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Golden sets tone for start of spring football

Hurricanes coach Al Golden spoke to the media for about 35 minutes Thursday in anticipation of the start of spring practice 9 a.m. Saturday at Greentree Field.

AUDIO: Coach Al Golden's Press Conference 3/3/11

Al Golden2 How much of a feel do you have for the team at this point?
“Light years from three weeks ago. I had a chance to go outside with them in the offseason program, take them through drills, conditioning and really see the team grow and develop. We’re light years ahead of where we were three weeks ago as far as knowing the personnel.”

Will getting a chance to coach the team on the field for the first time Saturday be sort of like Christmas morning for you?
“I’m smiling because it’s been fun. I’m very grateful to the seniors. Because generally when there’s a transition – I’ve been a part of four of them on the ground floor – the seniors are the ones that rebel. There’s a little bit of malicious obedience there. They’re maybe detached at times. And that hasn’t been the case. This group of seniors is rallying and they’re leading. And I’m grateful for that. I know the coaches are. It’s fun to watch and fun to be a part of. I’m excited to be out there Saturday. With all due respect to everybody in the room, I’m tired of all this. I just want to go coach.”

How do you balance looking back on what happened last season and not dwelling or harping on the past?
“I don’t think you can leave it completely behind. What you try to do is almost detach the personalities that were involved with last year’s team and really talk about what transpired in terms of execution. Penalties, turnovers…the more we keep digging as a staff in NCAA stats, ACC stats, rankings, the more we learn about the nuts and bolts of that team last year. It’s kind of a guiltless autopsy.

“We have to find out without placing blame where the issues are. And I think our coaches have done a good job of not placing blame on any entity in the past. That’s important for the student-athletes that we do that and we say, ‘OK, this is where we were a year ago, and this is what we have to concentrate on and fix.’”

How do you go about assessing the quarterback situation and what’s your plan for choosing a starter?
“My plan for choosing a starter is that they’re going to choose the starter. All three of them [Jacory Harris, Stephen Morris and Spencer Whipple] are going to rotate and get ample number of reps with the 1s and I’m just going to let it evolve. There are going to be plenty of reps to go around. Field space won’t be an issue here.

“We’ll get them all out there throwing. We’ve got a good group of receivers and tight ends and running backs to throw to. We’ve got some depth there. We’ve got a couple of injuries at wideout. But other than that, we have some depth. So they’ll all get quality reps. There won’t be any excuses. It’s going to be about performance and execution.”

Do you plan on announcing the starting quarterback in the spring, summer or later?
“I don’t have a timetable to be honest with you. If one of them is blowing [the others] away in the spring and he looks like our leader, then we’ll do that. If not, we’ll let it play itself out in the first 14, 18 practices in the summer.” You’ve talked about the areas of the team you like such as offensive line. In some of the other areas, what would you really like to see happen in the first week or two, say, at linebacker?

“There have been a lot of individuals that have popped up already, just in the last three weeks, kids that have really made great progress. We’re looking for that same progress from others at those positions. I’m looking at the talent at corner. We have talent. I’m just looking for some guys to separate from the pack and declare themselves starters. The same thing at linebacker — we have some returning starters, but there’s a little bit of a depth issue there. Those are the things I’m looking for early in the spring. I’m looking to see who is going to pop [out] once we put the pads on and step up.”

Can you talk about who’s competing at cornerback?
“We have JoJo Nicolas, [Thomas] Finnie, [Brandon] McGee, [Lee] Chambers…I hate to just run through it because I’m going to miss somebody. But we have a good group of guys we’re working at corner right now. It’s going to be important we just keep working guys through there to find the right combination. Maybe we’ll try some of the safeties at corner or vice versa…see which guys are better suited for what we want to do.”

Jojo Nicolas JoJo has always been a safety. What made you decide to try him at corner?
“He’s bright. He can learn it. He was one of our best competitors in the offseason. If you said, ‘Who are your best four?’ JoJo would be in our best four, right now. Ray Ray [Armstrong] has been hampered a little bit with an injury. Hopefully he’ll be back soon. For us, it’s always going to be about getting the best guys on the field. So we don’t want to stack one position. And it looked like there was a little more depth or veterans at safety. We’ll try them out there. We can always move them back.”

Are there any guys coming back from surgery or injury that you’re going to be cautious with?
“I don’t want to go through that. Our final evaluation will be with [trainer Kevin Blaske on Friday]. We’ll have an idea where everybody stands, who’s going to be limited participation, who’s going to be able to come back at some point during the spring. We have a couple of guys slated to come back after spring ball. We’re going to get a full report [Friday]."

