- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is a hiding place at Miami, a sanctuary for quarterback Jacory Harris and some of his closest teammates who have been by his side on and off the field for about eight years. It's one of the first places they go when they need a home-cooked meal, a pick-me-up, or just an escape from the pressures that come with playing for one of the most storied, scrutinized programs in the country.
Nobody, they say, cooks as good as Pearline Simmons, mother of defensive lineman Marcus Forston.
There is no home-field advantage quite like the one in place for Miami's 2008 class of recruits out of Miami Northwestern High School, the nearby recruiting factory that churned out the gems of a star-studded class that was once ranked No. 1 in the nation. Parents, friends and former coaches are only minutes away from the ongoing drama that is Miami football. Their inner circle and their brotherly friendship that has only grown throughout the years have helped the Northwestern grads through mediocre seasons, a coaching change, and now an NCAA investigation that promises to drag on longer than these players have left in their college careers.
"It's helped a lot," Harris said. "I couldn't imagine me going through the same things somewhere else. Those are my brothers. Those are my blood brothers, you can say. On the field we take care of each other."
"I feel like that's everything," said receiver Tommy Streeter, Harris' cousin. "That was a big part of my decision in coming to Miami. When things get hard, you always have a support group here and people to fall back on. You can lean on their shoulders, and sometimes they can carry the burden for you."
And what a heavy burden it has been.
As Miami prepares to host Ohio State on Saturday, it does so clinging to the hope that this 2008 class, the one that arrived on campus facing expectations of astronomical proportions, can still leave with the esteemed reputation it came in with. Five of eight players who were suspended for the season opener against Maryland will return, including Harris, Miami's embattled quarterback who will start his first game since a disastrous performance in last season's Sun Bowl. Harris will replace Stephen Morris, the fan favorite who struggled in the 32-24 loss to Maryland. Those within the program are confident the staff made the right choice in Harris, but whether or not he can lead the program out of the dark in his final season as a starter and in the face of an NCAA investigation remains to be seen.
"I'm super impressed with him. I am," said first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. "There's no throw he cannot make. There is no defense that seems to confuse him. He has tremendous poise. He's gone through a lot, and he comes out swinging every day."
Some fans, though, continue to swing right back.
Harris enters the Ohio State game trying to redeem himself after last year's four-interception performance against the Buckeyes. There have been plenty of memorable moments in Harris' career, but the interceptions -- at least in the eyes of many fans -- are what have defined him so far. He has thrown 50 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in his career, including 32 picks in the past two seasons. Last year, Harris said, he was afraid of throwing them.
Not this year.
"Last year I would go out there and be like, 'OK, this is a new year, no picks.' I'd drop back and be like, 'No interception, no interception,' to the point where something fluke would happen. It would be a tipped pass and get intercepted or hit the receiver and get intercepted. Now it's like, I'm winging it, just having fun, not even caring.
"Being comfortable with the offense and knowing where to go and knowing I'm protected is the biggest part," he said. "Once you know you're protected, you don't even pay attention to guys coming free."
First-year coach Al Golden thinks Harris a better player as a result of his experiences at Miami.
"I just think it's a different time and place. I think he's a different player," Golden said. "Again, Jacory is the guy this Saturday. He has established that. He has had a great camp. He's had a great demeanor. Again, sometimes we don't let people grow, we don't let them develop. We just want to go back and look at the things that they did wrong. Let's look at the things that he's done right. In terms of the offseason program, in terms of his approach, in terms of his unselfishness, in terms of his competitive nature, in terms of his command of the offense, and all those things.
Some of Harris' struggles in the past can be traced to two specific issues: first, a thumb injury that prevented him from gripping the ball properly and throwing accurately because he was more or less flicking it with four fingers, and second, a matter of being uncomfortable in former coordinator Mark Whipple's high-risk offense.
In the current system, the standard is for Harris to complete at least 62 percent of his passes.
"The offensive system that we're built around here is a completion passing game, a high-completion passing game," Fisch said. "What we've asked Jacory to do is get the ball in the playmakers' hands, not have to be the playmaker."
Miami has plenty of those, which makes the program's mediocrity in recent years all the more baffling. The 2008 class had 12 ESPNU 150 members, five of the top seven outside linebackers, and Harris, the No. 21 quarterback in his class. Eight of them were from Miami Northwestern.
Despite that, since Harris' freshman season in 2008, Miami has gone 23-17, the Canes have never played for the ACC title, have yet to win a bowl game and have finished above seven wins only once, in 2009. Last year was so disappointing that former coach Randy Shannon was fired even before the Canes lost 33-17 to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
"I can't really explain what went wrong," Harris said. " I'll tell you this, to me we're the most talented team in college football, probably have the best players at every position in college football, but it takes more than talent to win games. If you look at the past couple of years, the people who won national championships, the first-round draft picks were probably two or three each team, but with us, we go 7-6 and we get, what, eight guys drafted, 14 guys on rosters at the start of training camp? The talent is there, but you've got to understand it's not just talent that wins games. I feel like we understand that."
It's hard to understand, though, why Miami hasn't produced more, especially considering it reeled in the nation's top recruiting class four years ago.
"I don't know," said linebackers coach Micheal Barrow, a Miami alum who was retained by Golden. "Based on our record, we've been average. That's not the standard here. And unfortunately, because of that, coaches got fired. I wouldn't blame [the players] for it."
Harris' class has taken its fair share of the criticism.
Streeter can still remember his first practice as a Hurricane. At the time, the first practice was open to the public. He could hear fans lined up around the entire field chanting and wishing the players good luck. They were teenagers expected to help Miami return to national relevance. Quickly.
"Everybody was looking for us to have an immediate effect on the program," Streeter said. "It was a lot of pressure. A lot of people in our community and Cane Nation period had so many expectations being that we had won the national championship in high school, they thought all of those guys coming on the next level, we'd be able to duplicate that performance. There was a lot of hype and a lot of pressure surrounding us.
"We were nervous," he said. "Everyone wants to meet their full potential and live up to their capabilities and maximize everything that's in them. It was more so trying to do that rather than take the rock star approach like you've made it. It was more humbling than anything."
Harris said it's fair to say that the class of 2008 hasn't lived up to the hype.
"It doesn't bother me, even though it's something all of us wish we could've done, but I don't think any of us regret the things we've accomplished and the things we've been through in college," he said. "Without the things we've been through, I don't think as young men we'd be where we are right now. All of us are great young men in the community, on the field and in the school."
Nobody on the team knows Harris better than Streeter. They grew up about five minutes from each other. Even Streeter, though, doesn't know just how much of Harris' struggles have been internalized.
"He's handled it pretty well being that people put so much pressure on him," Streeter said. "The way he keeps his poise and remains calm is amazing to me. I remember last year he was getting racial comments [on Twitter] but he didn't let it affect his play. He came in every day focused and ready to make plays and help his team win. I feel like it's so much pressure on him, but he doesn't let any of it show."
It's one of the advantages of playing at home.
Heather Dinich is the ACC college football blogger for ESPN.com.
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