy Phillips stood out in morning drills with a sack and pass deflection in 11-on-11 play... In a series of 15-20 red zone plays, the defense held the offense to just one TD (a Taylor Cook pass to LaRon Byrd for a 20-yard score)... Javarris James had a run and catch of more than 20 yards in the morning and followed it up by breaking off runs of 65 and 30 yards in the afternoon... Lee Chambers had a few runs of 10-15 yards in rushing drills... Sam Shields and Vaughn Telemaque had interceptions... Jacory Harris hooked up with Thearon Collier (twice), Jimmy Graham and Travis Benjamin for big gains during 11-on-11 work.
Randy Shannon had some good news to share with reporters Wednesday morning (our Susan Miller Degnan was there). Running back Graig Cooper was out of his protective boot and back out on the practice field in limited fashion.
"Yeah, he's moving around, did some stuff," Shannon said. "I don't know if he'll be able to go in the [closed] scrimmage [Friday], but after this afternoon we'll know more."
And defensive end Olivier Vernon (ankle) was more involved, participating in blitz and third down drills.
BRYCE BROWN INVESTIGATED: The bigger news, however, could turn out to be what happens in the coming days as the younger brother of Hurricanes linebacker Arthur Brown and his adviser, Brian Butler, are investigated by the NCAA. Several news reports surfaced Wednesday saying Bryce Brown's amateur status could have been violated, making him ineligible.
Arthur Brown, now a sophomore at UM, had a relationship with Butler, too. Shannon was asked about the reports. "I never heard of it - we'll find that out," Shannon said. "Usually the NCAA, when they get involved with that, they usually tell you [with a certain time frame]... Say, it's the summertime, they'd usually tell you in the summer time or when guys report they'll let you know."
Mike DeCesare, the NCAA's assistant director for amateurism certification, talked to Bryce Brown Wednesday according to reports. No word yet if Arthur will be getting a visit.
The NCAA is looking into some of the fundraising Bryce Brown accepted in high school to visit college campuses and the role Butler played. Last year, Butler was charging a $10 fee on his website PotentialPlayers.com for recruiting updates.
> ESPN's Heather Dinich caught up with athletic director Kirby Hocutt and didn't get an answer either about Shannon's contract extension.
> The Canes will hold another practice this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. I'll be out there for that. For audio interviews from practice, be sure to check our Hurricanes audio page.
Defensive end Adewale Ojomo had surgery Tuesday morning for what The Miami Herald learned late Monday night was a broken jaw. UM coach Randy Shannon, who has not disclosed the injury, reiterated after this morning's practice that the 6-4, 253-pound sophomore was hurt "horsing around in the locker room."
But two team sources said what happened Sunday to Ojomo extended beyond horse play. The sources said an altercation took place and one said Ojomo was "sucker punched." It is unclear whether the "horsing around" escalated into the altercation. Hurricanes message boards were buzzing with similar rumors late Monday night.
Shannon was told about the rumors and asked by a reporter if Ojomo had been involved in a fight. Shannon denied it.
"No," Shannon said. "[It was] horsing around in the locker room. That always happens in the locker room. Guys always get that two-a-day swing where they want to mess around, horse around and things happen like that. You got to move on."
Wrestling and rough play has always been common in the Canes locker room -- especially during camp and when testosterone is flowing. I remember hearing stories from Derrick Morse just a few years ago about the classic skirmishes that went on behind the scenes. Sometimes they got pretty heated. Sometimes, guys separated shoulders or ended up with bruises and nicks.
This, however, might be the costliest game of horsing around yet. Shannon said Monday Ojomo, who started three games last year and is one of the bright young stars at defensive end, could end up missing the season opener at Florida State or maybe longer. The bigger issue, however, is who might have punched Ojomo and if they are being dealt with.
> Running back Graig Cooper showed up to practice wearing a protective boot on his foot. Shannon said Cooper is "a little banged up with his ankle" but will be fine and ready for the opener. "I don't know when it happened," Shannon said. "We practiced, he went walking around, went to the training table, came back - no treatment or anything, everything normal. Then he went to sleep and woke up and was like that. It was one of those freak deals."
> Freshman defensive end Olivier Vernon, who suffered a foot injury in Saturday's scrimmage, practiced "a little bit" Tuesday according to Shannon.
> Freshman Stephen Plein (6-6, 250) has been moved from tight end to offensive tackle to help the depth on Scout Team OL. His high school coach at Fort Myers, Sam Sirianni, told me two months ago he thought Plein would end up on the offensive line because of his big frame.
"He can be a [blocking] tight end," Sirianni said. "He's got good ballskills. The biggest thing with Steve is what his body does. I wouldn't be surprised if he became too big for the position. The guy from Baylor told me that. If you get a kid with a frame like Steve's and his body, that'll happen. He's an average tight end athletically. Knowing the weight program and the kid is going to eat four square meals a day, he might just outgrow the position."
It's just a wild idea, something a columnist threw out there last week. I'll ask you: Should the Miami Hurricanes consider returning to the Big East?
Rick Bozich, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, thinks so. The talk at the Big East Media Days a few weeks ago from coaches was that the conference needs to add another football playing member. Ideally, it would be Notre Dame. But the bigger target would be a program that would bring some respectability to a conference in dire need of a big name.
We know how well things have gone for the Canes since coming over to the ACC. We know how well they went in the Big East. I'm not saying Kirby Hocutt or anyone at UM would seriously entertain the idea. But if you had a rewind button or an escape clause, would you hit it and send UM back to the place where they were kings? Another writer suggests the Big East and ACC should form a super conference.
Through all the ups and downs the Hurricanes have had over the past three seasons, the one constant good has been No. 4 on our list: Left tackle Jason Fox. Without question, he's the one senior on this team who has exceeded expectations. The Hurricanes simply need him to live up to what he's already done -- stay healthy and protect the blindside of the quarterback.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '06: When Fox picked the Canes over Texas A&M, Arizona and Oklahoma State, we heard whispers he was the second coming of Eric Winston. Another player who played tight end in high school, we were told to expect Fox to develop into an offensive tackle. Rivals.com rated him the 16th best tackle in the country. Scout.com had him 24th.
> What he's done as a Cane: Everything that has been asked of him since the day he arrived. Fox has started every game since he was a true freshman, 36 in all. He didn't give up a sack in his first season while starting eight games on the right side and four on the left. He graded out at 83 percent for the season. As a sophomore, he moved full time to left tackle and graded out at 96 percent, totaling five pancakes. His junior year, he was named one of three team captains and produced 16 pancakes, grading out at 97 percent for the season. He even scored a touchdown a throw-back play against Florida State.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: The preseason All-ACC selection has to continue to be the leader he's been since he arrived. With so little experienced depth behind the starters, Fox and the rest of the top five may be asked to play major minutes -- possibly without breaks. if this list was ranking players based on who UM could most ill-afford to lose this season, Fox would be No. 1. I don't believe there is a player on this team who could replace him and what he brings. As long as he stays healthy, UM's offense has a chance to be among the best in the ACC.
Randy Shannon has closed up shop for the weekend -- at least to the media -- and will hold his first scrimmage of the fall Saturday morning. Nobody except "special guests" will be able to see what's going on. But come Monday, we might learn what Shannon really thinks of his team.
