Technically, the first day of spring in 2010 is March 20th. But around The U, where football rules the calendar, spring really begins on Tuesday. That's the day Randy Shannon's football team convenes for 15 days of practice and preparation (non consecutively) for the 2010 spring season.
Why so early? We're not exactly sure. But Shannon is a guy who likes to get an early start on everything. His team began practicing at 5 a.m. for about the first half of the 2009 season. He said it was to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. These practices will begin at 3 p.m. (except for two Saturday 10 a.m. workouts and the team scrimmage on March 27th).
So what do we hope to learn/see from this football team from Tuesday until March 27th? Shannon has his list. I've got mine.
Here are my five questions entering the spring in regards to the offense.
> Will A.J. Highsmith or Stephen Morris perform well enough to make us feel like either could quarterback this team should Jacory Harris miss any time in 2010?
Harris, as you know, won't be involved in any team drills this spring. His injured thumb, which required surgery, hasn't healed in time to see him take any meaningful snaps with his teammates. That leaves more time for Highsmith, Morris, and scout team quarterback Spencer Whipple, the son of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, to split snaps equally. You can't say that's a bad thing, especially when you consider Harris took every meaningful snap in 2009 and probably played through injury when he shouldn't have.
Like it or not, the Hurricanes were more than fortunate Harris was able to do that in 2009 despite being hit hard several times and getting sacked 35 times. There is no guarantee that in 2010 that won't happen again, especially with three positions on the offensive line featuring new starters.
Highsmith, listed at 6-feet, 195-pounds, played in three games as a true freshman and completed four of his six pass attempts for 53 yards and a touchdown, mostly in garbage time against Virginia and Florida A&M. Despite playing quarterback in high school, even his old man, former Cane Alonzo Highsmith, has long felt his son would be destined to play defensive back at this level. While Highsmith performed well in spot duty, we still don't really know for sure if he could handle the job in any serious capacity.
Morris (6-2, 183) is fresh out of high school, a player who was hand picked by Whipple out of Monsignor Pace. Morris has a strong arm and is athletic. But most recruiting analysts don't believe he is college-ready enough to become an instant contributer like Harris, who obviously was able to do more than just backup Robert Marve as a freshman. Could Morris learn enough being on campus over the next seven months to be ready come September should anything happen to Harris? There's definitely a chance.
But this is where you really would have hoped a guy like Taylor Cook was around. In the end, I think the Canes are simply going to have to cross their fingers and hope nothing serious happens to Harris again in 2010. The likelihood of any UM backup being able to come in and run this offense at an optimum level is slim.
> Will Damien Berry or Mike James show us they can be the featured back?
For all the Berry! Berry! Berry! chants at Sun Life Stadium this past season, we never did see the 5-11, 217-pound Glades Central standout -- or his 5-11, 220-pound freshman phenom counterpart -- headline the Hurricanes rushing attack. But after three years of the Javarris James-Graig Cooper show, we will finally see somebody else in the leading role.
Berry seems like a natural to fill it, considering he finished second on the team in rushing with 628 yards and 8 touchdowns despite the fact he only carried the ball 93 times and didn't have a single carry in the team's first four games. Still, the fact remains he only led the team in carries once this season (16 rushes vs. Duke) and he only reached double digit carries in five games. When asked late in the season why Berry wasn't carrying the rock more, Shannon basically told us 'some guys can only be given so much work.'
Mike James, meanwhile, has all the makings of a special back. He wowed us last spring with his ability to shed blocks and breakaway from defenders. But he only carried the ball 15 times for 48 yards (he caught 15 passes for 105 yards) and spent most of the season playing fullback after Pat Hill went down.
Lee Chambers (upper extremity) is going to miss the spring and a chance to make some noise after tallying 60 carries for 272 yards and 1 touchdown in two seasons.
That leaves two other intriguing participants to also impress us this spring: redshirt freshman Lamar Miller and true freshman Storm Johnson (6-0, 212). Miller, a standout at Miami Killian, has been all the rage from my conversations with different members of the staff at UM. Johnson is widely considered UM's best skill position player in the 2010 recruiting class.
No matter which backs emerge as the lead candidates to carry the ball in the fall, the good news for UM is all four of the healthy backs in camp this spring appear talented and capable. And you don't know if Cooper does make it back in time to play. In the end, I think UM is going to have two or three backs in its system next fall carrying the football no matter what. It's just going to come down to who is healthy and who doesn't fumble -- like it always has.
> Will Aldarius Johnson make a strong return from a subpar sophomore season? And will Tommy Streeter finally emerge as a consistent receiving option?
Even though his teammates were saying it all along, I don't think many of us believed going into the 2009 season that Leonard Hankerson would put together the type of breakout junior year that he did. He caught 45 passes for 801 yards and 6 touchdowns and really stole the show from the underclassmen we all expected to push past him. That was surprising -- so was his return for a senior season (OK, a mild surprise).
