Blue Ribbon Preview: Miami
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It's a good thing Al Golden had to face down a stern challenge during his five years at Temple, because there is no way a coach with ordinary collegiate experience could have handled everything that went on during his first year-plus at Miami.
At Temple, Golden was charged with recasting a program that had developed a culture of losing -- on and off the field -- and had become utterly irrelevant to its fans. Taking the Owls from the dregs of the FBS, and that's no understatement, to a bowl game was one of the most remarkable accomplishments in recent college football history. Withstanding and ultimately thriving in those circumstances made Golden a hot property.
But there is no way he could have imagined what was waiting for him in Coral Gables when he arrived last winter. It was one thing to handle the decaying fortunes of the once-proud, once-loud Hurricanes and quite another to be blindsided by reports that booster Nevin Shapiro provided illegal benefits to everybody from players to Sebastian the Ibis. While Golden tries to make Miami a contender again, he must wait to see what the NCAA decides to do with the 'Canes. Some people have called for the death penalty. While that's not going to happen, sanctions are coming, and they could torpedo the progress Golden has made since taking over. Talk about an unbelievable [and for some an unenviable] situation.
"After being here 18 months, I'm quite certain that I'm here for a reason," Golden said. "I was placed in this circumstance for a reason. That is that I am prepared for it already through the cultural transformation and revolution at Temple where we went from zero wins to nine wins. Now, the edict is to go from six wins to a national championship."
Although Golden and Miami have been extremely proactive in working with the NCAA, to the point of self-imposing a bowl ban last year, there is no telling what the organization will do to punish the school. Golden doesn't worry about that for two reasons. One, he can't do anything about it. No investigators have interviewed him, and he has no responsibility for anything Shapiro did. Second, and he would never say this, but if Miami were to get slammed, Golden could walk away unscathed and find a plum job because of the great work he did at Temple and the class he has shown while in control at Miami.
"We're approaching this the same way all the time," Golden said. "We didn't create it. We're not responsible for it.
"I have had no contact with the NCAA. Zero. It's a function of whenever it's resolved -- on their end -- we'll go to work. It won't change what we're doing. We're in a partnership with the NCAA to resolve it. They appreciate our approach and the openness. They were happy with how earnest our student-athletes were who were involved."
While the Hurricane administrators do their best to mitigate the potential damage, Golden goes about the business of building a winning football program. He has had to change work habits of the players and create a new set of expectations on the field and in the classroom. And he has done a good job of upgrading the talent level -- or at least its potential. ESPN rated Miami's 2012 recruiting class the eighth best in the country, a lofty height the program rarely reached even when it had its biggest success. When Golden talks about this year's contributors, he makes sure to include the names of some freshman at every position, the better to let his holdovers know that he is hoping for plenty of competition every day.
His other challenge is to resurrect the Miami image. There are few programs in the country known more for their reputation and personality than the U. The Hurricanes were renowned for winning, but the swagger and attitude in the program were almost as important as the victories. Golden understands it's important to return to those days -- in a positive way.
"The Miami brand is being received well," he said. "We had a top-10 recruiting class despite the things that happened and despite the bowl ban. The brand is as strong as it ever was. We're a top-40 academic institution and No. 1 in Florida. We have won national championships and bowl games.
"We have to make sure we identify the best student-athletes for our culture, and once we target them, acquire them."
Golden and his staff are doing that. They are making Miami stronger and more physically fit. They have upgraded the talent base and have established the parameters within which they want the players to operate.
Those things they can control. But when the NCAA brings down its hammer, Golden will be a spectator, just like the rest of us. He may be uniquely prepared to handle adversity, but he and the rest of the Miami community hope he doesn't have to test the limits of that preparation.