While practice is important, Shannon has never been one to put too much stock into what a guy does during 7-on-7 work or goalline situations. Like he said earlier this week, it is easier for a defensive back to intercept a pass during the two-minute drill because he knows the pass is coming. It is easier for a linebacker to smack a running back in goalline situations when he knows the run is coming. So, that makes what Shannon or his players might be willing to tell us after the scrimmage a better litmus test. That being said, here are some early impressions, thoughts I've collected from being out a practice...
> The Canes' tight end situation might not be as bad as we initially thought. Not only is Dedrick Epps playing full speed and taking hits, but Jimmy Graham is emerging as someone who might actually be able to help the team. Graham had a long catch and run Thursday that impressed teammates -- including Epps.It wasn't the first big play Graham has made. He's scored multiple times and has had a few nice diving grabs too. If Graham can continue to pick up the playbook (he's learning about 15 plays a day), UM could essentially have two real playmaking tight ends this season. Two months ago, we worried there might not be one.
> Miami's young secondary is growing up. Interceptions in practice are on thing. But following my one-on-one conversation with defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff, I got the sense even he feels more confident in what his guys can do. "It's a relief when you aren't the only one yelling anymore," McGriff told me. "These guys are yelling at themselves. Now, they know when they do something wrong. That's a huge difference." Brandon Harris will probably end up being UM's best corner this season. Several receivers -- including LaRon Byrd -- have told me he's without question the toughest guy to beat because of the mix of his speed and physical play. McGriff said Harris has made huge strides. "He's a lot better than what he was last year at this time -- a trillion times better," Shannon said. "He's making plays, knocking down some balls, making interceptions. He's having fun with it."
> Freshman impact is going to be smaller than it was a year ago. The Hurricanes are a much deeper team than they were at the start of last season, which is why you probably won't see a lot freshmen in starring roles this season like you did last year. It's clear highly touted safety Ray Ray Armstrong is going to need time to develop. Same for offensive lineman Jared Wheeler and Cory White. The freshman who look like they will make an impact are defensive end Olivier Vernon (already practicing with the first team a left end), cornerback Brandon McGee (rotating with the first team at field corner), running backs Mike James (we all remember what he did in the spring) and Lamar Miller (he's had several impressive long runs and could end up returning kicks) and offensive lineman Brandon Washington (who might be the best available lineman off the bench).
FYI... UM's Sports Information staff is putting together daily photo galleries on their website. So, if you are looking for photos from practice, check them out there.
And last, but not least, check out the newest baby Cane to join the family. Here is a photo of Sean Hanrahan's niece. Her name is Keely and she was 8lbs 10oz and 21 inches when born and perfectly healthy! The Hanrahan's are big Canes fans living in Cedar Rapids, IA.
It's no accident two receivers have landed among the top six in our countdown of the Top 60 players at UM. They're that good. Sophomore Aldarius Johnson, much like No. 6 on our list LaRon Byrd, can be among the most dominant players in the conference at his position if he continues to develop. AJ has proven it at every level and UM's coaches only expect more in 2009.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: I still remember the first time I saw AJ at Miami Jackson High. I watched him haul in a 60-yard touchdown pass in the playoffs against Booker T. Washington and instantly called up current high school editor Andre Fernandez to tell him the next Andre Johnson was playing for the Generals. Little did I know at the time AJ was just a freshman. AJ went on to become the most prolific receiver in Miami-Dade County High School history. He finished his senior season at Miami Northwestern with 76 grabs for 960 yards and 13 touchdowns -- the first two were single-season county records. Rivals, Scout and ESPN all had him among the top receivers in the country.
> What he's done as a Cane: True to his own tradition, Johnson worked his way to becoming UM's leading pass catcher last season, hauling in 31 passes for 332 yards and three scores. He averaged just 10.7 yards a catch, but demonstrated the ability to pick up big first downs with tough catches in traffic. He started eight games and had the game-winning touchdown grab in the come-from-behind win at Virginia.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: More catches, more production and a stellar sophomore season. At 6-3, 215 pounds, Johnson (4.67 in the 40) doesn't have the speed to burn you, but his toughness and ability to get open make him one of the hardest receivers in the ACC to cover. Along with LaRon Byrd, Thearon Collier, Tommy Streeter, Kendall Thompkins and Travis Benjamin, there are many who believe UM has the best receiving core in the ACC. By the end of this season, many will probably be saying its the best group of receivers in the country.
Last year, it was Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson who made big splashes on UM's defense as true freshmen. This year, look for defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Brandon McGee to be those guys.
Both arrived early in the spring from high school and both have continued to show maturity and growth throughout the first week of practice. Wednesday, McGee recorded his first pick of the fall -- a huge confidence booster for a guy defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff told me was a bit unsure of himself. Thursday, Vernon recorded two sacks, with one coming in third down drills and the other in red zone work.
But it's more than big plays that McGee and Vernon are making. It's personal growth. Vernon took his promotion to the first team a few days ago on the left side -- ahead of redshirt sophomore Adewale Ojomo -- not as an ego boost, but as a reward for his hard work. "I always knew I could rush the passer," Vernon said. "But I feel like I'm not there all the way. I'm not 100 percent yet. I want to take it a step further."
When I asked Vernon (6-3, 250) if he had a streak of sacks going (we hear he's had at least one a day since practice began) he told me flatly "I'm not counting my sacks, I'm trying to make plays."
Vernon, who said Ojomo and Eric Moncur have been 'great leaders for him', said defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has been helping him improve his hands. "He's helping me with my hand placement, shooting my hands and keeping my stamina up," Vernon said.
McGee, meanwhile, said his confidence is rising. "I was struggling at first when I first came out for summer practice, coming off that surgery," said McGee, who had a broken bone in his ring finger worked on in the spring. "The upper classmen told me don't get down myself. I came around [Wednesday] and got my first interception of the summer. I had a couple pass breakups. I'm definitely feeling confident."
> Tight end Dedrick Epps said after Thursday's first two-a-day and two days of full contact drills that he's "the same old, Dedrick Epps" and isn't experiencing any pain or discomfort from his previous knee injury. The 6-4, 253-pound senior had knee surgery in December after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament before the Emerald Bowl.
> Sophomore receiver Aldarius Johnson said he feels he's improved on finishing at the top of his routes, coming and out of breaks, and blocking since the end of the spring.
> QUOTE OF THE DAY: Defensive end Marcus Robinson on the talent at defensive end: "We're all like wild dogs in a meat house."
THURSDAY'S PRACTICE HIGHLIGHTS (Provided by UM's sports information staff)
> BUCHANON, VERNON STAR FOR DEFENSE: Ramon Buchanan recorded an interception in red zone drills and made several big stops, including a sack, in 11-on-11 action... the defense held the offense three straight plays on a 1st-and-goal from the three-yard line... Linebacker Kylan Robinson intercepted a tipped pass for the defense... Safety Vaughn Telemaque had a fumble recovery.
> JACORY HOOKS UP WITH RECEIVERS FOR BIG PLAYS: Jacory Harris hooked up with Jimmy Graham (60-65 yards) and Travis Benjamin (35-40 yards) in 11-on-11 play... Tommy Streeter made two long receptions in team passing situations and had another nice grab in 7-on-7 drills... Running back Mike James had a handful of plays of 10+ yards, including a few catch and runs in third down situations... running back Lee Chambers had a nice long run to convert a third down... The defense held the offense to one TD in red zone drills. Aldarius Johnson had the touchdown catch.