But the disappearance of Aldarius Johnson? Nobody was really expecting that. Instead, someone should have sent out an amber alert for the 6-3, 208-pounder during his sophomore season. After leading the team with 31 catches as a freshman, he had a rather unimpressive 16 catches for 276 yards and one score in 10 games. Sure, he hurt himself against Florida State. But he was the player nearly everyone thought would be entering his junior season with the NFL hype, not Hankerson. Instead, he has to push himself hard this spring to prove he's back.
In a lot of ways, it was a disappointing sophomore season for most of the Northwestern Bulls (look up linebacker Sean Spence, defensive tackle Marcus Forston). Injuries were a big part of it. But there was nothing unhealthy about Tommy Streeter, and its still a wonder to me how the 6-5, 209-pounder finished with only five catches for 114 yards. I don't know if you missed his 47-yard catch in the bowl game. But I sure didn't. It's more than obvious that just like Damien Berry, Streeter needs more playing time. Maybe, that can be the chant this year when FAMU visits: Streeter! Streeter! Streeter!
And what about LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin? Byrd finished with 33 catches for 460 yards and one touchdown. Benjamin had 29 catches for 501 yards and four touchdowns. Those are pretty good seasons when you consider how much UM spreads the ball around. But neither cracked the nation's Top 100 in receptions, receiving yards per game or total receiving yards. Surely, we all know, they have to be among the nation's Top 100 players at the position. Translation: Maybe, it is time to get them more touches.
> Is Dwayne Collins willing to give football -- and the tight end position -- a shot in the fall?
For those of us who were worried about the tight end position last year and called it the biggest question mark on the team entering the 2009 season (I did), consider it a premature evaluation. What we really meant to say was that it would be the big question mark heading into 2010.
Jimmy Graham turned out to be more than just a feel good hoops to gridiron story. The 6-8 former power forward showed us he could play and brought an added dimension to the tight end position with the healthy return of Dedrick Epps. The duo combined for 36 catches for 460 yards and 8 touchdowns and provided plenty of big catches -- and lifts -- throughout the season.
The Hurricanes tight end position entering this spring? A sixth-year player in Richard Gordon who has four career catches for 32 yards and is returning from a season-ending injury. And redshirt freshman Billy Sanders (6-4, 248), whom the coaches have high hopes for but we've heard very little about on the scout team.
The Hurricanes signed three players who are expected to play tight end in its 2010 class -- none who will arrive until the summer at the earliest. Asante Cleveland (6-5, 240) and Clive Walford (6-4, 215) are big, athletic targets who will likely need time to develop. Junior College signee Chase Ford (6-6, 245) is expected to play and contribute right away.
But it's hard to feel optimistic about this position providing as much help as it did in 2009 right now. There is a lot that has to happen over the next seven months to make us feel better.
> Who, other than Orlando Franklin, will prove to us they can be a consistent, solid starter on the offensive line heading into the 2010 season?
Say what you want about the 35 sacks the Hurricanes gave up last season, the struggles of Matt Pipho and so on. But there is a chance, if things don't go well, you'll be wishing Jason Fox, A.J. Trump and even Pipho were back in 2010.
The Hurricanes have to replace all three of those starters on the offensive line. Franklin, who played well in Fox's place at the end of the season, appears to be a solid option for UM at left tackle. But when you start to go down the rest of the line, you start to see a lot places where guys have to really prove themselves over the next seven months and hope -- that just like last year -- there aren't many injuries.
At left guard, the future looks bright with sophomore Brandon Washington (6-4, 330) returning. He played in all 13 games (mostly on the special teams unit), but did start the final two regular season games and showed plenty of upside.
The center position is supposed to be won by 6-4, 300-pound redshirt sophomore Tyler Horn, who played in six games and made snaps at center against Florida A&M, UCF, Virginia and USF. But like I said, he has a lot to prove. His backup could be true freshman, Shane McDermott, an Under-Armour All-American `who will participate in the spring.
At right guard, the often injured Joel Figueroa will miss his second straight spring with a shoulder injury. Figueroa has made 13 starts and played in 32 games in three years. Harland Gunn (6-2, 315) started five games at right guard and now has plenty of experience under his belt. But will he prove to us he can be consistent this spring and dominate?
Right tackle is where the biggest mystery lies. Last year, UM handed the job to Pipho by default. He was the senior with the most experience and the most ready to handle the pressure. In 2010, three young players figure to compete for the spot -- redshirt sophomore Ben Jones, redshirt freshman Jermaine Johnson and true freshman Malcolm Bunche, a 2009 signee who spent last season at prep school. Much like Pipho did a year ago, none will enter starting college experience whatsoever.
There are six more offensive line recruits set to arrive in the summer, headlined by U.S. Army All-American Brandon Linder. And we've heard lots of good things about redshirt freshmen Jared Wheeler and Cory White, who were on the scout team last season. But like I said, there will be a lot to prove for this unit over the next seven months.