Head Coach: Al Golden (Penn State '92)
Record at School: 6-6 (1 year)
Career Record: 33-40 (6 years)
• Mark D'Onofrio (Penn State '92) Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator • Jedd Fisch (Florida '98) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks " George McDonald (Illinois '99) Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers • Micheal Barrow (Miami '92) Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator • Brennan Carroll (Pittsburgh '01) Tight Ends/National Recruiting Coordinator • Jethro Franklin (Fresno State '89) Senior Defensive Assistant/Defensive Line • Art Kehoe (Miami '82) Offensive Line • Terry Richardson (Syracuse '94) Running Backs/Florida Recruiting Coordinator • Paul Williams (Delaware '96) Defensive Backs
Golden has an interesting approach to the competition for the starting QB job between last year's backup, junior Stephen Morris (6-2, 214) and sophomore Memphis transfer Ryan Williams (6-6, 225), who sat out last year.
"You can have competition at every other position, but when there is competition at quarterback, it's a controversy," he said.
Morris missed the spring recovering from a back injury, and that gave Williams, who left Memphis when the Tigers went to a spread attack that doesn't suit his drop-back style, a chance to state his case. He did a good job. In his first scrimmage, Williams completed 14-of-21 passes for 228 yards and four TDs.
"He's doing a good job," Golden said. "He's very smart. He's a bright dropback passer."
In 2011, Morris completed 26-of-37 passes for 283 yards. He didn't throw for a touchdown and was intercepted twice. A year earlier, he started four games while Jacory Harris was hurt and threw for 1,240 yards, with seven scores and nine picks. Morris has talent, but he has to make better decisions.
"He is showing maturity and confidence," Golden said. "He has football intelligence. His arm strength has always been elite. But in the intangibles, like leadership, confidence and familiarity with the system, he has made dramatic improvements."
Morris acted almost like a coach with the 'Canes' younger quarterbacks during the spring. Come August, he'll need to behave like a No. 1 passer to secure the job from Williams.
Freshmen Gray Crow (Countryside HS/Clearwater, Fla.), a 6-3, 225-pounder and Preston Dewey (St. Andrew's Episcopal School/Austin, Texas), a 6-2, 210-pounder, are both talented passers who will understudy this season and probably the next. ESPN rated Dewey a four-star recruit and the No. 21 quarterback in the country.
Lamar Miller's decision to leave early for the NFL hurt the Hurricane ground game. Miller led Miami with 1,272 yards and nine TDs last year. For a coach like Golden, who prefers to have one back capable of carrying the ball 20 times a game, losing Miller is a big hit. He would have made the transition under center a lot easier. Golden, of course, is downplaying the loss, but it hurts.
"I'm looking at it as a group; it's not about one player," Golden said. "Lamar had enough of a resume and enough talent to be going on. This group here is defined that way. I want to see if someone emerges."
The back with the most experience of the bunch is senior Mike James (5-11, 222), who rushed for 275 yards and seven scores last year but carried the ball only 72 times in 12 games. James has the ability to get some tough yards, but he isn't a speedster. "He came on strong at the end of last year," Golden said.
Junior Eduardo Clements (5-9, 195) has more of a burst, but he lacks experience after carrying the ball only 15 times last year.
It could well be that a freshman emerges as the featured back. Redshirt Dallas Crawford (5-10, 190) was a dual-threat QB in high school who has made the switch to running back, while 5-9, 185-pound true freshman Duke Johnson (Miami Norland HS/Miami) rushed for 1,957 yards and 29 TDs as a senior and has 4.42 speed in the 40. ESPN rated him a four-star recruit, the No. 6 athlete in the country and the No. 8 player in talent-rich Florida.
Golden understands he has a crop of candidates and while he wants one to be The Man, he knows a committee approach might have to be the way to go.
"If one is the short yardage, goal line guy, one is the third down guy, and one guy we use on screens, that's OK," he said.
Junior Maurice Hagens (5-11, 240) is the starting fullback. He carried the ball only seven times last year, but he's a stout blocker. Converted sophomore defensive lineman Sean Harvey (6-4, 265) is a dump truck in reserve.
The Hurricanes need some youngsters to step up here -- and quickly. Golden wants to use five receivers in his rotation and thinks he has only three proven commodities. Because last year's top two targets, Tommy Streeter (46 catches) and Travis Benjamin (41) are gone, even that is up for discussion.
Leading the way is junior Allen Hurns (6-3, 195), who caught 31 balls last year and scored four times. He has good speed but can't be considered a game breaker. He missed the spring with a shoulder injury but should be fine come August.
