The first time they met as teammates they didn't say much to each other at all.
"We were all kind of hesitant, you know," said Brandon Linder, describing the moment he, Seantrel Henderson, Malcolm Bunche and three other University of Miami freshmen offensive linemen crossed paths inside their dormitory at UM. "I think we were all trying to size each other up. Be tough guys, you know.
"I think about an hour later, when all that toughness broke down, we started giggling and stuff. Now, we're all each other's best friends. We love each other. When we're watching film, were always critiquing each other. I think it's going to be a lot of fun the next four years."
Fun sounds like a welcome change for Canes fans. Since the 28-point loss to rival Florida State two weeks ago, it feels like everything related to this team has been accompanied with a sense of a negativity because of a failure to meet expectations. Fire Randy! Bench Jacory! We only beat Duke by 15?
If you are searching for some fresh hope, the Canes are starting to provide some of that too. Freshman linebacker Kelvin Cain and tight end Asante Cleveland provided two large doses of it Saturday at Duke. But the biggest reason for hope in my opinion is what's happening with Linder, Henderson and the rest of the Hurricanes' young offensive line.
In case you missed it, sophomore right guard Brandon Washington earned ACC Lineman of the Week honors after grading out at 97 percent against Duke. With redshirt freshman Jermaine Johnson back home (supposedly because he was sick), Henderson made his third straight start at right tackle and played the entire game for the first time in his career. Linder, meanwhile, made his first college start in a jumbo package and played the most he had all season.
And although UM's offensive line appeared to have some major issues at the start of the season with Joel Figueroa injured and struggling to handle a switch to right tackle, pass protection hasn't been as a big of an issue lately as some feared it might be. In fact, the Canes have only surrendered eight sacks this season -- that puts them on pace to finish with half as many as they did a year ago (35) at season's end.
Outside of left tackle and senior Orlando Franklin (and possibly Figueroa if he is not granted a medical redshirt), the Hurricanes will bring back all of their offensive linemen next season. Starting left guard Harland Gunn and center Tyler Horn will be seniors. The rest of the group will be made up of talented underclassmen.
The group of true freshmen -- led by Henderson, Linder, Bunche and accompanied by Johnathan Feliciano, Shane McDermott and Jermiane Barton -- "is going to be real special" according to Horn.
"All of those guys are really, really good and they're going to be really, really good players," Horn said. "They get reps and go against a really good team on scout team and it's starting to show up. They're pushing guys around like its nothing."
Said UM coach Randy Shannon: "I'm very excited. They're big and competitive. Malcolm Bunche is doing a great job of competing down there, Jermaine Barton we just got back this past week - it's a slow process because he's been out for a long time [with injury]. And Feliciano has been doing a good job. They give our defensive line a lot of fits because they're big, they're physical and knock guys around. Anytime you have guys competitive like that on scout team they give you a great look and take pride in doing it, it's always good for your team."
Linder, who is currently backing up Horn at center, has taken reps in games at guard and as a third tackle on overload packages. Horn calls Linder "extremely smart" and said his attention to detail in the film room has helped him get on the field early.
"He's one of those guys whose always in the film room, hounding [offensive line] coach [Jeff] Stoutland to teach him, teach him, teach him," Horn said. "He also plays hard, runs downfield, never gives up on a block, never stops blocking. It's a mixture of effort and the desire to learn."
Henderson, tabbed as the top high school recruit in the country, was supposed to play at some point this season. But the fact he cracked the starting lineup in just UM's fourth game, Horn said, came as a result of his work ethic.
"He didn't come out here and say 'Hey I'm the No. 1 recruit.' He said I want to earn it the right way. And he's done that," Horn said. "I respect a Seantrel a whole lot because of it. I'm really proud of the way he came in and instead of being all high and mighty, he came in all humble with a chip on his shoulder to really prove he's the best."
Washington said he thinks the Canes will potentially be just as good, if not better than the impressive offensive line Florida State has groomed over the past few seasons. Just like the Seminoles did two weeks ago, Washington believes its only a matter of time before the Canes start dominating up front the way they did.
"If we can get everybody clicking on all cylinders, by my senior year, it's going to be crazy," Washington said. "You'll have Malcolm Bunche, Seantrel on the same side -- that's 600, 700 pounds alone of meat and muscle working together to blow open some big holes. It's going to be a beautiful thing."
"It's like blocking for your brother -- your blood brother," Horn said. "When you see him run over one of the safeties down the field, it fires you up, you want to open a bigger hole for him so you can see him run it again. As the game goes on, he doesn't get tired. It's like he gets more amped up, excited about running over people. It's a lot of fun to block for that guy.
"He's fierce," Brandon Washington said. "He's a powerhouse, a one-man wrecking crew. It feels good blocking for someone like that knowing if I just stay on my block this could spring for a 20, 30-yard run. If I can make my play, this could be a great run."
> With Berry getting the bulk of the carries these days, you wonder how the guys behind him are feeling about their limited opportunities. Berry said he talks to a lot of the guys behind him on the depth chart about having patience and points out how he had to wait to the middle of his junior year to run the ball.
"I talk to Storm [Johnson] and Eduardo [Clements] a lot," Berry said. "But they know there are four great guys in front of them that have playing experience and when it is their time, they just have to show out. Everybody will get their opportunity.
"You can't get down. Me and [Graig] Cooper are like best friends. Sometimes he does have his days. But it's never down in the tank. It's more like I have to do more to help this team."
For fun I asked Berry if he missed playing safety. His response: "That's like asking me if I like riding the bench."
> For those of you who believe some of these players don't demand enough perfection from themselves, when I asked Brandon Washington if he was proud of the Canes' improvement in allowing fewer sacks he just shook his head at me. "Eight sacks? We're not proud of that at all," Washington said. "We want zero sacks. The first half of the season is behind us. We want to end the last six with zero sacks and more pancakes."
> If you are wondering where those six big freshmen offensive linemen dine together, it's not off campus. According to Linder, they can't go anywhere because "none of us have cars."
"Freshmen aren't allowed to have cars," Linder said. "So we go to the Rat and stuff, tear it up."
> Another great quote from Tuesday's press conference came from the lips of Tyler Horn. When asked about the recruiting stars system, Horn said: "You can have all the stars in the world, it doesn't mean your going to be a good football player. It just means you have the potential to be a good football player. I've always been told potential is a nine-letter word for bad."