Tailback Mike James, known for his ever present smile, is still flashing that positive spirit in the aftermath of his mom's death, according to one teammate -- though he declined interview requests Saturday on the first day of spring football practice at the University of Miami.
Understandable. James' mother died in a car accident in December before the Sun Bowl, an accident in which his sister and nephew were also involved. He arrived in El Paso just before the game, and got the first carry for seven yards. He ended up with four carries for 10 yards that day, and was undoubtedly emotionally spent after UM's 33-17 loss to Notre Dame on the same day his mother was buried.
But James, a sturdy 5-11, 222-pound junior, has persevered, and found himself on the top of the UM depth chart when it was revealed Friday.
"The biggest thing Mike did was really compete in the offseason from the weight room to on-the-field drills,'' running backs coach Terry Richardson said Saturday. "He's an excellent leader. He won it from a physical standpoint and also he won it from a leadership standpoint. He deserved to line up at No. 1.''
Richardson said James is a versatile player who, because of his "size and strength,'' is "a slasher. Sometimes you can hit him at four yards and he ends up with eight. He has good balance and good vision. And the one thing that impressed me is his versatility and how they used him in a lot of ways.''
LaRon Byrd said the team has rallied around James in the aftermath of his tragedy.
"Losing your mom, that's one of the worst things that could happen in this world,'' Byrd, a receiver, said. "Seeing him come to the bowl game, you've got to tip your hat off to him. He loves the game of football and we're like his family so we've got to be there for him.
"I've never really seen him cry. I don't know what he does in his off time before us. But when he's around us he's always happy and always keeps a smile on his face. Always [smiling], that's Mike James."
> Richardson said the coaches have "developed the work ethic'' of tailback Storm Johnson, a sophomore listed behind James on the depth chart, and ahead of Lamar Miller. "He's very talented and I think he's bought into what we're teaching him.''
A LEANER, MEANER MARCUS
Defensive tackle Marcus Forston is taking care of himself, and it shows. He says his new lifestyle "is carrying over to the offseason workouts.''
Forston lost 21 pounds, and does he ever look it. He said he's down to 295, and feeling great. Forston was one of the defensive players who ran out onto Greentree Field on Saturday wearing a black jersey -- awarded by coach Al Golden for earning first-team status on defense.
"Just eating right man, just leaving all that fast food alone,'' is how Forston said he lost the weight. "For the past six to seven weeks, the only thing I was eating was chicken and turkey and stuff like that -- spinach. Just putting all the right things in your body, it's amazing if you eat right what can happen and how much better you'll feel.''
Forston said he spoke to his teammates at halftime and after the Sun Bowl and learned then that he could be a leader and have an impact on the team. "There are a lot of guys that earn respect, you look up to them and you know that [I want] to lead by example. Everday I come into that weight room I'm going to go hard. No matter who I'm going up against -- If I'm in there working out with a linebacker or defensive back I'm going to try to beat them working out and finish first. That's something you've got to do. A positive mind always equals a positive outcome.
"If you come out here on this field every day with a positive mind, man, you're going to get positive results.''
Forston, a junior, said he told his teammates after the Sun Bowl, "That will never happen again. As long as I'm on this team and leading this team, that will never happen.''
> Wide receiver Byrd, minus the boot he wore last month, was at practice with that same upbeat attitude as always. Byrd, who wore former UM Canes great Michael Irvin's jersey number of 47, switched his jersey number to 2, Graig Cooper's old number.
Some fans were wondering if Byrd was told by coaches to switch his number because he wasn't living up to Irvin's. Not at all. Turns out Byrd had wanted that number for a while. "It was for a personal reason. My cousin had died in the summer of '09 and his favorite number was 2. I said whenever I had the opportunity to change it, I was going to change it.''
>Defensive end Olivier Vernon, who started 11 of 13 games last season, was not even listed as a first- or second-teamer on the depth chart for the beginning of spring practice. "You can't be comfortable,'' Vernon said Saturday just minutes before practice. "It was just a wakeup call for the people who were starting. As long as I'm able to play and I'm not hurt, that's all that matters to me.''
Vernon was asked about the new coaching staff and how things feel different. "All these coaches are hyped, man. It's like everyday they're hyped. They've got so much gratitude. They're just happy to be out here.''
Golden said Vernon and linebacker Kelvin Cain were not listed on the two-deep depth chart simply because “they got edged out in the offseason program. They’ll have an opportunity out here to earn their stripes.’’
> Golden on freshman cornerback Thomas Finnie, listed as first-team cornerback ahead of Brandon McGee: “His work ethic is ahead of his years right now. He came in with excellent maturity, work ethic and a no-nonsense approach. He’s had a great off-season program.’’
> About to get started on my feature on the UM quarterbacks for Sunday's paper. Interesting situation, with senior Spencer Whipple, the usual third-stringer and son of former offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, starting spring at first-team ahead of Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris. I respect Al Golden for doing what he said he was going to do from the start, organize the depth chart according to how they performed in the conditioning pre-spring phase. Any parent can tell you that when you are consistent with setting the rules and following through with repercussions should they be broken, there tends to be far less confusion and turmoil in the long run. That said, be assured that their on-field performance in the long run, given that they don't break any rules we may or may not know about, will be the deciding factor.
--SUSAN MILLER DEGNAN