Golden reports that sophomore Rashawn Scott (6-2, 198) and sophomore Phillip Dorsett (5-10, 186) stood out during spring drills. Look out for true freshmen Malcolm Lewis (Miramar HS/Miramar, Fla.), a 6-0, 195-pounder, and 6-1, 180-pound Robert Lockhart (Fork Union [Va.] Military Academy/Delray Beach, Fla.). Golden thinks both will make an impact this year.
"I'm anxious to see them," Golden said. "Malcolm Lewis was all business this spring, the way he approached working out and his schoolwork."
Another freshman candidate at the receiver position is 6-0, 182-pound Angelo Jean-Louis (Palm Beach Central/Wellington, Fla.), whom ESPN ranked 41st in the nation.
Golden said Miami "plays with more tight ends than most people do." That means plenty of work for junior Asante Cleveland (6-5, 270), who had a good spring, along with sophomore Clive Walford (6-4, 250) and sophomore David Perry (6-7, 265). Juniors Cory White (6-6, 270) and Dyron Dye (6-5, 275) will also be factors at the position.
"We need Walford to come on as a pass catcher, and White and Dye to be more multifaceted," Golden said.
Golden became upset during the spring when reporters questioned why he put up signs on campus soliciting walk-ons for the offensive line. The Hurricanes need depth there, and perhaps a former prep star could help out. There's no doubt the unit is still a work in progress. The spring featured position changes as the 'Canes try to replace three departed starters.
One of the higher profile switches was 6-5, 320-pound sophomore Jon Feliciano's move from starting right tackle to left guard. "That's a more normal position for him," Golden said. "He played last year at tackle thanks to the injuries we had inside."
Feliciano's move to guard makes junior Seantrel Henderson (6-8, 350) the leader at right tackle. The once-ballyhooed prospect had a huge freshman year but was hampered by injury in 2011 and started only twice. Golden hopes he can regain the form that made him seem so promising in '10.
The other tackle spot belongs to sophomore Malcolm Bunche (6-7, 325), who backed up on the right side in 2011. "He's one of our most athletic offensive linemen," Golden said. "He has good length, strength and power. He should be perfect for that position."
Tackle backups include senior Ben Jones (6-5, 320) and 6-6, 312-pound freshman Ereck Flowers (Miami Norland HS/Miami), a nimble tackle who committed to Miami in May 2011 and didn't show up on campus until January.
Freshman Danny Isidora (Cypress Bay HS/Weston, Fla.) is a 6-4, 346-pounder who could see time at tackle, too. The other guard is junior Brandon Linder (6-6, 310), whom Golden called "probably our most reliable offensive lineman." The coach is high on sophomore Shane McDermott (6-4, 290) at center. Junior Jared Wheeler (6-5, 315) will back him up, while junior Jermaine Johnson (6-6, 320) hasn't given up the fight with Feliciano at one guard spot, and senior Jeremy Lewis (6-4, 315) will back up Linder.
Injuries (especially to DT Curtis Porter), youth and poor numbers made the Hurricanes susceptible up front last year, and though Golden said Miami isn't anywhere near where it needs to be in terms of depth and talent, the front line should be improved this season.
The inside should be improved because junior Curtis Porter (6-1, 300) is at full strength after missing all but two games last year. He should team with senior Darius Smith (6-2, 360) in a solid starting interior tandem. Smith showed flashes last year while starting seven games after coming to Miami from the juco ranks.
Junior Luther Robinson (6-3, 295) is the other main man in the middle, but Golden is hoping that 6-5, 310 Jacoby Briscoe (Carencro HS/Lafayette, La.), 6-1, 331-pound Dequan Ivery (Florida Columbia HS/Lake City, Fla.) and 6-1, 295-pound Earl Moore (Hillborough HS/Tampa, Fla.) will develop into good rotation players. After a year in which Golden said Miami didn't "have enough strength or size" at defensive tackle, he expects better things.
"Smith, Porter, Robinson and the good group of freshmen should create the competition that yields the kind of play we need," he said. "We should be more stout and stronger inside."
