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2 posts from November 4, 2013

November 04, 2013

News and notes from Monday's practice: Duke, Deon, Dorsett, D'Onofrio and defense

As devastating as it was to get dominated in the second half by rival Florida State and lose Duke Johnson for the season in the process, the Hurricanes shifted their focus Monday and completely immersed themselves in preparing for Saturday's pivotal Coastal Division showdown with Virginia Tech.

"We have a lot to play for," UM coach Al Golden said. "We got a lot of season left. How we play here in the next four weeks will determine how much, what the stakes will be. It's real important we get back on the saddle given the team that's coming in, their tradition, what they've meant to this division and the challenge they pose."

The Hurricanes (7-1, 3-1 ACC) still control their destiny in the Coastal Division. But lose to the Hokies (6-3, 3-2) and the Hurricanes will need help to reach the ACC title game.

"It's still all in front of them," Golden said. "What they have to do is trust what we're telling them. Let them go through that process of growing and maturing and learning, just focusing on the details everyday and not focusing on everything else. Sometimes you get stung."


> The No. 1 question on the minds of all Hurricanes fans has to be just how bad Duke Johnson's injury really is. A source inside UM told me Johnson's broken ankle is not nearly as bad as the one receiver Malcolm Lewis is still trying to completely recover from.

When asked if Johnson might be ready for spring ball, Golden appeared encouraged: "I think he'll be back sooner rather than later," he said. "We're going to try like heck to get him stronger, really work on his nutrition and his weight gain. I know Clinton Portis is one of the guys who talked to him about that. He's got to continue to get stronger, and he will."

> How will the Hurricanes handle not having Duke around? Offensive coordinator James Coley said replacing Johnson's production will involve a running back by committee approach. Still, expect to see Crawford handle the bulk of the carries with Clements coming in on third downs and Gus Edwards likely participating in special packages. Freshman Walter Tucker is simply taking more reps in practice in case any of those three go down.

Golden said the reason Edwards had not seen much work (one carry for no yards at North Carolina) since tallying 166 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries against Savannah State and USF four weeks ago is because Duke Johnson and Dallas Crawford "were holding his reps off."

"Gus is ready for this now," Golden said. "He's going to be in the mix and is definitely going to be carrying the ball for us on Saturday."

Golden said the offensive play-calling would not be scaled down with Johnson out and noted that the team's mental errors are down 50 percent from where they were a year ago "at this very date."

> Expect to see safety Deon Bush a lot more this week against Virginia Tech, which could lead to fewer minutes for senior AJ Highsmith, who despite making Miami's only sack Saturday didn't have a great game overall.

Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio and Golden both came to Highsmith's defense Monday. Golden actually said Highsmith "played really well at FSU" and has done a great job "leading, getting us lined up."

"I know he'd like to have the one play back -- he's was probably one step away from intercepting the deep play [to Kelvin Benjamin] -- one of the few deep ones they got in the game," Golden said.

D'Onofrio said Highsmith didn't get the help he needed from the cornerback covering on that play (Ladarius Gunter) and noted Highsmith has "played played a lot of snaps without a mental error. Going into that game he was 250 snaps without making one mental error, which is hard to do, especially at that position."

Still, D'Onofrio conceded he'd like to have a more physical safety out there. Bush had four tackles and his first career college interception Saturday (his previous one came his junior year at Miami Columbus).

"It is the most he's played and the best he's looked so hopefully we can get him back to the confidence level he was playing with last year prior to the injuries he's had to deal with," D'Onofrio said.

"We need physical players back there. Your physical players in games like that have to make plays, they have to impose their will. You guys know who they are. You watch the games. The guys that are physical, that can cause fumbles, those guys have to show up and be physical. He's one of the guys that can do that. And we're going to need that from him."

Bush said Monday he still experiences some pain in his surgically repaired groin, but is feeling the best he has in a long time. He also dealt with neck/shoulder injury last year.

> D'Onofrio said his defense was obviously disappointed with giving up 41 points and more than 500 yards of offense to Florida State because they had a lot invested into Saturday's game. But the Hurricanes did enjoy some success against FSU quarterback Jameis Winston early, throwing a mix of man and zone coverages in with an occasional blitz, leading Winston holding onto the ball and to two interceptions.

The problem for UM was they couldn't get off the field on third down and let Winston escape the pocket a few times on third downs for first downs.

"That was disappointing," D'Onofrio said. "Our guys had an understanding of who was back there [Jameis Winston] and we just didn't make plays on him a couple times. We didn't have the vision we needed there. It's really a two-level deal. You have to keep him in the pocket, try to come clean and get a sack, and then have underneath defenders that have vision. Somebody needs to be a wrap player whose watching him if you're in man coverage and then all the underneath defenders need to watch him in zone. We just have to do a better job overall when you're dealing with a mobile quarterback like that."

The difference in the game, D'Onofrio said, was Florida State's ability to establish the run in the second half. Once the Seminoles went up by a couple scores Miami was simply playing catch-up.

> Against Virginia Tech's offense, the Hurricanes will have to try and contain a quarterback that has beaten them with his legs before.

Senior Logan Thomas ran 22 times for 124 yards and a touchdown last season against UM, but struggled throwing (19-37, 199 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) in a 30-12 Canes win. A year earlier in Blacksburg as a sophomore, he lit UM up, finishing 23 of 25 for 310 yards and three touchdowns and running for 38 yards and two scores in a 38-35 win.

Defensive tackle Justin Renfow, who faced Thomas a few times when he played at Virginia, said its even more important this week for the Hurricanes defense to make sure they don't let the opposing quarterback escape the pocket.