Is it an awkward time for you right now with the man that hired you going to another school?
“To be honest with you, we’re so engaged with our student athletes and so excited about spring it’s really not something that’s taken a lot of our time right now. I know Kirby [Hocutt] personally, and I’m happy for him. He made a decision based on what was best for him and his family and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Miami.

“This place is bigger than all of us so we’re going to keep moving forward. Tony Hernandez is the interim AD. He’s an incredibly talented person, has done an unbelievable job internally here. There are not a lot of things we need to fix internally. He’ll give us the marching orders now. We’re excited for him and his opportunity.”

What other position changes have been made?
“Cory White has been moved [to tight end]. A.J. Highsmith is obviously back at defensive back. He’ll be playing safety. He might play some corner too. We’re not as much fullback oriented so some of those guys, [John] Calhoun and [Maurice] Hagens, are either playing tight end or running back and we’ll use them in different situations depending on personnel grouping. Tyrone Cornileus is playing safety. I always tell the coaches our job is to get the best 22 on the field. We have to make sure we do that here.”

Did you need to inundate players completely to your way of football or will you ease them in?
“It’s a process. We’ve hit them with a bunch. If your seniors and your leaders aren’t buying in, it’s going to be an uphill battle. That has not been the case. I had all the seniors in here the other day and that’s the thing I’m so excited about. They have come to work.

“There are guys really stepping up and leading. They’ve been very diligent in their preparation. Somebody asked me what the difference is  between here and the other transitions I’ve been a part of, and that’s the single greatest element right now – - the seniors. We have to keep that going.”

How much of this spring practice will be different than a usual practice because you have to teach?
“The first five practices will be a lot slower than I’m accustomed to or I would normally want. It’s going to be a lot more teaching. There will be periods we’re going to go up-tempo. But we’re going to slow it down a little bit and go a little bit longer than we would normally want to go the first three to five practices.

“We’ve alerted the kids to that and said because we’re doing that we’re going to tell you when it’s time to go and when it’s time to listen and be in a teaching period. We’re going to clearly mark that for the guys to understand.”

The playbook – do you start big and scale it down or start small and add to it?
“We start big. I think what we want to do is give it to them. Again, this is the way we planned it. To have three practices before spring break, get them those nine days for it to soak in a little bit, give them their first five or six installations before spring break, let it soak in, come back, pick it up again.

“Toward the end, we’ll scrimmage three times the last two and a half weeks. So that’s the plan. We’re going to give it to them, but not at the cost of being good at something. At the end of the day we want to be good at something in all three phases.”

Chase Ford Which of the seniors have stepped up?
“On offense Whipple and Jacory jump out right off the bat. Chase Ford the last couple of weeks in the offseason has just taken off. He’s done a great job. Blake Ayles has been a big factor with that in terms of his work ethic and his approach and he’s been a great addition for us.

"LaRon Byrd has done a nice job really kind of getting out there and being a leader. I’m happy what he’s doing. On defense, [Ramon] Buchanan has done a great job. [Sean] Spence has done a great job. JoJo. It’s been a really good group. Adewale Ojomo is doing a really great job. Again, when I answer questions like this quickly you leave some guys out. As an entity, they’re committed to getting this right and it’s good to be around.”

With so few options at linebacker, did you consider moving Spence inside?
We didn’t. Again, we’re going to start the best three and play the best six. Sometimes you only play the best five. It depends if somebody can learn two positions. For starters we want to make sure we give [Jordan] Futch a good run. He plays with such energy. He’s strong. He gives us a physical presence there. He’s animated. I really like Kelvin Cain.

“Kelvin Cain has matured probably — him and [Keion] Payne and Seantrel [Henderson]. Some of those freshmen have matured really well here over the last five, six weeks. I’m excited about Kelvin at inside [linebacker]. Jimmy Gaines has done a great job and some of those other guys. We’re going to let them fight it out and we’re going to find out who the best three are.

“I’m not afraid to change the depth chart. Again, you guys don’t really know me too well yet. I’m not afraid to change the depth chart to find the right combination. The guys know it’s going to be based on merit and how you practice every day.”

You’ve got a blank slate here. How does that build cohesion with the players?
“It goes hand and hand. You have to make competition, and finish, and mental toughness part of your DNA. And you have to learn to be able to handle that. If you can’t handle that internally I don’t know how you can handle it when you start adding another team and external factors or going on the road or playing in a hostile environment or playing against a really good player across from you.