The Hurricanes have plenty of talent and depth on their defensive line. So, it is probably not a big deal that we learned Thursday redshirt freshman defensive end Gavin Hardin "will be out for awhile."
Hardin, last year's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, was granted a medical hardship at the end of last season for unspecified reasons. Chances are, whatever ailed him last year is probably the reason he's still out.
The good news? So far, Hardin is the only Cane out with an injury to this point.
Other teams in the ACC haven't been as fortunate. Boston College lost linebacker Mark Herzlich, the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year last year, this summer after he learned he had a rare form of cancer. N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving was involved in a car accident and June and whether or not he returns remains in the air. This week, ACC preseason favorite Virginia Tech lost star running back Darren Evans to a torn ACL. Thursday, North Carolina lost one of their top offensive linemen Carl Gaskins, who was competing for the starting job at left tackle, to another torn ACL.
> Today is one of three two-a-day practices this fall. Players will be made available after the 3:30 practice.
The University of Miami will probably have a tough time getting another first round draft pick streak started at the end of this season (barring an Allen Bailey breakthrough). But the one after this could be loaded with big timers. None bigger in my opinion than No. 6 on our countdown of The Top 60 players at The U: LaBig Byrd, sophomore LaRon Byrd. Last year, his numbers weren't flashy. But the highlight reel he put together was. It should get even bigger soon.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: Considered the second best receiver in Louisiana out of high school, scouts weren't big believers in big Byrd. Rivals.com had him as the 60th best receiver in the country and Scout had him 69th. As a senior at Hahnville High, Byrd caught 50 passes for 630 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also played some safety, picking off three passes while leading his team to a 10-3 record. A standout basketball player, he averaged more than 20 pointes per games as a junior.
> What he's done as a Cane: Who could forget the amazing catch he made in the back of the end zone at the end of regulation in UM's come-from-behind win at Virginia? He finished sixth on the team overall with 21 catches for 228 yards and three scores, but was the only UM player with a catch in at least 12 games. This spring, he got bigger and faster and now stands 6-4, 215 pounds and improved his 40 time a full tenth of a second to 4.43. His 3.98 shuttle time was the quickest on the team. He has a 36.5 inch vertical. Strength-wise his squat went from 250 pounds last year to 320, his bench went from 225 to 260 and his power clean improved from 132 pounds to 230.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: LaBig Byrd has all the intangibles to be another Canes great. His size, speed and hands are unmatched on the team and he's just a sophomore. This summer, he worked hand-in-hand with former Canes greats Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne (fellow Louisiana natives) to learn the game even more. If Randy Shannon stays true to his word about a smaller rotation at receiver, Byrd could be primed for a huge season -- especially around the end zone where he should be able to use his big body to haul in plenty of touchdown passes. If he ends up being as special as his coaches thinks he will, the Canes will have to retire the No. 47 twice. Once for Michael Irvin and once for Byrd.
The Miami Hurricanes practiced in full pads Wednesday for the first time since the end of last spring. For linebacker Colin McCarthy, it had been a little bit longer than that.
The last time McCarthy was in full gladiator mode was 11 months ago. That day, against North Carolina, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. So, how did the first real lick McCarthy's taken since then feel on Wednesday? Well, it didn't hurt.
"The first hit, I was a little nervous," McCarthy said. "But my shoulder felt great. All summer I’ve been hitting bags with my shoulder getting ready for this. I really didn’t have any problems. Knock on wood, hopefully, it stays strong."
There isn't a player who more profoundly affected UM's run defense last season than McCarthy (in case you missed the Top 60 profile I used the following stat the other day). When McCarthy was in, the Hurricanes were good at stopping the run. UM's run defense led the ACC and ranked seventh nationally (65 ypg) through its first four games. But once McCarthy went out -- along with defensive end Eric Moncur -- UM had to turn to its younger players to hold the fort. Miami's run defense slipped from finishing 40th nationally in 2007 (133.75 yards per game) to 75th last season (151.85 ypg) and last in the ACC.
Wednesday, what UM focused on primarily was inside running drills. McCarthy said he was in the middle, learning and listening to defensive coordinator John Lovett closely. From what we heard, the offense had a nice day. But the fact McCarthy, who has played outside linebacker the majority of his career, is spending more time in the middle these days tells you two things: One, coaches probably aren't 100 percent confident Darryl Sharpton can handle being the sure-fire tackler in the middle they need. Two, Ramon Buchanon and Jordan Futch are probably making strides on the outside.
Needless to say, having a healthy and strong McCarthy in the middle will be huge for this defense. And at least after one day of hitting, that shoulder is still OK.
GRAHAM HANDLES HITS: The other player I wanted to hear from Wednesday as far as hitting goes was power forward turned tight end Jimmy Graham. Like McCarthy, so far, so good.
“It felt great. It was what I was anticipating,” Graham said. “We got some big hitters on the team. They’re real quick. You just have to put your head on a swivel.”
Graham said he took several licks. But nothing as hard as what he took Monday when he was hit by a trio of defenders on a crossing route over the middle. But he said he popped right back up and ran to the huddle.
“I was hit pretty hard out there. But I’ve been hitting guys in basketball like that for four years,” Graham said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. Next time, I’ll point at them and tell them to keep on coming.”
At 6-8, 260 pounds Graham can lay the wood himself. And he said he has. He said he’s been learning two positions – H-back and tight end and is practicing about 15 new plays a day. He said although it feels like “50” he’s coming in early in the morning to watch extra film and he feels he’s getting a grasp of it. Wednesday, he made a sliding catch in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. It was his second touchdown of the spring.
“It’s like dunking on somebody,” Graham said. “But in college, there is no showboating. So, I just toss it to the ref and keep running. Hopefully, there will be more to come.”
> Be sure to check out Susan Miller Degnan's feature on Graham in Thursday's paper.
Here are Wednesday's pactice highlights according to UM's sports info staff...
> BIG DAY FOR PICKS: Brandon Harris and Colin McCarthy each recorded two interceptions on the morning. Harris made the first pick of the morning in 11-on-11 action before McCarthy recorded his first in 7-on-7. Both players then wrapped up the morning with back-to-back INTs during the two-minute drill in 11-on-11 play towards the end of the session. Vaughn Telemaque (7-on-7), Ryan Hill (11-on-11) and Brandon McGee (11-on-11) also recorded interceptions.
> GRAHAM, BERRY SCORE: Jimmy Graham and Damien Berry each scored during red zone drills... Leonard Hankerson made two catches of 30+ yards in 11-on-11 action... Jacory Harris connected with LaRon Byrd for a deep ball in 11-on-11... Damien Berry, Graig Cooper and Mike James all picked up significant gains in middle drills... Dedrick Epps, Tervaris Johnson and Aldarius Johnson all recorded catches of 20+ yards in 7-on-7 play.
Ryan Hill doesn't want to be known as Bubba Gump. But when it comes time to throwing down shrimp, there might not be a better cook on the Hurricanes team.
It's why on Saturday nights during the summer, the entire team flocked to his place about as often as they did to Colin McCarthy and Jason Fox's house for "Fish Fry Night." So, who is the best cook on the team?