"Logan Thomas is a good quarterback and I think think its even more important this week [to cut off running lanes," Renfrow said. "He's been a lot more run first. One look and if his first look is not there he's tucking and running. As a d-line we definitely have to corral him because he tries to run people over. The big guys up front need to be delivering the hit instead of leaving it like we did against Florida State for the corners and safeties to come up and do it."

> Golden made it seem Monday as though receiver Phillip Dorsett might be able to come back before the end of the regular season. "He is fighting like crazy to get back" Golden said. "We have to help him by continuing to play well."

A source said Dorsett had a clean tear in his MCL, which was helpful in his case, and was catching passes at Monday's practice. Still, it's more likely to believe Dorsett will be back for the ACC Championship game, assuming Miami makes it.

Final four-game stretch will show us how much progress Canes have truly made

There was a reason Florida State pushed the Hurricanes around Saturday night like a little brother.

The Seminoles are better, elite in a lot of places: quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive line, secondary. The gap may not have looked that big after two quarters Saturday. But it was on display for the nation to see over the final 30 minutes. Florida State is legit, national championship good. Miami is just getting back into the Top 25 good.

That gap is nothing to be ashamed about if you bleed orange and green. Jimbo Fisher has been building this thing for over five years, since we first heard he would be the guy replacing Bobby Bowden.

Al Golden? He's been trying to rebuild Miami for three years with one arm tied behind his back. It wasn't until two weeks ago tomorrow the 28-month hostage situation with the NCAA really came to an end. Even then, it's been impressive what Golden has been able to accomplish the last couple years.

As fun as it was to see this team start 7-0, climb to No. 7 in the national rankings, ask any talent evaluator and they will tell you these Hurricanes truly were not ready for a Top 10 showdown Saturday. Three recruiting classes into yet another Miami makeover, Golden has restocked the shelves with a few gems (RB Duke Johnson, CB Tracy Howard, DE Tyriq McCord, DE Quan Muhammad, CB Artie Burns, S Deon Bush, OL Ereck Flowers, WR Stacy Coley, LB Jermaine Grace). But really, he's still playing catch-up and only now beginning to fight with both fists free.

I know the thirst has been here for awhile to shout "We're back baby!" But that's really not going to happen until the Hurricanes get to the point where Florida State is. Where you have legit NFL prospects up and down your roster. Fisher had a school-record 11 players taken in last April's NFL Draft. He'll probably have eight more at least this year with half of that taken in the first two rounds.

Miami had two players taken last April (RB Mike James, CB Brandon McGee) and might have four or five this April (LB Denzel Perryman, QB Stephen Morris, OL Brandon Linder, OL Seantrel Henderson) and one of them is a punter. Do the math. Did that sound like a Top 10 matchup Saturday night?

Truth is Golden and his staff over the last three years have taken a bunch of average, leftover talent (DT Curtis Porter, OL Jon Feliciano, S Kacy Rodgers, MLB Jimmy Gaines, WR Allen Hurns, DE Shayon Green, OL Malcolm Bunche, WR Rashawn Scott), coached them up, plugged in a few holes with transfers (DL David Gilbert, DL Justin Renfrow, P Pat O'Donnell) and made this team better year-to-year.

Saturday's game might have been a little closer in the second half had a few guys (LB Eddie Johnson, LB Gionni Paul, CB Thomas Finnie) kept their heads on straight and still been here. But every program has a few knuckleheads who don't seem to get it. Until Saturday, UM hadn't faced a team with superior depth and talent to the them. Florida? The Gators have an elite defense and that's why Miami was in a dog fight. But the Gators are 4-4 now, proof even Will Muschamp (hired at the same time Golden was) isn't having an easy time of it in Gainesville after losing eight draft picks from last year's team.

What the Hurricanes have proven thus far in 2013 is that they are not going to lose games they shouldn't and have the fight in them to rally when they're down. Players are improving. That's what we didn't see enough of during the last regime.

Now, after Saturday's heartbreaking loss (Golden gave the team Sunday off to rest and recover) we'll get to see what this coaching staff and this team is really made of. Duke Johnson is a special talent. But he's not the sole reason Miami is 7-1 and still ranked 14th in the country.

Saturday's opponent, Virginia Tech, a team UM hasn't beaten twice in a row since 2002, is the real benchmark the Hurricanes have to measure themselves against. The Hokies have won the ACC four times since coming over from the Big East with Miami in 2004. Their talent and Miami's talent is and has been much more comparable over the last couple of seasons.

What Golden and his coaches have to prove to us now is that even in the face of adversity (losing his best player) and coming off a humbling defeat against the team you want to catch-up to they can get this football team to re-focus and finish the season strong. As Golden pointed out last year, you can't win the ACC until you win the Coastal Division.

That's really what this season needs to be measured on: Can these Canes continue to beat the teams they are supposed to, win their division and finish the season with momentum for the future?

That's what Randy Shannon's teams couldn't seem to do. UM only had one winning month in November (3-1, 2009) in his four years here. Golden is now 5-4 after Saturday in November. UM finished 3-1 in November last year.

It's going to be challenging without Johnson to finish this November 4-1. But this UM team should be good enough to beat Virginia Tech (6-3, 3-2) at home Saturday, Duke (6-2, 2-2 ACC) on the road Nov. 16, Virginia (2-7, 0-5) at home Nov. 23, and win at Pittsburgh (4-4, 2-3 ACC) the day after Thanksgiving.

It's time to finish the mission Canes.