Randy Phillips laughed at my question even though I didn't mean for it to sound funny.
If you had to estimate the level of pain you are playing with -- what would you say it is? Instead of answering the question, Miami's senior safety showed me how much his torn labrum and rotator cuff limit his ability to raise his right arm.
"I can bring it up to right about here," Phillips said as he lifted his arm to about the same height an umpire does to call a base runner safe. "If I'm going to deflect a pass, I have to do it with my left arm. Last week against Wake Forest my knee popped. I had to put it back into place. This is football man. You have to be tough, fight through the pain."
Playing hurt is one thing, playing injured is another. And right now this University of Miami defense -- in the words of coach Randy Shannon -- "is banged up" worse than he's ever seen it, even when he was a player.
How banged up does that mean? We really don't know. Each week, a different player ends up on the team's "extremity report." Shannon simply won't discuss injuries. But if you ask Phillips -- and I did -- he says there are only three players on Miami's defense who aren't playing with some form of pain or coming off injury. Those are: cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Sam Shields and safety Jared Campbell. So, its quite evident, most of the guys out there on defense are playing with pain.
Here's what we do know as fact: UM's defense had its worst performance of the season last week. The Canes gave up 555 yards, 33 first downs and looked awfully inept against an offense that produced a combined 13 points against Clemson and Navy the two previous weeks.
So, if you are a Canes fan that raises an obvious concern and question: With all these injuries are the Hurricanes headed toward another late season stumble? Like it or not, UM is showing the same signs it did when it lost the final four games of its first season under Shannon in 2007 and its last three last year. It's called limping to the finish line. Shannon said it himself. He said his team hit a wall last year, said his players were burned out and worn out. And it is starting to happen again.
So how do the Canes avoid it from happening again? For starters, they can't let their defense stay on the field for 97 plays like it did against Wake Forest. Part of that is game-planning (the Demon Deacons stuffed UM's running game -- the Canes ran it a season-low 21 times -- and held the football for 38 minutes, 52 seconds). But the other part of it getting contributions from other guys.
The Hurricanes have gotten some contributions from others. Shannon said freshman Curtis Porter and sophomores Micanor Regis and Jeremy Lewis have begun playing more over the last couple weeks on the Canes injury-plagued defensive line. And Shannon said Ramon Buchanon, who filled in last week for Sean Spence, did "okay." But after eight weeks of the regular season, fall camp, two-a-days in the spring and offseason conditioning isn't time others started stepping up? For starters, where is Arthur Brown? When are we going to see Brandon McGee?
The answer is they obviously aren't ready. So where does the blame lie? On both sides of the equation.
"The transition from high school to college is all mental," Chavez Grant said when I asked him why some of the young players aren't ready to contribute yet.
"You're going to get faster, you're going to get stronger, but this game is played between your ears. You have to understand where you are and where you need to be, what plays are called, what those plays are designed for. And what those guys are struggling with is that. You can't just learn two coverages if you're going into a game with six coverages. Then, the coaches would have to pick and choose based on what you can do. That's the biggest problem. They have to learn the plays. Physically, Brandon [McGee] can play football. Arthur Brown, he can play with the best of them. Arthur Brown will be the first one to find the ball in practice. But when it comes to schemes, blitz coverages and blitz pacakges, dropping into coverages those are not those guys' strong points. And it's not the coaching. We're all in the same meetings. We're all getting taught the same way. If those guys really want to learn, they have to put in the extra time."
The reality is this UM defense is going to have to heal somehow, and the guys that are in there that are not producing are going to have to step up. Because as Shannon pointed out there is no telling when Sean Spence will be back. Or, when Ray Ray Armstrong will be healthy. Or, if Eric Moncur will really be able to play again.
"Right now those guys are out and we have some other guys on the team that have to step up," Shannon said. "As far as coaches, we're going to grind those guys each and every day. Right now, this part of the season, it's all about execution. We're gong to teach those guys each and every day to learn. If they don't learn it, we have to keep teaching it."
