SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Some feedback we’ve heard from inside the UM football program (coaches and players):
### So how can UM possibly expect to be better after losing arguably six of its top 10 players off a 6-7 team? UM people cite a bunch of reasons --- starting with an improved Brad Kaaya --- but we want to see it to believe it.
We’re also usually skeptical about believing that off-field intangibles contribute significantly to a team’s record. But cornerback Tracy Howard says one such variable has changed dramatically and insists it’s going to make a difference. It’s the accountability issue that former Hurricanes greats talk about all the time.
Howard said leadership on last year’s team wasn’t what it needed to be, which led to mistakes not being corrected and an emotional letdown after the FSU game that caused the season to derail.
“I know how we can be 6-7,” Howard said of 2014. “You got a lot of guys with a lot of talent. But when you got a team that doesn’t really hold each other accountable, you don’t really have a strong leadership. Talent is not enough. You need leadership, a team that is going stick together.
“Alabama is definitely not the most talented team ever, but they’re a team. They believe in what the coach tells them and they believe in their system. That’s why they always come out on top because they believe in what Nick Saban is telling them to do.”
So what has changed inside UM? “This year, guys are holding others accountable,” Howard said. “When the young guys come in, that’s all they know now. Nobody is slacking off. They have to follow. They don’t have a choice. If you don’t like it, you could leave.”
Lack of effort by UM players last season was a problem cited by another player in this space last week, and 2014 Hurricanes center Shane McDermott told The Ticket last week that some players felt “entitled” and “we had a lot of selfishness that we needed to get rid of.”
Shane McDermott said when he visited campus to see his brother (UM tackle Kc McDermott) last week, it was “the hardest I’ve seen them work in a while.”
Why the change now?
“Probably maturity, experience, [tired of] losing,” Howard said. “We came in with such high expectations: me, Herb [Waters], Deon [Bush]. We were going to put us back on the map. No senior has gone out on a good note since we’ve been here. We don’t want that to happen again. We came to make Miami relevant again, win a championship and go to the NFL. That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said it’s clear that “our players respond to” Howard’s leadership.
The others who are now taking charge and not putting up with teammates’ missteps? Howard cited Brad Kaaya, tight end Standish Dobard, receiver Stacy Coley, Bush ("Deon has changed; he's stepped up and is making a difference") and offensive tackle Kc McDermott.
A UM staffer said Al Golden isn’t letting things slide now and has sent players home even if they’re less than a minute late to a meeting. Howard said Golden always demanded accountability and makes clear he doesn’t blame the coach for last year’s aforementioned shortcomings.
“I know a lot of guys give him a lot of slack but he knows what he’s talking about,” Howard said. "He’s definitely a good coach.”
Everyone --- coaches and players --- deserve blame for UM losing its edge after the FSU game and falling to two teams with less talent (Virginia and Pittsburgh). So what is going to prevent that from happening again?
“If you have your leaders go in the tank, say, ‘Ah, [bleep] it,’ then the whole team will go in the tank because those guys have the most influence,” Howard said.
“We really wanted the [FSU] game bad and it was emotionally draining on us. There wasn’t the same fire [after]. Once they see leaders… not having their heads down” that won’t happen again.
We won’t know until the season starts, and adversity strikes, whether this team has the DNA to respond better than last year’s. But Howard talking about one of the intangible problems, and players trying to fix it, certainly can’t hurt.
### One thing we keep hearing from several players (Calvin Heurtelou and others) is how much a difference defensive end Al Quadin Muhammad is going to make.
Some UM staffers have privately griped that he didn’t deserve the administration’s 2014 fall semester suspension for punching another student who was said to have incited him. Nevertheless, Trent Harris (a favorite of coaches) remains ahead of Muhammad on the depth chart.
### Some feedback on running backs: Not only do coaches and players believe Mark Walton is going to make a big immediate impact, but there are people on the UM staff who believe Gus Edwards has star potential, because of his combination of size, strength and speed, provided he stays healthy (a big if with him).
