Note: See The Herald's story on the sports home page for a report on the Dolphins' trade of Vontae Davis to the Colts.
SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Picked by media to finish fifth in its six-team Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division, UM enters Saturday’s opener at Boston College faced with some of the lowest expectations in years. But here’s a storyline that should keep you engaged: following the growth of a freshman class that this coaching staff hopes can become the nucleus of a top-20 team within a couple years.
“This class,” five-star cornerback Tracy Howard told us earlier this summer, “has got to be the one to lead us back. Me, Malcolm Lewis, Deon Bush, Duke Johnson, we’re coming in with passion and hunger to turn things around. No disrespect to the upper classmen, but we’ve got to make things happen ourselves. We’ve got a lot of humble, unselfish guys in this class.”
Coach Al Golden says a “bunch” of freshmen will play and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch admits: “I didn’t realize how good our young guys were” before August. An update on the ballyhooed freshman class, which was ranked eighth by ESPN:
### Defense: UM says at least four freshmen defensive backs will play, in addition to sophomore newcomer Ladarius Gunter: Howard (listed as a second-teamer but still competing to start); Bush (battling Kacy Rodgers to start at safety); Rayshawn Jenkins (backing up at safety), and Antonio Crawford (projects to be in the five-man corner rotation).
Bush is very physical (according to Mike James), knows what he's doing and isn't prone to a lot of mental mistakes that others have made, a UM official said.
Jenkins “is very active on the ball, which is why he’s been getting reps with the ones,” Golden said. “He knocks them down, he intercepts them, he recovers fumbles. That’s what we’re looking for. The probability he makes a play on the ball is higher than a lot of other guys at that position… [And] we’re very excited about Crawford.”
But the jewel is Howard, who has set four goals: “I want to earn a starting job as a freshman. I want to be a freshman All-American. Hopefully I’ll be on the Jim Thorpe list [given to the nation’s best defensive back] as a junior.
“And I want to push Brandon McGee so hard by him knowing he has someone on his tail. That will push him to go in the first round next year. I feel like whatever I set my mind to, it’s going to happen.”
Defensive backs coach Paul Williams said Howard “has got something special”; coaches love his work ethic. Eduardo Clements said this off-season, Howard would take a nap at 9 p.m., then get up and study film at 11 p.m.
Howard, who sees similarities between himself and All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson, has consulted with Edgerrin James – who told him “to go handle my business and have fun” – as well as Brandon Harris, Jacory Harris, Reggie Wayne and others.
Howard’s strengths? “I press well. I’m very physical, quick. A smart corner. What sets me apart is knowledge of the game….
“I’m very humble. I don’t go out. I don’t play video games. I don’t want to party. I might graduate in three years, studying finance. But I want to win before I leave. Hopefully, I’ll win the Jim Thorpe and be the first corner drafted.”
Jelani Hamilton (Anthony Chickillo’s backup) and pass-rusher Tyriq McCord are ahead of the other freshmen defensive ends, Dwayne Hoilett and Jake O’Donnell, and are expected to play. The freshmen ends, Golden said, have been “up and down.”
Center Shane McDermott said Earl Moore has been the most polished of the three incoming defensive tackles (Moore, Dequan Ivery, Jacoby Briscoe). “Earl is 300 pounds of straight muscle, built like a bowling ball,” McDermott said.
Linebacker Raphael Kirby’s knee injury, which will sideline him at least part of the season, was a blow, but the coaches love speedy pass rusher Gabe Terry, a former 195-pound Nebraska high-school state wrestling champ who has overcome considerable adversity. (His father is serving a life sentence for murder.) “Gabe Terry plays as hard as anyone on our team,” Golden said.
### Offense: Coaches can hardly conceal their giddiness about Duke Johnson; one UM football staffer muttered in amazement after watching him recently. Johnson’s fakes in the open field are so lethal than Gionni Paul injured his knee after one of them.
Johnson - who is listed behind Phillip Dorsett on the depth chart on kickoff returns - averaged 10 yards per carry and scored 29 touchdowns as a senior at Norland, and his coach there, Daryle Heidelberg, compares him to former NFL great Marshall Faulk.
“He’s only 5-8, but he’s 190 pounds, which makes him more durable than you would have thought,” Fisch said. “And he’s electric in terms of speed. He can run a lot more downhill than I originally thought.” UM also wants to exploit his skills as a receiver in space.