"My vote would have to go with Ryan Hill," sophomore cornerback Brandon Harris said. "His shrimp, he's got something special on that. He'll fry it, bake it, sautee it, grill it, we'll have a shrimp party all night."
Hill, a senior, actually shared his special shrimp recipe with me Monday: "The one the guys really love is the barbeque grilled shrimp I do. I do it on a shish kabob stick, put some lemon pepper spices and then add the Sweet Baby Rays BBQ sauce. And then, I stir fry some on the stove. I give them the best of the best."
Whether its cooking, hosting parties or playing designated driver, Hill has always aimed to be a good teammate off the field about as often as he's been one on it.
When he signed with UM in 2005, the Tallahassee native thought he was destined to follow in the footsteps of Antrel Rolle and become the Canes next great cornerback. But when he got to UM, Larry Coker had a different plan for him. With the Canes short on receivers, Hill made the move to offense and in two seasons caught 19 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, he made the move back to defense -- but was learning how to play safety. He did OK, starting five games, making 34 tackles and deflecting two passes.
But now, as he enters his final year at UM, the 6-foot, 205-pounder is happier than he's ever been. Why? Because he's finally back where he was meant to be -- corner. This spring, he split time at corner and safety. But with UM still a little short at corner, the decision was made this offseason to let him return to corner full time -- with the possibility he could slide back to safety if needed.
"One thing I wanted to do is get better in shape and fine tune myself," said Hill, who ran the fourth fastest 40 time on the team this spring (4.40) and ranked in the Top 20 in all five testing categories. "With coach Swasey and his program, I think I took full advantage of it. I'm healthy, big and as fast as I've ever been. I'm going to take it to the field. Whether I'm at corner or safety, I'm comfortable. I'll do whatever it takes to win a national championship."
Through UM's first three practices, Hill said he's been working primarily at field corner with freshman Brandon McGee and junior Demarcus Van Dyke. That would leave Brandon Harris, Sam Shields and Chavez Grant working at boundary corner. Hill said Monday he worked with the second team during 11-on-11 drills and with the first team during 7-on-7s. "We have three groups and we're all rotating," Hill said.
Last season, the Hurricanes finished with just four interceptions (tied for fewest in team history). Hill said he wished media and fans would also give the Canes more credit for finishing seventh in the nation in pass defense (165 ypg). "It's tough when people grade you just off turnovers and interceptions," Hill said. " To me, we finished seventh in pass defense and only had four INTs. What if we get 19 or 20 this year? We could be No. 1. People shouldn't underestimate what we can do with this secondary. We have a lot of great athletes and a lot of guys who are no longer freshmen."
MCGRIFF EXCITED ABOUT SECONDARY
I had a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff Tuesday and here are some nuggets from our conversation.
> I asked McGriff to explain what exactly a boundary corner and a field corner is and what is needed to play those spots. He also let me in on his philosophy coaching his players.
"In football, the majority of the game is played at the hash [mark]. The boundary coner covers the short side, sideline in. The field corner has got to cover a lot more ground, and a lot more routes are thrown at him. The field [corner] needs to have good feet, but more vertical speed because that's where you have to cover more ground. You may get more throws into the boundary, but the routes in the boundary are going to be in a smaller area. So, you have to have really quick feet and be good against the run. You usually cover more physical guys there.
"Brandon Harris, and Chavez Grant are more boundary guys. A guy like DVD can play both, but he's a big asset to the field because of that speed. Ryan Hill too. Sam Shields could play both also. But the key is you can't limit yourself. If you are my third best corner, you have to get into the game. You strive to get those guys in field and boundary to learn both and then try to train them for a particular area. But ultimately you got to get your best on the field, the combinations that work."
> Although we don't get to see practice -- all reporters must get accounts from players and coaches as to how practice went -- we've definitely been hearing about the secondary creating more turnovers through the first three days of camp. McGriff said its a result of a maturity. "Once you get older as a unit, those things start coming," McGriff said.
"When you are young, your just trying to line up in the right spot. Now, they're going to take the next step. We were 7th in the country [in pass defense]. But that wasn't good enough for the University of Miami. That's just the starting point. We have to affect the game, we have to take the ball away from the opponent. That's all we keep stressing to these guys. Don't be afraid to make plays."
> McGriff said moving Hill to corner full time was necessary for depth. "We needed some knowledge there. Ryan is going to help us at that spot. Ryan could be a really great corner. He has all the tools and abilities to be a great corner. I think it's a benefit to have a guy we can move to the edge and cover man to man and has all the change of direction, the ball skills. That kid really, really works hard. He's going to be a good kid for us."
> As for safety Ray Ray Armstrong, McGriff said its too early to judge how much of an impact he could make as a freshman. "He's got to get more comfortable in the scheme," McGriff said. "He may not be playing fast because he's not sure. Just like Brandon [Harris] and Vaughn Telemaque had to get past that freshman stage. It's hard to come in as a true freshman and make plays. How much training did they get in high school? Was he a fulltime DB? No. Now, he is. What I like is his attitude, his size, he's a winner. He's really smart and he just loves the game."
> I asked McGriff if some of the expectations for Vaughn Telemaque, whom Shannon compared to Ed Reed last season, are too high for a player who played in just three games last year. "He's got to play good for us. He's one of our guys for us," McGriff said.
"I don't think anybody could put higher expectations on Vaughn than Vaughn himself. He's really critical of himself. He has to play good for us. He's worked hard all summer to get himself in that position. He'll live up to his own expectations. He knows he has to watch film over and over again. I tell him all the time he has to be the QB on defense. He wants to be good. The one thing about Vaughn is he's going to use all the resources around him to make sure he's great. Whether its an NFL player, coaches, film, he's going to use whatever. I know he spent one day with Ed Reed this summer, asking him questions. I told the guys when they're walking around the building, you have to ask guys these questions. He did."
> As for freshman Brandon McGee, McGriff said the Plantation High star needs to pick up schemes more. "Brandon's biggest thing is he's not 100 percent comfortable and sure of what he's doing. Once he does, he's going to be a great corner. He and I talked about it yesterday. Let it go and stop worrying about making a mistake."
> I caught up with redshirt freshman Ben Jones. He told me he's been moved back to left tackle, after playing only right tackle in the spring. That means Jermaine Johnson has moved back to right tackle, where he started out in the spring before moving to the left side.
"At first it was kind of a weird adjustment because I was so used to the right side and I'm right handed," Jones said. "But I'm learning from [Jason] Fox and he's teaching me, correcting me when I make mistakes."
Jones, who said he shed 10 pounds in the summer and now stands 6-5, 290, said he realizes the importance of playing well on the left side because it protects the blind side of quarterback Jacory Harris. "You have to be on your Ps and Qs on your left side. You have to be on your A game when your blocking for Jacory. I'm treating it like I was in high school, protecting him like he's my baby."
> UM coach Randy Shannon complimented the play of tight end Jimmy Graham Monday, saying he ran routes well with shoulder pads on. He also had good things to say about receiver Leonard Hankerson, saying he's become a leader and is "much better."
Hankerson spent this summer working with former Miami Dolphin great Mark Duper on catching. "It was fun and exciting," Hankerson said of working with Duper. "I just worked on catching the ball, looking it in, running routes better and concentrating on the ball. Now, I'm just looking at catching the point of the ball." Hankerson said its worked so far in practice. "I'm catching everything now," he said.