The staff considers Joe Yearby a game-breaker but believes he must do a better job breaking tackles and not settling for initial yardage before going down. His spring game suspension, resulting from tardiness, was viewed as an anomaly…. Trayone Gray must do a better job holding onto the ball and stop running as up-right. It was a difficult first year for Gray here, but “now it's going smoothly,” he said. “I know the playbook well. I’ve lost 10 pounds. I can be a scatback with power, too.”
### With only three experienced cornerbacks (Howard, Artie Burns, Corn Elder) and redshirt freshman Ryan Mayes, UM needs something immediately from at least one summer cornerback arrival (Michael Jackson, Sheldrick Redwine, Terrance Henley).
“I like all three,” Howard said. “Redwine is very smooth, very patient, very mature for a young player. Jackson is very physical. Technique is sound. Henley can run. He’s a track guy. And Ryan had a good spring.”
There’s a belief around the UM program that Burns --– with excellent size, speed and arm length --- can develop into a first-round talent. Though Burns has been very good at times, he needs to consistently play to Golden’s confidence level in him. “I watch Artie and I think he’s easily an NFL corner; fast, physical, great mentality,” Howard said.
UM's first summer depth chart has Howard at one starting cornerback job and Burns and Elder as an either/or at the other.
### UM receivers are effusive about the difference new assistant Kevin Beard is making with this group.
“He played football here and he played wide receiver here. That's an element that's very intangible,” Braxton Berrios said. “He can relate on a personal basis to what we're going through, what we see. He's teaching a lot and we're retaining a lot.
“It has been incredible. We all love him. We all bought in to whatever he says.”
### A general manager with another NBA team told me Mario Chalmers and Shabazz Napier are the players the Heat has been most aggressive in shopping, with Miami preferring to move Chalmers because of his $4.3 million salary.
The GM said the Heat would be content getting back only a second-round pick (or less) for Chalmers. Though Chris Andersen could be moved, the GM said the Heat hasn’t offered him to his team, and that Miami hasn’t shown an inclination to move Josh McRoberts.
### One positive with Napier, who averaged 17 points in Summer League and is due to make $1.3 million this coming season: “He looked quicker this summer,” said Heat assistant Dan Craig, who coached Miami's summer league team. “He's been great in terms of getting into the paint and getting paint touches. We had challenged him [about] getting in the paint more, playing with a higher motor....
"He looks night and day from last summer. His pace and quickness have improved. [And] he's improved his three-point shot."
### The Heat will make rookie guard Josh Richardson an offer to retain his rights but must decide whether to make room for him on the roster or encourage him to play a year overseas. Richardson’s reps want him to be in the NBA and it’s ultimately his choice whether to try to make the team in October.
The NBA “has always been my dream; nobody wants to play anywhere else,” he said, adding he doesn’t know if he would consider a year overseas if asked.
Richardson averaged 11.8 points, shot 8 for 21 on three-pointers with 17 steals and 9 blocks in 10 Summer League games. Does he look ready to be an NBA player now?
“I think he does,” Craig said. “It's just about roster wise what we're going to be looking at in terms of what we really need. When everything is said and done, I think he's going to be right there in the mix.
“He's another guy we're really encouraged by on both sides of the floor. Offensively and defensively, just his overall demeanor. He approaches the game as if he was an NBA player already. That’s pretty encouraging for a kid coming out of college.”
Problem is, the Heat has 17 players without him. Even if Miami trades Chalmers and cuts Henry Walker, there still would not be room for Richardson unless Miami dumps another player.
### Good move by Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum to pick the brains of other smart people this offseason, including meetings with Jimmy Johnson and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
### Though Baseball America rates Marlins right-hander Tyler Kolek --- drafted second overall in 2014 --- as the sport’s 46th-best prospect, he has been erratic in Single A this season (4-6, 4.44 ERA), whereas two college pitchers drafted shortly after him are much further along: Carlos Rodon is 3-2 with a 3.80 ERA for the White Sox and Aaron Nola is 10-3, 2.03 in the Phillies’ system.
It’s way too soon to know if the Marlins made a mistake. Baseball America says Kolek, who was drafted out of high school, “needs refinement. The fastball has backed up a little from triple digits last year.”