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Joel Rodriguez with a unique perspective, lots of interesting things to say on state of UM program; Marlins inexplicably lose fans while winning more


Former UM standout offensive lineman Joel Rodriguez sees the Hurricanes through a unique lens: He’s the only member of the UM football program who played on an elite Canes team (2000-2004, including a national title team) and worked under both Al Golden and Mark Richt.

Now UM’s director of player development, Rodriguez –-- initially hired by Golden 14 months ago --– offered some interesting perspective on the state of the program in an extended conversation at a UM community service hosptial event earlier this summer:

• The hope, of course, is to be a top 25 program this season. But how far is UM from being a top-10 caliber team?

“I think we’re not far at all,” Rodriguez said before Al Quadin Muhammad and Jermaine Grace were dismissed from the team. “The frontline talent on this roster is without question top 10 worthy.”

But in terms of having depth to field a national championship caliber team, “we’re probably still a couple years away... When Miami has been at its best historically, which is early 2000s or mid to the early 1990s, you had incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen and true sophomores that were backups that were just an opportunity away from being first-round draft picks. Sean Taylor and Vince Wilfork were backups on the ’01 team. Frank Gore was a backup.

“Are we that deep where we have backups like that? You would probably say no, and a big reason is we don’t have [the maximum] 85 scholarships [until next year]. Where you are missing five to seven scholarships, if you’re recruiting well, that’s probably two or three first-round draft picks.

“The limitations on scholarships and the remnants of that are still hurting the depth of the program a little bit. But all it takes is one or two recruiting cycles and all of a sudden you’re back where you want to be. But the frontline talent here is pretty good.”

No team in college football is going to measure up with UM’s loaded teams to start the century, and UM’s certainly doesn’t even before losing AQM and Grace (my words).

But in comparing rosters before this weekend's dismissals, Rodriguez said: “If you do a side by side comparison of the last national championship team in 2001, to this one at the start of the spring game, this team might be bigger. I don’t think there’s much speed deficiency [this team compared to that one].

“From a physical talent standpoint, I would take Brad Kaaya and I love Kenny [Dorsey]. Kaaya is physically more talented, has a chance to be one of the best, or the best, to ever play here. The advantage Kenny had is he played in the same system for a long time.

“Kaaya has got everything you would want in your franchise quarterback. He’s got all the physical talent to make all the throws. He’s got natural leadership ability and he’s got equity now where he’s made some big plays in some big games and taken some big shots and guys respect him naturally.

“He has the mentality of being humble and hungry. He still works as if he were a freshman fresh off the plane. He’s the first one in the meeting room, last one out. He’s grabbing coach Richt, saying, ‘How about this or that?’ He’s providing different ideas. We’re lucky to have him.”

As for comparing other positions to great UM teams…

Jermaine Grace [now gone] might be the fastest linebacker to ever play at Miami. He’s a sub 4.5 guy. Shaq [Quarterman], Mike [Pinckney] and Zach [McCloud] had great springs. We’re not going to anoint a midyear freshman as the next Jon Vilma or DJ Williams. We’re not doing that anytime soon. But do they have the talent to do that? The ability to do that? Absolutely.”

Rodriguez likens Stacy Coley with Andre Johnson in terms of both being “phenomenal talents,” though Coley has a ways to go to be a top-10 pick or anything close to Johnson.

There’s still seemingly a sizable gap in talent on this defensive line between this UM team and the great ones (my words, not Joel’s), but Rodriguez insists there are players in this group who can be every bit as good as past UM greats.

“[Defensive line coach] Kool [Craig Kuligowski] has a record of producing nothing but defensive forces wherever he’s been,” Rodriguez said.  “Chad Thomas is super talented. When he’s on, he’s as big and long as you want. Extremely fluid, hell of an athlete. He’s smart. Plus, the change in defense, putting those guys with their hands down on the edges and letting them go, playing their gap in the backfield as opposed to playing it at the line of scrimmage, is going to help.

“Those guys probably aren’t as big as you would want to take on a lot of double teams and how we’re aligning them helps not get double teamed. That will help those guys a little bit.”

But what about the defensive tackles? Rodriguez said in Richard McIntosh, Kendrick Norton, Gerald Willis, Anthony Moten and Courtel Jenkins, “we have five guys that can really play. A dominant interior defensive lineman can affect the game more than anyone on the field except the quarterback. Those guys have the ability to be that guy and they’ve done it in spurts in practice. Now the question is can they do it 40 plus times a game.”

There’s clearly no Bryant McKinnie on this offensive line. But Rodriguez said Danny Isidora and Alex Gall “have the ability to play in the NFL” and that Trevor Darling and Nick Linder “absolutely” can be high-end linemen.

• Rodriguez, who played for Butch Davis and Larry Coker and worked for several coaches including Golden, Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt, says Richt “is the best I’ve been around [and by this, he means worked for] in terms of being able to balance the coolness and the calmness and being approachable. But when the hammer has to drop, he’s not afraid to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it. You didn’t do it this way, and so this is the consequence for it.’

“He doesn’t do it in a yelling, screaming in your face, demeaning way. He’s been very demanding on our players especially, but he’s not the least bit demeaning.

“In terms of the layering of detail in teaching and the work environment he has created in terms of being a soothing, calming, empowering presence but also being the boss, he’s the best I’ve ever been around in terms of being able to balance that.