As practice moves along, I want to make sure we wrap our series of counting down the Top 60 players at UM. After today, we've got six left. Here's a look at No. 7: Linebacker Colin McCarthy.
If this was a list about guys who were missed last season, McCarthy would be No. 1. His departure following a shoulder injury, devastated UM's run defense. Now healthy, the 6-3, 242-pound junior (who has two years left of eligibility) can't wait to start drilling opposing running backs.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '06: An all-state linebacker at Clearwater Central Catholic, McCarthy finished his senior year with 133 tackles, four sacks, and one interception. On offense, as a tight end and receiver, he caught 38 passes for 644 yards and seven touchdowns and went on to play in the CaliFlorida Bowl All-Star Game. He was rated the 24th best outside linebacker by Rivals.com and 36th by Scout.com. When he chose UM over Ohio State, Nebraska, Florida, Georgia and Indiana, Canes fans believed they were getting a new version of Dan Morgan.
> What he's done as a Cane: After playing in nine games and blocking a punt as a true freshman, he moved into the strongside linebacker role in 2007 and started 10 games, finishing fifth on the team with 74 tackles -- including a team-leading 12 for loss. His fumble return at FSU for a touchdown iced a 37-29 come-from-behind victory for the Canes. He returned for his junior season and started at strongside linebacker for UM's first four games before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. McCarthy had season-ending surgery and skipped the spring to continue recovering per Randy Shannon's orders.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Miami's run defense slipped from finishing 40th nationally in 2007 (133.75 yards per game) to 75th last season (151.85 ypg) and last in the ACC. It wasn't by accident. When McCarthy played in his final game against North Carolina on Sept. 27, UM's run defense actually led the ACC and ranked seventh nationally (65 ypg). Once he went out -- along with Eric Moncur -- UM had to turn to its younger players to hold fort. It obviously didn't happen. McCarthy isn't going to cure all of UM's woes, but a healthy season alongside ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year Sean Spence will absolutely make the Canes linebacking corps better. McCarthy will probably remain outside, but he is working in the middle along with Spence. If Shannon or new defensive coordinator John Lovett feel Darryl Sharpton can be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomores Ramon Buchanon or Jordan Futch, they won't hesitate. In that case, McCarthy will likely move to the middle. It will only help solidify the Canes defense and likely lead McCarthy to become UM's leading tackler this season.
It's the nightmare scenario Canes fans don't want to stomach this season. And it's probably the only way Taylor Cook gets on the field for more than mop-up duty. The play? Jacory Harris goes down in a heap of pain and UM's offense once again is placed in the hands of an inexperienced quarterback.
Taylor Cook wants Canes fan to know one thing even if it never happens: "I'll be ready."
Cook, a redshirt freshman, admits he never expected to be one bad break away from being UM's starting quarterback this quickly -- not before Robert Marve left after last season. But now that he could be that guy, he's confident he can handle running Mark Whipple's new offense. You see, the truth is, Cook didn't spend a lot of time learning Patrick Nix's old offense anyway. As the scout team quarterback, he ran the offense of UM's opponents. So, he doesn't need to learn any new terminology. Whipple's playbook was new to him this spring.
"I'm excited and I definitely feel more comfortable knowing I'm going to get a lot more reps this year," said Cook, who stands 6-7 and has added 10 pounds to his frame (235) since arriving. "I feel like I can get comfortable with the offense quickly, the team in general. Being here for a year helped big time. But so has learning this offense since this spring.
"I ran a run based offense my first two years and went to a more spread type thing. This offense is a lot more complex. But it's like going to school. The more you study, the more you are going to learn. I'm pretty comfortable with it now."
Cook, who returned home briefly this summer to help out at his family's rice farm in Texas, said "there are no stupid questions" when Canes quarterbacks are around Whipple. He said the new coordinator hasn't just been patient answering questions, but pointing out improvements in mechanics and delivery. Cook said he's worked on having a quicker release at Whipple's request. He's also been spending more and more time with Harris. This summer, the two roomed together for four weeks and studied nightly.
"We developed a little bit better bond probably," Cook said. "Over the summer, we threw a lot together."
And its during the summer, Cook said, he felt he really got into a groove in Whipple's offense. "The spring was kind of a learning time," Cook said. "But I really like what we did during 7-on-7s. We had a lot of big plays. I think its going to be an exciting year. The players were having more fun, making guys miss and taking the ball 50 years for scores. It's an exciting offense."
MORE ON THE FIRST DAY...
> Unfortunately, I couldn't make it out to practice this morning. It wasn't the alarm clock that didn't go off. It was my car that let me down. As I was about to exit the Palmetto Expressway to head down to Coral Gables, my radiator blew and my car overheated. I made it to Media Day, but I was too late for what I heard was a very light practice. I might have made it had I jumped on board with the Sun-Sentinel's Shandel Richardson, who politely pulled his car behind me and asked me if I needed any help. But I wasn't going to leave my car on the 826. Still have to thank Shandel for the gesture. He's a team player.
> I have to hand it to defensive line coach Clint Hurtt for getting a strong message across to his defensive linebefore camp even began: "Finishing last in the ACC in run defense is simply unacceptable." On Friday, Hurtt had his first official meeting in the film room with his players and greeted them with a set of numbers on the chalkboard according to defensive end Adewale Ojomo. "It compared how many yards teams averaged on us each game and how many they averaged on us at the beginning of the season," Ojomo said. "After that, we didn't need to be motivated. All we needed was the practice schedule."
> If you take a look at the Canes' media guide you get the sense the school is definitely trying to remind finds -- and recruits -- of The U's deep connection to championships and the NFL. The back of the guide features hologram photos of former Canes who are now Pro Bowlers. But it isn't just the media guide sending an NFL message.
Running back Graig Cooper said Whipple treats his players like they're in the NFL. "He's real patient. He lets us have fun. That's one thing I love about him," Cooper said. "It does feel like more an NFL program. He lets us practice. He doesn't dwell on mistakes. We correct them now. But he doesn't dwell on them or treat us like a little high school kid. He'll be patient and let us correct it ourselves."
> Quarterback Jacory Harris made quite a stir last week on Dan LeBatard's radio show when he let loose. Among Harris' gems: He said he'd show up to the Heisman ceremony with a pink suit, an afro and a pimp cup. He also said he didn't believe Gators quarterback Tim Tebow was a virgin. I found the whole interview tongue in cheek. But apparently Randy Shannon didn't. Harris was much more subdued and streamlined in his interview with media today. I want the old, fun Jacory back!
> Defensive tackle Marcus Forston accomplished what he wanted to last season -- he earned Freshman All-American honors and got better as the season progressed. He's got an intriguing set of goals this year: "In the first game, I want to be called out as a starter," Forston said. "Last year, I only started one game. And, I want to lead all defensive tackles in sacks. Not here. In the country. Period."
> I didn't come across any Canes at the Cineplex over the summer, but according to Brandon Harris the Canes made it a point to catch all the blockbuster flicks together this year. The team's favorite? Probably The Hangover. "We do everything together now. Everytime we go out, we have 50, 60 people going to the movies," Harris said. "We send a couple people to buy tickets. Last night we saw GI Joe. A couple weeks back we all went to see Orphan. You'll be surprised how these guys act with a scary movie. Marcus Forston was screaming like a girl. We go to the movies so much. I think the favorite was The Hangover. That was a big one. Everybody was crazy about The Hangover. Mike James saw it about 10 times. He went everyday by himself."