“They have to learn to manage that. There are life skills inherent in that we’re trying to teach them. Poise under pressure and knowing how to compete and prepare every day and how to practice. We’re trying to make that the process. There’s no one on this team right now that’s not competing. There’s going to be a wake-up call when the depth chart comes out [Friday] because the team hasn’t seen it yet, either.

“I’ve been spending most of the morning going over it and there’s going to be some wake-up calls because there are some guys that got their butts beat out in the offseason program. Now, it’s going to be up to them to win this second phase. We made sure that the kids knew how it was going to be declared, who the starters were going to be and how the depth was going to be listed going into the spring. That was going to be based on the offseason.”

You’ve moved some guys to tight end…
“The tight end position is going to be critical for us. I wanted a little more of a physical presence with Cory White and Blake and Chase. Both of those guys are in the 260s [in weight]. Cory is in the 270s. So, we’ve gotten more physical and bigger there. We have Clive Walford and Calhoun and a couple others that give us a little bit more fluidness — pass-receiving, a motion guy.

“We can deploy them, because as fast they are, many of them can play in a couple different spots. That’s going to give us the opportunity to be a little more flexible there. It’s going to be that we have a physical presence at that spot. [UM went] a lot of unbalanced [with the offensive line] last year, using Seantrel over there and those type of things. We prefer not to do that. There’s always a place for it. But we prefer not to do it. So we’d prefer to be more physical at tight end.”

You didn’t mention Asante Cleveland. Was that just an oversight?
“Asante Cleveland will not participate in spring practice. If they’re not going to participate the entire spring because of injury we will release that [Friday]. I normally don’t discuss injuries. Injuries lead to excuses. So I really don’t discuss it much.”

Can you sum up how Phase 1 went?
“Phase 1 is ending now as we speak. The guys are going through their last lift. I’m very pleased with it. We accomplished a lot of our objectives. Some of them are very broad and I think you heard them in here. There are some of them that are internal and we don’t share them publicly. Externally, the ones I’ve shared with you are mental toughness and unity. You can’t have mental toughness and unity if you don’t provide opportunity. We’ve put the team in some situations where they have to come together and have unity.

“We needed some leaders to step up and we’ve done that. It’s been challenging. We’ve got a lot of the weights under control. I think you’d be surprised to see how quickly a lot of these guys who were overweight in January over the last six weeks have really have gotten their weight under control. They’re taking a real serious approach to this. So I’m pleased with the first phase and now the second phase is going to be exciting. That first phase gave us the opportunity to have a successful second phase. I’ll put it to you that way.”

How long will guys who start atop the depth chart stick with the first team?
“It’s going to be based on performance, preparation and production. It’s no different than the offseason program. We rank them every week. The final ranking will be out tonight. We’ll take that and make sure it’s what our depth charts are to start and go from there. That’s the way it’s going to be from now on.

“You can’t screw around all week and start on Saturday. You can’t have a good team doing that. I really believe that. Basically every coach I’ve been around or been mentored by believes in that. So it’s really important that the kids understand whoever practices and prepares the best is going to be the starter. We’re making sure we adhere to the policy.”

Any word on Joel Figueroa receiving a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA?
“He’ll be out for the spring. We’re hopeful that he’ll be granted that sixth year. It looks positive. But I don’t know any more than you do right now.”

Is it accurate to say you can’t win games in the spring, but you can win a season?
“You’re getting deep on me now. You haven’t taught until they learn. The more you give them and they can retain by themselves or do as units in the summer…that’s really one of our goals right now — to give them a piece of that.

“Not just say, ‘You guys go line up over here and do this.’ But to get them to own that and to be empowered to know the plays, to know the techniques and be able to perform at a high level and execute at a high level. Your statement is true, though. It’s going to be really important for us to have this foundation set by April 16.”

How will you handle social networking among staff and players?
Facebook-icon “I said this to the team and the staff – I’m trying to treat them like men and I’m trying to give them responsibility and I’m trying to empower them. If they don’t share that responsibility for what they represent here – the university, the alumni, the football program, the coaching staff and their teammates – then they’re more likely to tweet something that they shouldn’t be doing.

“I told them I’d rather teach them the life skills of how you want to represent yourself and the program and the university and there might be a little bit of trial and error with that, but I’d rather do that as an educator and as a coach than just say you’re not going to do it.

“Certainly if they can’t handle that, we can always go to Phase 2. I’d like to stay away from Phase 2, but it’s a different world that we live in. For me to sit here and say my kids aren’t going to be on Facebook is crazy. I mean, that’s the only way they communicate anymore – texting and Facebook.