Golden has fewer concerns at defensive end, beginning with sophomore Anthony Chickillo (6-4, 260), who has gained weight and reduced his body fat but stayed quick. He made 36 tackles last year, including 6.5 behind the line, with five sacks in nine starts. He has big potential.
Golden was happy with junior Shayon Green's spring. A former middle linebacker, Green (6-3, 260) played in four games last year as he fought through injuries but managed to impress on the scout team. He suffered a knee injury during spring drills but should be fine for August. "He's rugged, plays with good pad level and has a lot of strength," Golden said.
Expect junior Kelvin Cain (6-3, 238) and redshirt freshman Ricardo Williams (6-5, 220) to provide reinforcement on the outside, although 6-5, 263-pound Jelani Hamilton (St. Thomas Aquinas HS/Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), who excels at stopping the run, is expected to challenge for time. ESPN rated Hamilton a four-star recruit and the No. 37 defensive end in the class of 2012.
And look out for speedy, 6-3, 215-pound end Tyriq McCord (Jefferson HS/Tampa, Fla.), who was rated even higher by ESPN as the No. 13 defensive end in the country.
With Sean Spence, last year's top tackler, gone from the middle, the Hurricanes moved last year's weakside man Denzel Perryman (6-0, 227), a sophomore, into the Mike spot. Golden thinks Perryman is ready for the challenge, which is substantial, given Spence's production last year (106 tackles, 14 for loss). But Perryman was second on the team in tackles with 69, despite making only five starts.
"He is strong enough to be inside," Golden said. "He is compact and naturally can see it. He can also play both sides."
The Hurricanes should start senior Ramon Buchanan (6-1, 222) at one outside spot. After starting 10 games as a sophomore, Buchanan was ensconced on the outside for the first four games and had made 18 tackles when a knee injury ended his season. "He's a sudden player," Golden said. "He's explosive and excellent in man-to-man coverage."
The other outside spot belongs to junior James Gaines (6-3, 230), who backed up the middle last year and started eight times on the outside, making 58 tackles. "He has done a nice job," Golden said.
Freshman Raphael Kirby (Stephenson HS/Stone Mountain, Ga.), another May 2011 commit who took part in spring drills this year, is a 6-0, 220-pounder with good speed and the ability to hit hard. He'll see time in the middle, although he could move outside. Redshirt freshman Eddie Johnson (6-1, 230) and sophomore Gionni Paul (6-0, 230) will also vie for time at linebacker.
The Hurricanes are in pretty good shape here, beginning at safety, where there is good depth. Senior Ray-Ray Armstrong (6-4, 215) played in seven games last year and will handle the free safety spot after a tumultuous 2011 season. Armstrong was suspended twice last year but decided to stay in Coral Gables and try to have a big senior year.
Even if Armstrong does stay on the field (he was one of the players embroiled in the Shapiro mess), he must become more consistent and prevent himself from being beaten on deep balls. If he doesn't junior A.J. Highsmith (6-0, 204) will take his spot. Highsmith, who switched from QB to safety last year, had a fine spring and looks a lot more comfortable on the back line.
The other starting safety spot belongs to senior Vaughn Telemaque (6-2, 211), who made 59 stops last year, his second as a full-time starter. He's backed up by junior Kacy Rodgers (6-2, 213). Deon Bush (Columbus HS/Miami), a 6-1, 185-pound freshman who was rated the fourth-best safety in the country by ESPN, is expected to make a push for playing time.
Thanks to the presence of senior Brandon McGee (6-0, 190), the Hurricanes are set at one cornerback position. McGee started all 12 games last year, made 38 tackles and picked off a pass.
"I'm excited about him," Golden said. "He started to develop a little more confidence and comfort level with the defense. He's being a more physical player, not just with his jams [at the line of scrimmage] but with being a better tackler."
The other corner spot belongs to junior 6-2, 196-pound junior Ladarius Gunter (Fort Scott [Kansas] JC/Jefferson Davis HS/Montgomery, Ala.), who has great speed in the coverage game but can also step up and make tackles against the run. Sophomore Thomas Finnie (5-10, 183) will back up one corner, while 6-0, 175-pound freshman Larry Hope (American Heritage HS/Miami, Fla.), who committed to the Hurricanes last June and impressed with his competitive nature during the spring, will get his chances to contribute.
