UM coach Randy Shannon told reporters he wanted his team to "get tougher" this spring. So, now that the Canes are done with the spring, is UM a nastier football team in the trenches?
There won't be any real way to tell until the season gets going. But strength and conditioning coach Andrew Swasey believes on size, strength and athleticism alone "we have to be." I caught up with Swasey Friday after UM's final practice of the spring and he had nothing but praise for the growth he's seen from the Canes' big boys in the weight room and on the field. He even went as far as to say the defensive line has as much talent -- if not more -- than the 2002 team that lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and boasted three first round picks, a third, a fourth and a fifth.
"I look at this crew and compare it to when Jerome McDougle, Andrew Williams, Vince Wilfork, [Matt] Walters, Jamaal [Green] and that crew was here," Swasey said. "That team was two-deep solid. This one might be three or four deep at end. Honestly, we've never had this many numbers."
Swasey said he is encouraged by the size and physicality of two players in particular at defensive tackle: junior Micanor Regis (6-3, 300) and sophomore Curtis Porter (6-1, 315). Both, he said, have elevated their play and development to a level the program hasn't had in some time. Swasey said he expects Marcus Forston, a 2008 five-star recruit coming back from a shoulder injury, to eventually blossom to that point as well. "When you go with Porter, Regis, Forston, you're sitting really stacked. I mean, it's a wrap guy," Swasey said. "What they are is tough. They're hard working kids. You can see the development, the maturity kicking in. You've created great depth."
UM produced only 24 sacks last season -- 19 from the defensive line. Former UM assistant Don Soldiger, who was at last week's final spring practice, said there is no way the program can't increase that number significantly with veteran Rick Petri now coaching a much more experienced defensive line. "He's going to take it to an entirely different level," Soldinger said. "He's a tremendous hire for Randy."
Said Swasey: "You look at end now, who hasn't played there? They aren't babies anymore. Olivier [Vernon] is coming back with a year in. [Allen] Bailey, [Adewale] Ojomo, [Steven] Wesley all have old head experience. Andrew Smith has a had a great spring. Marcus Robinson too. When you have a guy like [Dyron] Dye backing up, I mean come on man."
The Canes' offensive line, however, still has a lot more to prove before receiving high praise. Still, after surrendering seven sacks in the first spring scrimmage, progress was obviously made Saturday when the defense was only able to produce three sacks. With Orlando Franklin, Joel Figueroa, Harland Gunn and Brandon Washington the only returning players with real game experience, it was imperative for young guys on the offensive line to grow up or take at least a few paces forward this spring. Some clearly did; others are still working on it.
Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said the player he was most happy with this spring was center Tyler Horn, who probably solidified his spot entering the fall as the team's starting center. Swasey said it was good for redshirt sophomore Ben Jones and redshirt freshmen Jermaine Johnson to get a lot of snaps at tackle with Franklin out this spring. But of the many young players UM could end up having to depend on should injuries occur, Swasey was only confident telling me Johnson, Jones and true freshman Malcolm Bunche are probably physically ready enough to win battles in the trenches. But even Bunche, Swasey said, probably needs another year of development.
A FEW MORE TIDBITS...
> Sophomore cornerback Brandon McGee had a few mental lapses in coverage Saturday and got beat for big plays a couple times by the Canes' talented receivers. McGee's physical gifts certainly aren't to blame. Not only is he one of the fastest players on the team (he ran a 4.31 as a freshman), but at 5-11, 185-pounds he's strong enough in the eyes of Swasey to win most physical battles.
"He's probably one of the most prettiest looking dudes out there," Swasey said. "There's just nothing like game experience."
McGee probably could have benefitted from a redshirt season as a true freshman. But considering UM was so thin at corner, he was asked to play. McGee is a talented player and it's just a matter of time before he takes the next step.
> Fifth-year senior Kylan Robinson made big strides to earn the top spot at middle linebacker coming out of the spring. But whether or not he keeps a starting job when juniors Jordan Futch and Ramon Buchanon return in the fall remains to be seen. "I think he has a good chance," said junior Sean Spence. "He's made big improvements in terms of mentally, physically. He's taking charge on the defense."
Asked to compare Robinson to a few of UM's previous middle linebackers, Swasey said Robinson (6-1, 235) is "stronger than former middle linebacker Glenn Cook," but "not as fast as Darryl Sharpton."
"He's very instinctive, athletic and knows where he has to be," Swasey said. "I'm excited for him. He can play."