So, its time for Olivier Vernon and Marcus Robinson to answer the bell and help Allen Bailey create pressure. It's time for Ramon Buchanon to do more than just "fill in." It's time for Demarcus Van Dyke to add to his interception total by more than just once every three seasons. And it's time for Randy Shannon and his coaching staff to prove they can get those guys ready to play, and it's time for those players to start delivering. Or else, these Canes could end up falling flat on their faces again come December.
TAKING A LIGHTER APPROACH... One thing Shannon learned from his first two seasons was that he wore his team down in practice towards the end of the year. This week, he's made a change from having two hour practices to one hour practices that will be quicker paced and allow for less stress to his players' bodies.
"We did it in the NFL," Shannon said. "Last year at this point I kept them longer because we were young and I thought we needed the reps, and it got us toward the end of the season. But now we're a year older, it'll help us out. It'll give us freshness going into the game from a mental standpoint."
WHY IS UM GETTING BEAT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD? The first place blame always goes when things go wrong is toward the coaching staff. I'm a firm believer players are just as responsible for the breakdowns on the field as coaches are for putting them in certain schemes.
One thing that has become a consistent problem for this UM defense against the pass has been the middle of the field. Obviously, not having a strong enough pass rush gives receivers time to get open and quarterbacks time to find them. But as Phillips told me Monday, there is at least one constant mistake that keeps happening to UM in pass coverage.
"It's the communication between the guys who have to cover the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers," Phillips said. "We have to get that [fixed]. If the team is going to that underneath stuff, we have to come up and make the tackle. But we also have to pass those underneath routes off. We're fixing that right now with the linebacker and the nickel back in terms of guys dropping off guys and letting them be wide open."
ARE THE CANES GETTING OUT-SCHEMED? So why does it seem like UM is always a step behind the opposing offense? If you ask Randy Phillips it is because they are. According to Phillips, the only time UM came out and saw what they game-planned for was when they faced Georgia Tech.
"Other teams have done a great job coming out and not running the same offense they ran the previous game," Phillips said. "Clemson didn't run anything we expected them to run. For some reason, they attacked the middle of our defense where our linebackers were. Wake Forest didn't run anything we've seen them run. They usually ran the high-low scheme. Against us, they really tried to put athletes on the edge, run their quarterback and go in the middle of the field with crossing routes.
"It comes down to us being ready for everybody's best shot, not worrying about what the other team is going to do, we just have to run our own defense. Because every team has shown us something different. When we go out and play, there doing something else. We have a certain package defense and they never do it. So, we end up having to make adjustments. I think we're doing a great job making halftime adjustments. Last week, we only gave up seven points after half time. That's improvement."
Said Grant: "It's not that I believe a lot of teams are figuring us out, but the more teams watch us the more they see our weaknesses. I think teams are trying to hit us underneath. The secondary, what we emphasize, is that we don't like to give up the deep balls. That's what we play a lot and that leaves us vulnerable to the short passes."
WORKING TOGETHER... Despite the mistakes in coverage and mental breakdowns, Phillips said coaches remain open to communication before, during and after games.
Last week against Wake Forest, he and Grant came to Shannon when the Demon Deacons had the ball for the last time down 28-27 and suggested putting in Grant at middle linebacker instead of a tired Darryl Sharpton.
"Coach Lovett is the eye upstairs and every time at half time we meet up he's always there ready to listen to us and to tell us what's going wrong," Phillips said. "We tell him this is what they're doing out on the field. This guy did this and this guy did that. We work together. The coaching staff always has the answers. We work it out."
Grant said assistants don't usually get to do a lot of teaching during the regular season because so much time is spent on game-planning. But he says every assistant will spend bonus time with younger players without fail.
"When we leave out of meetings -- Brandon [McGee], Ray Ray Armstrong, Jamal Reid, all those guys stay in there. Coach McGriff makes it his business to stay longer with those guys because they have to learn," Grant said.
"I'm not sure about the linebackers because I'm not a linebacker. But coach Lovett is a great coach and I always see him staying late too. A lot of those linebackers do understand what to do. But there has to be extra effort if you want to play football."