Are you ready for some football?
I am. Personally, I'm tired of all this preseason talk and I'm excited we are finally going to start seeing the guys we've been writing about run around with helmets on. Canes football season officially gets going in a few hours at Cobb Stadium.
THE SCHEDULE: Friday was the first day of organized team activities and included orientation sessions, equipment pick-up and team meetings. An Exclusive Season Ticket Holder Practice will get underway today at 8 a.m. (a practice open to only season ticket holders and members of the media). The school's Hall of Fame will also be open and fans will be able to pose for photos with Vinny Testaverde's Heisman Trophy.
The Hurricanes will work in helmets and shorts Saturday and Sunday, shells on Monday and Tuesday before moving into full pads starting Wednesday. After Saturday’s practice at Cobb Stadium, the team will move over to the Greentree Practice Fields for the remainder of fall camp (which will be closed to the media). Two-a-days will start Thursday, Aug. 13 and the team will have closed scrimmages on Aug. 15, Aug. 21 and Aug. 25. The final practice of camp is Monday, Aug. 31.
MEDIA ACCESS: It won't be great or like it was this spring when we actually got a chance to watch the team practice. So, if you're looking for detailed practice reports they won't exist anywhere. After Saturday, we only get to watch the team stretch But we will be able to talk Shannon every day and up to eight players a day. We'll have to find out what's going on through those interviews.
FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING CAMP
Here are some of the questions I hope we'll find answers to by the time camp ends:
1. Which young offensive linemen will really be able to help UM this season? There isn't a bigger question mark on the team than the Canes depth up front. After Jason Fox, Orlando Franklin, A.J. Trump and Joel Figueroa, the level of playing experience dwindles quickly. Matt Pipho, expected to the be the starting right tackle, has no career starts and little playing experience. Beyond him, guards Harland Gunn (UM's strongest lineman) and freshman Brandon Washington and tackles Benjamin Jones and Jermaine Johnson will try to progress quickly enough to be ready should any of Miami's starters go down with an injury. Or could true freshmen Cory White or Jared Wheeler surprise us? Or will Fox, Franklin, Trump, Figueroa and Pipho have to really play all 60 minutes come Sept. 7?
2. How much better will this run defense be under new coordinator John Lovett and with several key players back, including the physically gifted Allen Bailey now permanently at defensive tackle? Beyond strong quarterback play and a wealth of playmakers, UM's calling card has always been the ability to stop the run. The Canes were the worst in the ACC at doing it last year. Will Lovett bring back that attitude? How much will having a healthy Colin McCarthy help? And will Miami's corners actually bring people down instead of arm tackling?
3. How much will the tight end position really be able to help UM this season? Dedrick Epps, trying to fly back from an ACL injury, swears he'll be ready to take a hit and participate in camp. Is he really 100 percent? What is going to happen when he does get hit? How will Jimmy Graham look in a football uniform? His teammates love the way he's played on 7-on-7. But what happens when the pads go on? Are the Canes just going to quietly phase the tight end out of Mark Whipple's offense by the end of camp?
4. How much better will the Canes secondary be? Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. That's all Brandon Harris and Demarcus Van Dyke have been hearing about. The Canes had just four measely interceptions last year. Is John Lovett's new defense going to allow Harris, Van Dyke and the rest of UM's secondary to play more aggressively? Will Harris and Van Dyke become the dominant cover corners UM needs them to be?
5. Which underachieving veterans will step up there game? We know all about how talented UM's young players are. We expect big things from Sean Spence, Jacory Harris, Aldarius Johnson, LaRon Byrd, Marcus Forston, Marcus Robinson and a cast of other sophomores and redshirt freshmen. But which underachieving veterans are finally going to show us they can help this team out too? Outside of Jason Fox, there haven't been many. Eric Moncur, Colin McCarthy and Randy Phillips are seen as veteran leaders. All three were expected to do big things at Miami. But injuries have slowed them. Who makes the biggest splash? When will we Chavez Grant, Darryl Sharpton, Leonard Hankerson, Javarris James or Sam Shields do something big for this team?
3 BEST POSITION BATTLES
There aren't a ton really. But I'll provide the ones I believe will at least be intriguing.
> Right tackle: Jeff Stoutland is standing behind Matt Pipho. He says he can do the job at right tackle. But what if he falters? Ben Jones was battling behind him in the spring along with Jermaine Johnson. I've heard Joel Figueroa could get a look.
> Receivers No. 5 & 6: Randy Shannon said the rotation at receiver will get shorter. OK. But no shorter than six really. After Aldarius Johnson, LaRon Byrd, Thearon Collier and Travis Benjamin, four guys will probably end up competing for two spots. I believe it will between Tommy Streeter versus Leonard Hankerson (on the outside) and Kendall Thompkins and Davon Johnson (on the inside).
> Third string RB: Freshman Mike James stole the spotlight in the spring while Lee Chambers sat out with an injury. Damien Berry won Spring Game MVP honors. Lamar Miller arrived on Friday. Running backs not named Graig Cooper or Javarris James combined for 62 carries, 289 yards and 3 TDs last year. Who will vault to top of the pecking order for scraps? My money is on Smiley.
TWITTER UPDATES: Last, but not least. I'll be out at practices throughout the week. Whenever anything important breaks, I'll post news and notes on my twitter page. Look me up at HeyNavarro
Been quite a few hectic days for me leading up the start of Canes practice this Saturday. I've been organizing our local high schools media days this week (racking up recruiting interviews for you) and working on tons of online content -- video, podcasts, you name it. Among the projects: a weekly Dade-Broward high school football show and a Canes/college football show that will feature yours truly and a Herald columnist. Stay tuned for that!
With that said, the countdown of the Top 60 players at The U must continue (and end soon!). Today, we take a look at No. 8: junior defensive tackle Allen Bailey. Big Boss Bailey has always had an NFL body. He's 6-4, 290 now. He just hasn't been able to settle in. The Canes desperately need him to this year. Will he deliver and start playing like the first round pick he could potentially become?
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '07: Bailey was a big recruiting pickup for coach Randy Shannon, who visited the big man out on Sapelo Island in Georgia and swayed him away from the SEC (UF, Alabama and Georgia). Bailey only played in four games his senior season at McIntosh County Academy because of a stress fracture in his back. But as a junior, he posted 138 tackles, five forced fumbles and caught the attention of the recruiting experts quickly with his 6-4, 285-pound frame. Both Scout and Rivals had him ranked in the national Top 100 and as the seventh best defensive end in the country.