But Hope, Finnie and Gunter shouldn't get too comfortable, because 5-11, 170-pound Tracy Howard (Miramar HS/Miramar, Fla.) was rated the No. 1 cornerback in the nation by ESPN and has excellent coverage skills.
The loss of wideout Travis Benjamin hurts the Miami return game. Last season, Benjamin averaged a stout 11.0 yards bringing back punts and an equally impressive 23.7 yards returning kicks.
His absence means Dorsett and Dallas Crawford grab the return jobs. Both have speed and excellent instincts. Dorsett averaged 22.5 yards on four kick returns last year.
The Hurricane kick coverage unit last year was excellent in 2011, allowing just 18.6 yards per return. Part of that was because of Wieclaw's strong kickoffs. But Miami must tighten up its punt coverage. Rivals averaged 10.9 yards per return last year and took one back for a TD.
Senior Jake Wieclaw (6-2, 195) made 11-of-14 field goal tries last year but was 3-6 from 40 and beyond. He missed part of spring practice with a shoulder injury but is the incumbent, with redshirt freshman Matt Goudis (6-0, 170) behind him.
"Jake did well during the spring, and I'm excited about him," Golden said.
Even though senior Dalton Botts (6-3, 207) averaged a solid 42.7 yards per boot last year and had 39.6 percent of his kicks fair-caught, Golden said "there is definitely competition" between Botts and kicker Jake Wieclaw for the punting job. Still, it's unlikely Botts will lose his job.
Botts can hang 'em high, and if he is able to add a couple yards onto his average, the Hurricanes will be in fine shape in '12.
When Golden and his staff were recruiting the 'Canes' 2012 class, they no doubt sold the benefit of immediate playing time. And while the Miami crop has the potential to help out for several seasons, many of the freshmen will get a chance to play right away.
Howard will probably get immediate work in the secondary, while Johnson has the potential to make an impact at running back. Golden has said he needs some receivers to step up, and Lewis, Lockhart and Louis all have the potential to catch some passes in 2012.
Plenty of reinforcements are on the way to the defensive front. Moore, Ivery and Briscoe will fight for time inside, while McCord and Hamilton should get good looks on the outside.
Bush is expected to fortify the safety position, while Gunter came in early and impressed with his talent and the experience he gained as a junior college player.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Although the cloud of possible NCAA sanctions continues to hang over the Hurricanes, Golden and his staff are doing what's necessary to turn the program's fortunes around. Even though Miami has had some success over the last several seasons, it has been unable to sustain the kind of excellence necessary to contend on the ACC level, much less nationally. The type of talent Golden is importing will help, as will his relentless pursuit of a culture that will help Miami thrive.
The offense, however, remains a fairly large distance away from a level that will allow for substantial success. It's a good thing Miami has competition at quarterback, but neither Morris nor Williams is experienced enough to be considered extremely reliable. Throw in the fact that the Hurricanes are not blessed with a surfeit of skill players, and it's possible the offense could struggle as it did last year, when it produced just 377.8 yards per game.
The defense is another story. While Golden is still building quality depth, there is some good news among the first-teamers. McGee and Telemaque are stalwarts in the secondary, Perryman has a chance to be a playmaker at middle linebacker, and Smith and Chickillo should be top performers up front. Add in some good newcomers throughout the unit, and Miami is getting better.
The X factor in the entire Hurricane equation is the NCAA investigation into the Shapiro mess. Golden is right when he said he had nothing to do with it, but any sanctions that arise from the situation will impact his rebuilding project considerably. While Miami moves forward and improves, it's vital the 'Canes aren't knocked back too far by a harsh punishment. But predicting what the NCAA will decide is risky business, because the organization doesn't go by precedent or previous penalties to determine a course of action in another situation. While Golden does his job, and Miami moves forward, trouble could arise. Hurricane fans must hope it isn't too onerous.
BLUE RIBBON: ACC PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each ACC school. Take a look: