Spring football is officially here. The University of Miami will host the first of 15 spring practices at 3 p.m. this afternoon at Greentree Practice Field. If all goes well, UM coach Randy Shannon plans to have a tougher football team come the fall.
Defensively, they might also have a few answers to the following questions...
> Will redshirt freshman Shayon Green step up and fill a huge need at middle linebacker?
Replacing a starting middle linebacker and leading tackler can be problematic for any college football team. Calling on a redshirt freshman to do it who hasn't played a single down of college football? Well, that just sounds insane. But that's exactly what Shannon and his staff are hoping to accomplish this spring with Shayon Green.
The 6-2, 235-pounder from Tifton, Ga., suffered a severe knee injury that knocked him out before he could even really get on the practice field last fall. But now, with All-ACC Second Team linebacker Darryl Sharpton getting ready for Draft Day, it is Green who is slotted to run with the first team over the next month. Not senior Kylan Robinson, a highly-touted player in high school who has spent his entire career on special teams. Not Arthur Brown, the nation's No. 1 high school linebacker from two years ago (now back home in Kansas). Not even veteran outside linebacker Colin McCarthy.
Shannon said Monday he plans to give Green every opportunity this spring to impress. But the clock will be ticking. If Green simply can't pick things up fast enough, then UM will likely have no choice but to slide McCarthy or even junior Sean Spence over, which Shannon has made clear he doesn't want to do. The Hurricanes will be without juniors Ramon Buchanon and Jordan Futch in the spring. But if true freshman and early enrollee Tyrone Cornelius (6-2, 195) or sophomore C.J. Holton shine, then there might be a chance sliding McCarthy or Spence over becomes a little easier for Shannon to swallow.
> Will new defensive line coach Rick Petri make an immediate impact and help a sub-par pass rush from a year ago look a lot more like the scary defensive fronts of Canes seasons long past?
The numbers for UM's defensive line last season weren't pretty. 23 sacks in 13 games -- seven fewer than the year before. While injuries took their toll, there were moments when opposing quarterbacks had enough time to order pizzas and have them delivered before getting rid of the football. The lack of a pass rush caused what seemed like an improving secondary to get torched at times.
Petri, who coached some of the better pass rushers in Canes history during his time with the team in the 1990s, will provide a veteran coaching presence that has lacked at the position over the past couple seasons. Although defensive coordinator John Lovett would prefer having senior Allen Bailey at tackle, the Hurricanes' leader in sacks from a year ago with seven will play mostly at end this spring per Shannon's orders. He, along with a healthy Adewale Ojomo (back from a broken jaw), junior Marcus Robinson and sophomore Olivier Vernon should provide the Canes with a quality quartet of experienced pass rushers on the outside with run-stopping senior Steven Wesley and junior Andrew Smith. Redshirt freshman Dyron Dye, back from injury, will be the new face to watch.
On the inside, UM is as deep as it has been in years. Senior Josh Holmes is the veteran. Sophomore Curtis Porter came on strong late last year for the injured Marcus Forston, who is hoping to rebound. With juniors Micanor Regis and Jeremy Lewis also in the mix, it should give redshirt freshman Luther Robinson more time to develop.
> Will the Hurricanes find themselves another dependable, playmaking cornerback to compliment All-American Brandon Harris?
There were times last season when Harris seemed to make every play in the Hurricanes secondary. He finished third on the team with 58 tackles, tied for the team lead with two interceptions and was among the country's leaders with 15 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. The rest of Miami's cornerbacks? Outside of Sam Shields' 41 tackles, we barely heard a peep from anybody else.
Shields is now gone along with veteran nickelback Chavez Grant. Shannon has made it no secret: it's time for senior Demarcus Van Dyke to shine. He was the only other cornerback to intercept a pass last season. The other six belonged to linebackers, safeties and defensive linemen.
The Hurricanes aren't exactly deep at corner. Ryan Hill, coming back from a season-ending injury, will be back. But sophomore Brandon McGee will get a push from walk-on Corey Nelms, whom Shannon said Monday has earned the chance to compete for playing time. Outside of that, the rest of UM's reinforcements at corner arrive in the summer. We don't know if Devont'a Davis, Kacy Rodgers or Keion Payne will be able to help come the fall. But chances are slim considering the learning curve for corners in college.
> Will Vaughn Telemaque and Ray Ray Armstrong cement themselves as the cornerstone safeties of the future?
We've heard all about the VT and Ray Ray and how great both will be. But 2010 would be a great time for the word potential to be dropped when referring to either of them. Telemaque had a solid sophomore season with 48 tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery. But he was expected to provide a lot more than solid numbers. He's supposed to be special, a player who creates turnovers in big numbers.
Armstrong made his presence felt as a freshman with 21 tackles -- and a few big hits (look for his Oklahoma highlights). But coaches definitely are hoping for a super sophomore season from Ray Ray, who has the ability to make receivers do more than flinch or develop alligator arms over the middle. If things go well, senior Jared Campbell and junior Jojo Nicolas will be serviceable backups to both Armstrong and Telemaque while helping redshirt freshman Jamal Reid to continue to progress slowly.
> Will Jake Wieclaw do anything to make us believe he can help the team in one of the three kicking phases?
With Matt Bosher out for the spring, Wieclaw will handle all the kicking duties. It has almost become do-or-die time for Wieclaw, who was unable to wrestle away any of the kicking duties in his second season. Special teams coach Joe Pannunzio said last season Wieclaw was improving on field goals and kickoffs. We should know once and for all where he really is in terms of development or if UM will have to search hard for a replacement.