> What he's done as a Cane: Bailey came in as a linebacker -- a deal he worked out with Canes coaches before choosing UM -- and spent his freshman year struggling to pick up the position. He played in all 12 games. but saw most of his action on special teams. The following spring, Bailey was moved to defensive end and quickly went on the shelf when he tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights in the spring. It set him back in his move to the defensive line and caused him to miss the season opener against Charleston Southern. Bailey told us finally started feeling close to 100 percent after the Virginia Tech game. He finished with four starts and the team lead with five sacks to go with 36 tackles. It was strong finish to what started out as a shaky sophomore season. After seeing some time at defensive tackle on third downs, Bailey was moved to defensive tackle this spring. But he didn't play in the spring game.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: There isn't a more physical freak at The U than Bailey, who runs a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash, has a 39-inch vertical (tied for 3rd on the team), benches 405 pounds (2nd on the team), squats 565 pounds (2nd on the team) and power cleans 375 (35 pounds more than anybody else on the team). Those can't be ignored. But neither can the fact the last three seasons Bailey has played have been uncomfortable. From the injury his senior year of high school to the wasted year at linebacker as a freshman and the pectoral injury that slowed him this past year, one has to wonder where Bailey would be right now had he just had some semblance of stability. This has to be the year that finally happens for him. There isn't a player on this team who has more gifts than Bailey. If he can stay healthy and start putting them to use full-time, Miami's horrid run defense could be a whole lot better.
How do you let a kicker sneak into the Top 10 list of a football countdown at a school like the University of Miami? You don't. He has to kick the door down and earn it by taking the Team MVP honors from the year before. Matt Bosher, who became UM's second kicker to earn the honor (Carlos Huerta, 1991 was the other), wouldn't have made my Top 10 if not for the trophy he won at the end of last season. But how could you argue against it with what he did on the field for a 7-6 team? He just wasn't going to crack the Elite Eight. Sorry, Matt.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '06: As a senior at Jupiter High, Bosher developed into one of the nation's top high school kickers. He converted 7 of 10 field goals with a long of 52 yards and drilled 70 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks while averaging 46.5 yards a punt. He was selected to play in the CaliFlorida Bowl and the US Army All-American Game. Scout.com tabbed him the No. 1 kicker in the country. ESPN had him third and Rivals.com sixth. He picked UM over the Gators.
> What he's done as a Cane: Steal the spotlight on special teams. After red-shirting as a true freshman in 2006, Bosher handled the punting and kicking duties. He averaged 40.2 yards a punt and had a 75-yarder at Virginia Tech (the fourth longest in school history). Last year, he elevated his game and earned All-ACC Second Team honors after handling all three duties for UM. He made 18-of-20 field goal attempts (his misses were from 40-plus) and averaged 40.3 yards a punt. But who could forget his biggest highlight? Bringing down a Gators return man with a vicious hit in the swamp. He also picked up a first down on a 9-yard run on a fake punt against FSU. He took this spring off to rest his leg.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Truth be told, there isn't a player on UM's roster with a better chance of nabbing a national award this year than Bosher, who is one of the nation's top candidates for the Lou Groza Award. Would a kicker ordinarily be in the Top 10 of a UM player countdown? Not in the good old days. But these aren't the good old days and Bosher is no ordinary kicker. While Hurricanes coaches would like to see redshirt freshman Jake Wieclaw take a step forward in development and handle at least one of Bosher's three kicking responsibilities, chances are it probably won't happen. I expect Bosher to handle all three -- with perhaps an opportunity or two for Wieclaw.
We've hit No. 10 on our countdown of the Top 60 players at Miami. And what better guy to kickoff the final stage of our list than junior offensive lineman Orlando Franklin? Next to Allen Bailey, Franklin is probably the most physically imposing guy on the team. The big, surly Jamaican has always had the physical gifts to succeed at Miami. He just usually hasn't had the stamina to remain effective for four quarters. Will he be that devoted on the field leader in 2009 now that he's lost some weight and the Canes desperately need him to be? We'll see.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '06: Most people forget (I did), but Franklin was originally a member of UM's 2006 signing class. Because of an academic situation, he didn't get into UM until 2007. Originally from Jamaica, Franklin moved to South Florida from Canada as a high school junior and became an instant star at Delray Beach Atlantic High. He was rated the country's 23rd best offenisve tackle by Rivals .com and picked UM over Georgia, Florida and Florida State.
> What he's done as a Cane: Franklin played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2007 and started three times at left guard, eventually sharing the team's Rookie of the Year Award with Graig Cooper after grading out at 95 percent with 27 pancake blocks. Last year as a sophomore, he started 11 of 13 UM's 13 games at left guard, regaining his starting job after losing it momentarily. This spring, he saw some action at right tackle during practices, but started at left guard in the spring game. In testing, he lifted 375 pounds in the bench press -- seventh best on the team (2nd among OL).
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Franklin expects more from himself in 2009. So does everyone else. What we saw last week during a press conference in the Edgerrin James room on UM's campus was a slimmer, more focused version of Franklin, who has lost 17 pounds from the start of last season and is now 6-7, 318. That should help him stay in the game longer than he did last year, when (even though he was playing in a rotation) Franklin often tired by the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes are going to need him to be more of an iron man with the lack of depth and experience on this team. What I don't expect at this point is to ever see Franklin at right tackle. Miami coaches have said they want to keep the left side of the line "intact." Can't blame them -- that's Jacory Harris' blindside. If Franklin stays healthy, he and left tackle Jason Fox should have an extremely productive year. If not, UM's line could be in a heap of trouble.
As we move deeper into the countdown of the Top 60 players at The U we hit No. 11 on our list: Defensive end Marcus Robinson.
Of all the stories I've heard about Robinson, nothing demonstrates more about his toughness than the one I heard from his father Mitchell, a security guard/custodian at Homestead's Air Base Elementary last November. On his last day of school at Southridge, Robinson was greeted by a rush of thugs, who were swinging and punching at him. Robinson fought them off by himself and quickly changed his life around at Homestead High. So, will "He-Man" continue that torrid path toward greatness as a UM sophomore? Like his dad told me, "Bank on it."
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: Speed, strength and athleticism. Those are three words we heard most often about Robinson when he was at Homestead High. He certainly lived up to it last year. But before he put on the green and orange, Robinson put on a show in high school. The 6-1, 231-pound U.S. Army-All American had 98 tackles and 24 sacks as a senior. Rivals.com ranked him the fourth best outside linebacker in the country. Scout had him eighth and ESPN had him seventh. He chose UM over Florida State, Ohio State, USC and Michigan.
> What he's done as a Cane: Robinson's first season was definitely eye-opening. Next to linebacker Sean Spence, he made the biggest splash of any freshman on defense. His three sack, seven tackle performance against Virginia Tech showed the country the type of speed he has on the edge. He earned ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his performance and was selected by Collegefootballnews.com as a Freshman All-American. He started in five games and finished fifth on the team with 35 tackles and second with four sacks.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Big things. Robinson (6-1, 237) could potentially have an All-ACC type of season if UM's defensive line performs up to expectations. With Allen Bailey and Marcus Forston causing havoc in the middle, Robinson could see lots of one-on-one matchups on the outside. With veteran Eric Moncur and fellow sophomore Adewale Ojomo providing depth, Robinson probably will be fresh enough to remain effective well into the fourth quarter. And we all remember those days when UM players would hold four fingers up in the fourth quarter. When Robinson does it, he might be telling us how many sacks he's already collected through the first three.
As we move ahead in our countdown in the Top 60 players at UM, we hit another veteran player who hasn't lived up to expectations: Safety Randy Phillips. Much like fellow senior Eric Moncur, Phillips' career has been plagued by injuries and personal sadness. Will he answer the bell now that his college career is nearing an end? The Hurricanes definitely hope he does.
