With spring practice complete, our football hungry minds look ahead to the fall and FSU's upcoming opponents.
First under the microscope, our friendly rivals (at least most of us can root for 'em when not playing the Noles) from Coral Gables. Guest analyst Chris Bello has covered Hurricanes football since 1995 and is a lifelong fan. He runs www.allCanes.com (the #1 Canes Shop, says Chris) as well as www.allCanesBlog.com where he covers all things related to The U. Email him your comments at chris@allCanes.com. Here are Chris's answers to our questions about the state of Miami football.
ChantRant: How is UM different after Shannon's first spring game than it was a year ago after Coker's last spring game?
AllCanes: I think you see a difference in the attitude and mindset. Larry Coker and Randy Shannon are two totally different styles of coaches. I don't want to trash the old regime anymore than I already have, but I don't think there's any mystery why the Canes progressively got worse since the 2002 season. The talent wasn't being recruited and developed. Shannon preaches accountability, competition and he's a disciplinarian. The kids respect him and mildly fear him, which is a good thing. Entering spring, the depth chart was scrapped and it was no longer an offense vs. defense battle. Shannon is promoting team unity. He has offense and defensive players interacting by creating orange vs. white teams and switching up the layout of the locker room.
Miami's spring game took place last week and par for the course, defense won the battle. I'm warning our fans not to put too much weight into the product on the field last week. I expect this team to have a completely different look and feel come fall. Coach Shannon needs a few more months to instill what he calls a "winner's mentality" into our kids. Get 7-6 out of their heads, let them continue healing from the murder of a teammate (Bryan Pata) and get them believing they can win again. The Canes weren't as bad as their record last year and need to learn how to finish. Several of those games down the stretch were winnable (Virginia Tech, Maryland and Virginia).
ChantRant: Both QBs have had their problems. Is that the biggest achilles heel of the team, and will it seriously affect the W - L record?
AllCanes: A team is only as good as their quarterback. Any Miami or Florida State fan can acknowledge that as both programs have struggled a bit since the departures of Ken Dorsey and Chris Weinke, respectively. Brock Berlin. Chris Rix. Kyle Wright. Drew Weatherford. Kirby Freeman. Xavier Lee.
Who'd have thought the most successful one of the post-Dorsey/post-Weinke era would be Berlin
I think Shannon is smart for creating competition between Wright and Freeman. The depth chart won't be released until soon before the season opener and both QBs were given the gag order regarding the media. Wright basically ran the first team last week and Freeman the second. Wright is the most experienced of the two but Freeman showed the most promise at the end of last season. Wright is the hunted and Freeman is the hunter.
My sneaking suspicion is that the staff wants Wright as he's more your prototypical and much heralded QB. He has the most upside, but he's also had his share of brain farts on the field. In his defense, he hasn't has 1/3 the supporting cast Dorsey had and he's on his third offensive coordinator in three seasons. I blame Miami's old staff for their underdevelopment of Wright more than I personally blame him. He came in all world and turned down both USC and Texas to come to The U. I think he'd be a different QB had he gone to either program.
I think the key for 2007 is designing an offense based around either QB. Wright is the gunslinger and Freeman is more your scrambling playmaker-type. It's on new offensive coordinator Patrick Nix to find a way to have his quarterbacks get the ball in playmakers' hands.
ChantRant: With new Off. Coordintaor Pat Nix from Ga. Tech, what kind of attack will we see in '07?
AllCanes: I believe Nix will have that "do what it takes" mentality. Get the best players on the field and get the ball into their hands. Create mismatches. Keep opposing defenses on their toes. Shannon went after Nix for a few reasons - one being Georgia Tech's 38-35 bowl loss to West Virginia. GT's defense let them down late, but offensively they put up five touchdowns early in the third quarter with Reggie Ball on the bench. Back up QB Taylor Bennett threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns against a pretty solid Mountaineers team. That impressed Shannon. As did the fact that Nix's offense gave Miami fits and handed them losses the past two seasons. If you can twice confuse one of the nation's better defenses like ours, you're doing something right.
Miami will be stronger at WR this year as Sam Shields, Lance Leggett and Darnell Jenkins all have another year under their belt. I think JUCO transfer Kayne Farquharson is going to surprise as well. Javarris James returns after a solid freshman campaign and newcomer Graig Cooper is already turning heads. Cooper should really bolster the return game and give the Canes much better field position than we had in 2006.
ChantRant: Barring injury, will this be one of the more dominating Cane defenses in recent years?
AllCanes: It could be. I like the defensive line, led by Calais Campbell. He's the anchor. The safeties are as solid as ever with Kenny Phillips and Anthony Reddick back there. The cornerback has some experience and depth as well. Carlos Armour. Willie Cooper. Bruce Johnson. Glenn Sharpe was granted another year, Randy Phillips returns, Chavez Grant won some freshman of the year type honors and had a great first season. Still, the key is linebacker. It's a position where Miami hasn't thrived since 2003 when Jon Vilma and D.J. Williams played their last game as Canes (16-14 Orange Bowl win over FSU). We need stability in the middle of the field and it's on guys like Colin McCarthy and Daryl Sharpton to step up and be the next great Cane linebackers. If we get production out of linebacker, this will be a consistently solid Miami defense. Absolutely.
I think Campbell's presence is also key. He looks primed to not only be the next Miami great on defense, but he also has that Canes attitude and looks like he can be an Ed Reed-type leader. Someone needs to step up and I think #81 will be the guy.
ChantRant: Is Shannon restoring the swagger and supreme confidence of Miami teams of old?
AllCanes: He is, but it'll take time. It's not like flipping on a light switch. He has to rebuild this from the inside out. There was no unity last year and I believe complacency set in the past few years. This program was hungry in the late 90s, climbed back atop the hill (2000-2003) and seemed to 'expect' the wins to roll in these past few years. Shannon is going to whip them into shape. I believe the promoting of competition will really help these kids get hungry again. 9-3 was tolerated under Coker and that led to 7-6. Even worse than the losses was the fact Miami quit on a few occasions. The 40-3 loss to LSU in the 2005 Peach Bowl. The 31-7 loss at Louisville. That's unacceptable.
I've traded emails with a handful of fans lately and we all seem to be looking for the same thing: more effort. I'm not thinking Ws and Ls right now as much as I want to see our kids busting their asses. A nine-win season is tolerable if we see improvement and effort like we did back in 1998 and 1999. We saw budding talent back then and resiliency. The '98 Canes were throttled 66-13 at Syracuse and a week later knocked off #2 UCLA, 49-45. The past few seasons Miami has struggled to bounce back from losses against the likes of second-tier ACC teams.
If Shannon gets these kids to win the battle between their ears, the 'swagger' will return. You don't win because you have swagger; the swagger comes from winning.