“There are some guys who are like, ‘I’m the boss,’ and super alpha-doggish and they’re almost unapproachable. Other guys are quote, unquote player coaches where they show up to work when they want to work with no set schedule. Those guys tend to lose their teams a little bit. He’s the best I’ve been around of juggling the two.

“He has created a very positive work environment for the other coaches, the rest of the staff. It has become an empowered work environment, to where like, ‘This is your job. I don’t need to know all the details. Just want you to do it and do it the right way, do it with excellence. And if you do it, I am going to give you an 'attaboy' but I’m not going to micromanage.’

“He’s got enough irons in the fire being the head coach, the lead fundraiser, the offensive coordinator, helping coach the quarterbacks, raising money for the indoor facility, speaking to community groups, speaking to the media, being at 7 on 7 camps. He has done a great job of delegating because he has to, and bringing in quality employees and truly trusting them to do their jobs. Obviously, I’m biased because I’m on staff here.”

Rodriguez says Richt “doesn’t want to hire you to look over your shoulder. I doubt he has walked into a d-staff meeting and said, ‘Hey Manny [Diaz], you’ve got to run this coverage.’ I can almost guarantee you he hasn’t done that because he hired Manny Diaz to run the defense, hired Stacy Searels to coach the o-line.

“That has been a very positive work environment on the second floor and that permeates to the locker-room. The players see when you’re in the office early with a smile on your face. Coach Richt is different from any head coach I’ve worked for in terms of poise. Nothing seems to frazzle him. He’s definitely cool. If he wasn’t a football coach, he’d probably be a great poker player.”

• What about Richt as a teacher? “I sat there in the offensive staff room one day and listened to him go on for about 25 minutes just on center/quarterback exchange, both from the shotgun and under center,” Rodriguez said.

“In terms of coaching points, hand placement, what does it sound like and where should the quarterback’s eyes be and where should the center’s eyes be. When somebody could put that much detail into something as minute as the snap, which usually is one of the most undercoached things being a former center myself, imagine what he could do talking about concepts in the passing game.”

• Rodriguez said one big difference in the program’s transition from Golden to Richt “has been more manpower. We have five full time guys who work with football [in the weight room] and an army of interns. As opposed to having three or four coaches coaching 20 guys, and kind of trying to watch all 20 guys, [new strength coach] Gus Felder literally breaks it down to this guy has these two players.

“Recruiting now is a four-person operation as opposed to a two-person operation. We have a director of recruiting, Matt [Doherty]. He truly is the head coach of the recruiting operations. Don Corzine is truly our operations head coach, summer camps, travel, hotel. We have an army of interns in recruiting and operations. Those guys fill the gaps.

“Overall, more manpower, and this has been the trend in the SEC. I’m sure when [Richt] came here, he said this is what we need. Thank God [athletic director] Blake [James] and [deputy director of athletics] Jenn Strawley and the administration have said yes to a lot of things.”

• Another thing Rodriguez has noticed in the move from Andreu Swasey to Felder: “Essentially, it’s working to fatigue. As opposed to saying we’re going to do five sets of five, we are going to do five sets of four and the fifth one will be into fatigue. You might get 20, you might get three.

“What it’s doing is forcing guys to get to the point where they physically can’t push any more. It may not be the same physical movement they are going to do in the fourth quarter or on play 14 of a drive, but it’s trying to instill that mindset to where you always have more than you think in the tank.

“[Felder] has staff meetings at 5:15 in the morning before the first guys come in and they go over in detail what the workout is, what are the coaching points. It’s awesome. I was fortunate to play for Swasey for five years, so I’m not knocking him at all. It’s just different, much more of let’s create a great student/teacher ratio mentality and use all these interns and all this help we have.

“Same with Kyle Bellamy [who this offseason became UM’s first football-only nutritionist].  He has two [staffers] that work under him. One guy can’t do everything. While Gus and his crew are crushing guys in the weight room and really getting after it, Kyle and his crew are in the back in the garage making smoothies and shakes and fruit kabobs. Some of them are individual to [specific players]. It’s awesome.”

• If you missed it, here is a look at Mel Kiper's assessment of the UM program and thoughts on Kaaya possibly moving to the top of the draft.

• Marlins manager Don Mattingly said he’s expecting a mid-September return from Justin Bour, out since July 2 with a severe high ankle sprain, but Bour – who says he’s now pain free – says he has no target date….

The way David Phelps generally has pitched since returning to the rotation, “you have to look at him as a starter” longterm, Mattingly said. “The only thing you don’t know is what innings will do to him.”

• The Marlins believed winning would help attendance, but do you know how many more fans the Marlins are averaging from 2015 (when they went 71-91) to this year (when they’re in wild-card contention)? None. In fact, they've lost 123 fans per game, on average! (From 21,632 to 21,509, after the weekend).

“There’s a lot to do in Miami, so it doesn’t surprise me too much,” catcher JT Realmuto said.

• Losing two of three to San Diego, and losing four of six on this homestand, was hurtful in Miami's pursuit of a playoff spot. They're 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis and one behind Pittsburgh for the second wild card berth.

• The Marlins will be at Tim Tebow's audition. Click here for more, plus weekend Heat news.

Twitter: @flasportsbuzz