“The guy,” Howard said, “is amazing. He’s very patient, very quick, can turn a negative play into a long gain. Even though he’s not that big, he’s so strong that nobody can bring him down. I’ve watched him take eight of 10 kickoffs to the house in high school.”
Right tackle Ereck Flowers, who has seized the right tackle job amid Seantrel Henderson’s personal issues, “is going to be a great player,” Fisch predicted.
“He’s got really good feet for a big man, and he’s got lateral quickness,” Golden said. “He’s so smart for an offensive lineman, for a freshman.”
Freshman guard Daniel Isidora also is pushing for time.
At least two of five freshmen receivers will play, with third-teamers Malcolm Lewis and Herb Waters trying to crack the top-four rotation. Robert Lockhart can make dazzling catches in traffic but has fallen behind Lewis (a polished route runner, quick and a red zone threat) and Waters (who is “fast, smooth, elusive,” Fisch said, and better than what UM coaches thought).
Cornerback Ladarius Gunter said Lewis is the most difficult of the freshmen receivers to cover because he’s “so shifty.” Lewis is listed behind Dorsett on the depth chart for punt returns.
### One NFL general manager said he couldn’t understand why the Dolphins didn’t draft a receiver in the first three rounds. Expect Miami to peruse the waiver wire at that position, as well as offensive line (especially a backup tackle); defensive tackle (if the Dolphins don't go with a prospect as their fourth DT); cornerback (fifth slot is open after Jonathan Wade's release); and possibly for a fourth tight end better than Jeron Mastrud if Miami keeps that many (the Packers kept five last year).
The Dolphins were pleased with the work of backup linebackers Jason Trusnik, Austin Spitler and Gary Guyton on Friday, making that less of an issue.
### CBS’ Rich Gannon, who calls Packers preseason games, said Green Bay (Joe Philbin’s former team) has seven legitimate NFL receivers. Though Miami hasn’t called the Packers about a trade as of a couple days ago, that could change. CBS' Charley Casserly said Miami should trade a mid-round pick for Packers receiver James Jones, NFL people expect the Dolphins to consider receivers the Packers cut – potentially 2011 practice squad members Diondre Borel or Tori Gurley.
### The Dolphins - whose safety play in preseason has been mediocre - inquired about but have not pursued former Packers safety Charlie Peprah, who had five interceptions last year but was cut in July after failing his physical (knee).
### Some NFL people are not surprised by Michael Egnew’s struggles, with one noting the limited pro success of fellow Missouri tight ends Martin Rucker (fourth round, 2008) and Chase Coffman (third round, 2009). Those two have five combined NFL receptions and, like Egnew, played in coach Gary Pinkel’s spread offense.
The Dolphins, who took Egnew 78th, passed on four receivers drafted in the next 22 picks: Cincinnati’s Mohamed Sanu (four catches, 25 yards in preseason), the Colts’ and ex-FIU standout T.Y. Hilton (9 for 116, including 31 yard TD Saturday), the Rams’ Chris Givens (3 for 40), and the Browns’ and ex-UM standout Travis Benjamin (2-46). Former Cane Tommy Streeter, selected 199th by Baltimore and repeatedly passed over by Miami, caught a 33-yard touchdown Thursday.
### Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, speaking Saturday about the difficulty of picking receivers for this team: "They haven't helped matters. I don't know how much more clarity we're going to have after the last game, but hopefully we will."... He said Davone Bess and "a couple" other receivers (Brian Hartline presumably one of them) are guaranteed jobs but wouldn't name them. He also said he's concerned "a lot about our [offensive line] depth."
### The Heat, which continues to consider ex-Knick Josh Harrellson and several other centers, offered center Mickell Gladness a non-guaranteed one-year deal, but he hasn’t decided whether to accept.... Free agents Gladness, Terrel Harris and Juwan Howard are working out with the team, with Howard staying in shape in case Miami chooses to re-sign him….
Harris is weighing whether to re-sign with Miami or accept one of several European offers… Former Loyola Marymount small forward Drew Viney, the most impressive undrafted rookie on Miami’s summer-league team, signed to play in Poland instead of waiting for an expected Heat training camp invitation.
### Though it would be helpful to get a final read on 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, he hasn’t earned a Marlins promotion from Triple A, where he’s hitting .279 and is 6 for his last 35. He might be non-tendered this winter…. Former Cardinals prospect Zack Cox, whom the Marlins hope will be their third baseman of the future, is hitting .271 with 12 RBI in his first 18 games at Double A Jacksonville.