CORAL GABLES -- Brandon McGee is no longer sitting on the bottom of the Hurricanes depth chart. The cornerback was wearing a black jersey Tuesday -- a sign that he's doing what coaches want and expect of a senior who is supposed to be starting and anchoring his unit.
“He’s working,” UM coach Al Golden said of McGee, who started 12 games for UM last season, but emerged fifth on the team's depth chart after the completion of the off-season U Tough program.
“I see Brandon a little bit differently than maybe most do. I see a kid that’s very talented, that’s willing, that's working hard and we just have to get enough confidence where he then goes out and makes plays. Not freelance, but go out and finish plays because he has all of the skill set that you want, and now he’s 190 [pounds]."
McGee has always had the physical gifts to be a star at UM in the eyes of coaches. He's 6-feet tall, was 180 pounds last year, and was timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash last summer. "But I don't think he uses all those gifts the way he should," defensive coordinator Mark D'Onoforio said Tuesday.
D'Onofrio and Golden tried to get that message across heading into spring football -- not only by placing McGee fifth on the depth chart, but with frequent text messages throughout the off-season.
"They'd send me texts asking, 'How great do you want to be?'," McGee said. "Even though I went up in my squat from 380 [pounds] to 415, I guess there was a point where in their eyes I had to push the threshold even more. Even though I beat the man next to me [in U Tough], they didn't want me to beat him just by a yard, I should have beaten him by five yards. It's pushing yourself further and further. It's definitely bringing out good qualities in myself now."
In Saturday's scrimmage in Hialeah, the first of the spring, McGee started showing coaches what they've wanted from him all along -- more physicality.
"The one thing about Brandon in Saturday's scrimmage was that he was physical probably for the first time since I’ve been here," Golden said. "He’s in those short-yardage [situations] mixing it up. I think he feels more confident with his body and the physical nature he can play at 190. Now, we have to get him staying in the system, converting and making plays, getting more interceptions, being more of a ball disruptor for us.”
"I don't want him to press to make a play. I want him to trust D'Onofrio and [defensive backs coach Paul] Williams and let that take him to the play."
D'Onofrio echoed those sentiments.
"If you date it back to this time last year, it's night and day the way he's playing physically now," D'Onofrio said.
"I think he saw himself as an athlete who was a cover corner and there is no such cover corner position on our defense. You have to be physical, you have to be tough and I think he's trusted what we're asking him to do. I think he's delivering on it. Now, we're looking for consistency, not 70 percent, 75 percent of the time, all the time. He has to demand it from himself and give his body up for the team."
McGee had 38 tackles last season (eighth most on the team) including 2.5 for loss with a sack and his first career interception.
But as a unit, UM's secondary had an awful season in 2011, ranking 95th in pass efficiency defense (they were fifth in 2010). UM's defense produced just six interceptions -- 10 fewer than the year before -- and opposing quarterbacks completed 66.35 percent of their passes (sixth worst among 120 FBS schools).
"Last year was really difficult," D'Onofrio said of the team's cornerback play. "I really didn't have anybody experienced to work with. Brandon was the fourth corner [in 2010], but didn't play a lot of snaps because he was behind the three guys who are all in the NFL now. [Transfer] Mike Williams didn't play for a year and them came over here and started 12 games. Thomas Finnie was a freshman. JoJo Nicolas was a safety and then he had to go back and forth because of the issues we had at safety. Lee Chambers was a running back.
"The hard part for us now is I lost most of those guys. The only guys we got back were McGee and Finnie. McGee got a lot of reps. Finnie didn't get a lot of reps in games, but he did get the second team reps during the week, which were a lot. But, it's better than the year before. We've got seven new guys coming in this class. Last year, we had one [Finnie]. At least we have a place to start."
And that place starts with McGee, who is taking charge not only of himself, but his unit as well.
"My phone is always open for those guys," McGee said. "[Early enrollee] Larry Hope, sometimes he'll hit me up and ask me to go watch film. When they make mistakes in practice, I'll pull them off to the side and try to clean up their technique, just telling them what to look for on the field. And I emphasize don't make the same mistake twice. If they hear coaches getting on me for a mistake, I tell them to listen so they don't do the same thing. That's the one thing that makes coaches hot."
McGee said he's been in constant contact with incoming freshmen Deon Bush and Tracy Howard, the nation's No. 1 high school corner. Whenever Howard or Bush visits UM, McGee gets right to work talking scheme and football.
"I've seen him work out. He has good hips, quick feet," McGee said of Howard. "He's a competitor, talks some trash. I like that about him. I'm just excited for him to get here. To see a guy like that work and be able to help him through the process is going to be good.
"It's never easy. No matter how talented you are and what kind of expectations are placed on you, it's never easy to make that transition from high school to college. I'm going to be there to help him along the way and that's something I promised his parents I would do. Him and Deon."
MORE NEWS AND NOTES FROM TUESDAY
> Both McGee and Finnie said D'Onofrio isn't changing much in the way of coverages or schemes in the playbook. "There's nothing really new added, just perfecting what we did before," McGee said.
Last year, many Canes fans griped that cornerbacks were playing too far off receivers, allowing them to eat up the defense underneath. I've felt all along scheme hasn't been the problem -- it's been personnel. Maybe some continuity in scheme and getting more physical play -- as well as talent -- is the answer.
> As for Finnie, D'Onofrio says toughness isn't his issue. "Finnie's not afraid to throw his face in there at all. He's one of the tougher guys we've got right now. When those guys come around the corner or those tight ends lower the shoulder, he's doing exactly what we want him to do. He's not ducking out of the way," D'Onofrio said.
"What we need out of him is consistency and knowing that on the back end [coverage] you don't get any mulligans like you do in golf. Somebody gets behind you, it's 7-0. You don't get to push the reset button like you do in Madden. That's where we're trying to discipline him. When you're deep, you're deep."
> With Keion Payne now off the team, UM has five cornerbacks in camp. McGee is listed on the first team at field corner with Johnson backing him up. Finnie is the starter at boundary corner with junior college transfer Ladarius Gunter and Hope behind him.
> Of course, there is another part to UM's secondary -- safety. I didn't get D'Onofrio or Golden's thoughts on how seniors Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque have been performing, but the overriding sentiment this spring has been that both are putting forth the effort required.
"Ray, every play he's out there talking. VT is brining energy," McGee said. "I've been around them for a long time and can see the change in the them. If we come out flat, they get everybody amped up."
> With left guard Jonathan Feliciano going down for the rest of the spring, Jermaine Johnson has stepped in with the starting unit at that spot. The other starters: Malcolm Bunche at left tackle, Shane McDermott at center, Brandon Linder at right guard and Seantrel Henderson at right tackle.
“Jermaine looked really good inside,” Golden said. “Right now he’s one of the best five. We’ll see how it shakes out.”
> Golden said he's pleased with former defensive tackle Jeremy Lewis, who is taking first team reps at times at right and left guard. "He just needs to get in better condition and play at a high level," Golden said.
> Golden said the only way receiver Kendal Thompkins becomes a real contributor is by "eliminating drops." Thompkins had a few in Saturday's scrimmage.
> Golden continued his praise of freshmen Ereck Flowers and Raphael Kirby this spring calling them "difference makers" on Tuesday.