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Miami working on team chemistry, but will it be enough?

3/18/2015

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is more to winning than talent on the field. Sometimes, players have to learn that for themselves.

So it went in 2014 for Miami, a team loaded with future NFL picks but low on wins. The roster says the Canes should have won more than six games. The record says 6-7. There were statistical reasons why. But there also was an intangible reason why. Miami was a team in name only.

To rectify that, the Hurricanes have an entirely new approach this offseason. The goal is to become closer, more cohesive. "It's not good enough to just have talent," coach Al Golden says.

Players have been encouraged to eat their meals together in the cafeteria. Sitting with teammates outside their position groups is encouraged. They are no longer allowed to wear headphones when they eat, as a way to foster conversation. Coaches have also begun joining them as a way to help gain more trust, giving advice or sharing stories.

Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio has told players about his playing days, and spending time as Golden's roommate at Penn State. "How he used to get chewed out for over-celebrating and stuff," linebacker Tyriq McCord says.

Why does that help? "You don't have motive to play for a coach you don't know," McCord replies.

Nor is there motive to play for teammates you barely know, especially when adversity hits.

"When you lose, there's a lot of disagreeing," quarterback Brad Kaaya said. "Everyone thought there were things we could have done differently and through that a lot of disagreements happened. … Now it's about being unified. The offense and defense have come together. After practice, we all bring it up and the DBs will say good stuff today. Tracy Howard comes up to me every day saying, ‘Keep that up.' After practice we say, ‘One Love' and ‘Coastal.' Our goals are on the same page."

Whether team unity added to team talent is enough to get Miami to challenge for the Coastal title is the biggest question headed into 2015, a critical year for Golden and his staff. Another losing season is simply unacceptable. But there also is an undeniable reality that Miami might still be a few years away from contending.

The Canes remain below their full allotment of 85 scholarships because of NCAA sanctions over the Nevin Shapiro scandal. They have their quarterback set, but he is the only certainty on a team that lost its top receiver (Phillip Dorsett), running back (Duke Johnson), tight end (Clive Walford), offensive lineman (Ereck Flowers), defensive lineman (Anthony Chickillo) and linebacker (Denzel Perryman). All are expected to be drafted.

Their recent recruiting classes have been good, not great. The NCAA investigation hurt, but so have their facilities -- finally upgraded within the last two years.

Now, Miami has a new football facility, new locker room, weight room, training table and completely redone practice fields. Though they still lag behind the bells and whistles many other programs have, the Miami facilities are infinitely better.

They also help explain, in part, how Miami has 18 commitments already for the class of 2016 -- including nine players ranked in the ESPN Junior 300. Young players visiting campus in 2013 saw facilities from 1983. Now, young players visiting campus have tangible proof there is a bigger commitment to staying competitive.

So help is definitely on the way. But in order for Miami to keep those players committed -- and eventually signed -- there must be results in 2015. The task is a difficult one considering the personnel losses coupled with the schedule, ranked as the third-toughest in the country. Its opponents went a combined 97-58 last year.

The ACC did not exactly do the Canes any favors, either: they open league play at Florida State, then follow with games against Virginia Tech and Clemson. If Miami starts league play 0-3, critics already unhappy that Golden got another year will grow even louder.

Golden has asked for patience, but patience has nearly run out from a fan base that expects 10-win seasons annually regardless of circumstance. What he inherited was a broken program that needed years to fix. But in Year 5, Golden and Miami cannot afford to be mediocre.

So the race is on to get the Canes back to respectability. Perhaps a team that plays like a team will be enough.

"We feel like we have to show up this year and show everyone what this team is really about," McCord said. "Everybody in this building knows we're not a 6-7 team. There's a lot to prove."