“If they came in here for an interview and weren’t dressed the right way I would say, ‘look this is what you have to do.’ I’m just using Facebook as another opportunity to teach them a life skill. I have confidence that they’ll learn the proper way to represent themselves and the players.”

In the same breath, are you worried about your guests at practices seeing stuff and posting stuff on the Internet?
“If they’re going to post it, we’re going to shut the practices down. It’s as simple as that. We don’t want that. There won’t be any filming either at practice. We’re not interested in somebody sitting there and filming our pass routes for the day. We have enough to worry about. We want our football alumni back. I would hope our football alumni aren’t going to post it.

“We want to have a great relationship with the coaching community. I would think as peers and as coaches they would be able to understand that we wouldn’t be recruiting two neighborhood high schools and leave one and tell the other what we saw on the field. We would hope they wouldn’t do the same thing as a professional courtesy. We’ll make sure that we monitor that and keep it under control as much as we can.

“When it’s open to the public, I can’t do anything about it. That’s the decision we made here because we have a lot of ground to make up in the public arena and certainly with the high school coaches in the three counties.”

Will you do much with the kicking game during the spring?
“Not live, meaning to the ground. But we will thud and it will be physical. From what I understand it will be a little more demanding. We’re going to treat it like one-third of the game. We’re not teaching them as much early just because we have to get our systems in the first three practices, but ultimately we’ll bring that along.” What are you looking for as far as punt and kick returners?

“For punt returners, we’re going to use Travis [Benjamin], Darion [Hall]…Kendal Thompkins. Kick returners — obviously Travis and Lamar [Miller]. There will be a bunch of guys that we’ll evaluate.”

What do you look for in a returner?
“Punt returner, it’s clear – reliability, trustworthiness and someone that understands if you dance, you’re going to get us into trouble. The first part of the offense is the punt return and the punt returner is responsible for getting us a first down – get us 10 yards . Ten yards would be top 10 in the country in punt returns. It’s more important that we have a punt returner that takes the ball, secures it, makes one move and gets upfield.

“And clearly as a kickoff returner, fearless, courage, a guy that’s not a dancer. If he’s a dancer and a lateral-cut guy, generally they’re not great kickoff return guys. They’re guys that just hit it and have courage and trust the return. I think we finished at Temple No. 1 in the country and in the Top 20 three of the last five years.”

Sports Illustrated came out with an article about players with criminal records. UM has had a good track record. How much does the university look into the background of recruits?
“No. 1, anybody that fills out an application goes through the process at the university. We don’t use an official background check, but background checks are important to us in terms of the community, in terms of coaches and guidance counselors, vice principals, principals, Hurricane alumni that are in the school.

“All those things are critical and have a say in how we decide what we’re doing. In any of these cases, if they are looked at by the university, it’s always case-by-case. Just as if you weren’t a student-athlete. The only thing I would disagree with your assessment is that I don’t think it’s been very good — it’s been outstanding at the University of Miami. Coach [Randy] Shannon and his staff did an incredible job, among the best in the country the last couple of years in off-field behavior. They need to be commended for that.”

So you don’t do state background checks as far as the recruiting process?
“We don’t go through the state or any government entity at this point, but that’s part of the background check as a coach…Anybody that touches that kid or has anything to do with that kid, even if it means going back to middle school or elementary school, we would want to make sure we know as much as we can about them.”

You’re going to be the only game on Labor Day. Can that be a plus in selling the brand?
“Why wouldn’t that be a plus? We just have to get the team ready now. It’s exciting. …I’m grateful for the opportunity, we’re honored. It’s exciting to be in that role.”

A bye in the second week is probably not how you would have drawn it up, right?
“No excuses. That’s when they gave us a bye. That’s the schedule we’re playing. You’re not on a golf cart. There are no erasers or anything. That’s it. It’s done. It’s done in ink. Wherever they put us, we’re playing.”

What about playing games Saturdays at noon?
“For us, it’s two acres and a ball. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re responsible for – two acres and a ball. I can’t worry about anything else except our team, my staff, our attitude, our approach, our preparation. Do I prefer to play at 12:00 or 3:30 at Sun Life Stadium? You bet. I would love to do it. But we have to do what’s best for the University of Miami as a whole, our football program, our alumni and obviously exposure from a television standpoint.”

> The sites for Miami’s three spring football scrimmages, which are open to the public, are now set: April 2 at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, April 9 at Traz-Powell Stadium in Miami and April 16 at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.