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '05: As a senior at the talent-rich Belle Glades Glades Central, Phillips proved to be one of the nation's best two-way players. As a running back, he ran for 710 yards and 11 touchdowns and recorded 57 tackles and four interceptions while playing safety and cornerback while playing in just nine games for a 12-1 team. He also averaged 35 yards a punt and and was sleected to the CaliFlorida Bowl. Rivals.com tabbed him the nation's seventh best safety while Scout.com had him 16th at his position. He picked UM over Florida and Florida State and was expected to help fill the shoes of talented corners Antrel Rolle and Kelly Jennings once they left.
> What he's done as a Cane: Phillips played in eight games as a true freshman for a team that reached the Peach Bowl and returned his sophomore season expected to be a starter. He started UM's first three, lost his job, then regained it for the final five games, compiling 30 tackles, 11 pass deflections and one interception. When he came back for his junior year in 2007, Phillips was expected to be UM's best corner. But after getting torched by Oklahoma, coach Randy Shannon moved him to safety. He finished with 34 tackles and two huge interceptions in UM's win at Florida State. Then, last season, he played in just two games after tearing his lateral collateral ligament in his left on the first play of the Texas A&M game. He received a medical redshirt and played mostly on the first team this spring alongside Vaughn Telemaque.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Phillips is another Canes player who has yet to live up to his hype. He welcomed his mid-career move from cornerback to safety because it would allow him to be more of a playmaker. That's exactly what the Hurricanes hope Phillips can finally be this year. Physically, his test scores are very impressive. He was timed running a 4.48 in the spring (10th fastest on the team) and led the Canes with highest vertical leap (39.5 inches). His strength numbers (308 power clean, 330 bench) are among the best on the team. One thing you can't question is his leadership. From freshmen like Ray Ray Armstrong to veterans like Chavez Grant, there probably isn't a player more leaned upon on defense than Phillips. If he stays healthy, I don't see why he won't finally be the player Miami thought they were getting.
The University of Miami picked up its first basketball commitment for its 2010 class late Monday night when guard Rion Brown, a standout at Georgia's Hinesville Liberty County High, called coach Frank Haith to tell him to save him a scholarship.
Brown, a 6-5, 190-pound shooting guard, is the son of CBA all-time leading scorer Tico Brown. He's ranked 44th in the Rivals.com Top 150 and ranked the 22nd-best swingman in the country according to Scout.com.
Brown said the allure of playing in the ACC and for a coach who helped Jack McClinton reach the NBA was what pulled him toward Miami and away from Georgia, Virginia and Alabama.
"The ACC is what drew me there,'' Brown said. "It's one of the best conferences in the game. Playing for a guy like coach Haith, who has helped three guards reach the league, is always great. I watched Miami closely last year and could see Jack getting better. That's what did it for me.''
Brown made a name for himself this summer playing with for the Worldwide Renegades -- the same team that produced Hurricanes sophomore guard Dequan Jones.
Brown said UM assistant Jake Morton first offered him a scholarship in May and that after meeting Haith in July he moved UM into his final four. Brown averaged 15 points and five rebounds a game during his junior year. He expects to sign with Miami in March and will visit UM's campus on the weekend of Oct. 3rd.
"I can't wait to see the campus,'' Brown said. "I was down there for the Breakdown Festival and really liked South Florida. It's a beautiful place.''
As we inch closer to the start of fall camp (it starts this Saturday) we move closer to the No. 1 spot on our Top 60 list of the best players at The U. This time we zero in on No. 13: Redshirt freshman safety Vaughn Telemaque. VT is expected to do big things even though he's played in just three games in his career. Will he deliver?
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: The kid from Long Beach Poly gave Canes fans a late night thrill when he announced on local cable television he was picking UM over USC. Turns out, it was a late night haircut from his mom to Randy Shannon that made VT fall in love with The U. The Hurricanes may have a budding superstar on their hands. Telemaque was a PrepStar All-American who ranked as the 12th best safety according to Rivals, sixth best according to Scout and 17th best by ESPN. He was a turnover magnet in high school, producing nine interceptions and four forced fumbles to go with 89 tackles. He also shined when the lights were bright. He had three interceptions in his team's state championship game.
> What he's done as a Cane: He's the highest rated player on my list with the least amount of college experience. Last season, Telemaque played in just three games, racking up two tackles on special teams before missing the rest of the season with a a shoulder injury -- compliments of a hard collision with Texas A&M fullback Jorvorskie Lane on a kickoff. Telemaque might have been a forgotten player entering the spring had Shannon not caught our attention near the end of the season when he compared VT to Ed Reed and said the freshman would have started if not for the injury. This spring, he finally made his presence felt, making a few eye-opening interceptions during practice. He ran with the first team at safety alongside Randy Phillips.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: No unproven player begins the season with more hype and hope for Miami than Telemaque. The 6-1, 185-pound redshirt freshman isn't expected to just be a solid contributor, but a star. Shannon put that onus on him. Telemaque hasn't been phased by any of it. He says he's ready to roll and contribute. The Hurricanes absolutely need him to. The secondary didn't just have an atrocious 2008 season creating turnovers, but making tackles. Telemaque, we're told, can do both extremely well. Senior Chavez Grant told me in the spring that times Telemaque was lazy about watching film. It seems he's over that. When I asked him at CanesFest how often he watches film now, VT said: "I'm in there five out of the seven days. If the weekends weren't closed, I'd be in there seven out of seven." That's great to hear. But we'll find out soon enough if it all translates on the field.
Another day, another promising Canes player to talk about on our countdown of the Top 60 currently at UM. Today, we look at No. 14 on our list: Sophomore defensive tackle Marcus Forston. In high school, there weren't many more talented and hyped recruits in the nation in 2008. After a strong freshman season, even bigger things are expected from Forston this year. Will he deliver?
> What we heard about him on Signing Day '08: Before he even played his senior season at Miami Northwestern, there weren't many recruiting fans around who hadn't already heard of Forston. The 6-2, 302-pound defensive tackle was the booming voice and leader for the 6A state champion Bulls. A three-year starter, he capped his senior season by recording 92 tackles, 20 sacks and seven forced fumbles, winning a mythical national title and playing in the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio. An early Canes commitment, Forston chose UM over Notre Dame, USC, Tennessee and Alabama and helped recruit other players to Miami.
> What he's done as a Cane: Forston played in 12 games as a freshman and started once (at Florida). He finished with 25 tackles, 4.5 for loss to go with three sacks. He had four tackles and two sacks against N.C. State and earned Freshman First Team All-American Honors from three publications. This spring, Forston started on the second team defense and had four tackles in the spring game. He also ran a 4.84 in the spring -- third fastest among defensive lineman.
> What Eye On The U expects from him in '09: Forston, often compared to a young Warren Sapp, has gotten leaner, stronger and more athletic after one season at UM. Those were the three areas (as a fresh out of high school) he needed to work on last season. If he's physically ready to take the next step forward, he should have a huge season in the middle, especially with Allen Bailey commanding double teams next to him. Ideally, Canes coaches would love to see Bailey and Forston as their two starting tackles by the end of the season with players like Joe Joseph and Josh Holmes and Micanor Regis providing depth. As long as he stays healthy, that's exactly what I expect to happen.