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Monday, August 11, 2003
Updated: August 27, 6:10 PM ET
Carey the man on the line -- and he's OK with that

By Ryan Hockensmith
ESPN The Magazine

In big white letters, the jersey would have said "OK" on the back. Not "Carey." Just "60" on the front, and "OK" on the back.

Not for Oklahoma, either, though at 6-foot-5, 355 pounds, Vernon Carey might look a little like the Sooner State. No, Hurricanes coaches thought that's what the massive offensive lineman was this spring -- just OK. Mediocre. Not the tackle-plowing, pancake-blocking machine they recruited out of Northwestern HS in Miami, or that they saw in spurts at Canes practices.

He was just OK, and line coach Art Kehoe didn't mind throwing that in Carey's face this spring. Especially since he says Carey is the most physically gifted lineman he's had in 25 years at Miami. Yep, better than Joaquin Gonzalez, Leon Searcy, Bryant McKinnie and the rest of Kehoe's six first-team All-Americans and 14 future pros he's coached in Coral Gables.

So it drove Kehoe insane to see Carey, after three years of nagging, look so average this spring. "Vernon thought he was playing well," Kehoe says. "And every time Vernon thinks he's playing well, he just coasts. It can get pretty frustrating."

But that's why Miami pays Kehoe the big bucks. Nurturing a revamped offensive line, Kehoe needs Carey, who's moving from tackle to guard, to be more than ordinary. "If you want to be average, fine," Kehoe told him. "I'll get fired, and you'll spend the rest of your life pumping gas at Mobil."

Then he started calling Carey "OK Corral," even in front of teammates, and went so far as to threaten to rip his name off his jersey and replace it with "OK."

Even for the ever-yapping, always-smiling Carey, a kid so charismatic Canes coaches herd almost every potential recruits toward him for campus visits, that didn't sit well. He shaved his weight down to a brisk 340, picked up the pace at the end of spring and scorched through the team's preseason 110-yard running drills (linemen have to run 16 straight 110-yard sprints, all under 18 seconds) in early August. Take that, he says. "Coach Kehoe was right," Carey says. "It's time for me to be a man. It's time to become one of the best linemen Miami has ever had."

That's certainly what Miami envisioned five years ago when Carey committed as a top-20 recruit. High school teammates called him The Hulk for the way he massacred defensive linemen. "That stuff all got into my head, though," Carey says. "I thought I was perfect."

Carey walked into Coral Gables and thought he owned the place. Not so, Kehoe told him.

"I had to get on him," Kehoe says. "On a scale of 1 to 10, he was about a 2.5 when he got here. But he thought he was a 10."

Carey redshirted as a freshman and barely played the next year. He struggled on the sidelines & and with Kehoe constantly in his ear. Carey's weight erupted to 380 pounds and he bummed as a backup. "That was rough, real rough, for me," Carey says. "I just thought I was better than that."

He was, and that finally sank in during two-a-days in August, 2001. After two years of pestering Carey to no avail, an exasperated Kehoe bumped into Carey's high school coach, Billy Rolle, and the veteran Canes coach let him know that Carey was well on his way to being the worst overweight, lazy bust he'd ever had. Didn't take long until Carey was cornered.

"You need to look in the mirror," Rolle told Carey. "It's time to make a change."

Carey says that's when he rewired his brain. He worked hard and labored through conditioning drills, still bantering with Kehoe about why linemen have to run full-field sprints. "Shut up and run 'em," Kehoe barked back.

Carey did, and saw spot duty as a sophomore. As a junior last season, he started 13 games at tackle and racked up a team-best 42 pancake blocks. In wins against Florida, Florida State, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Carey -- not Willis McGahee, Ken Dorsey or Andre Johnson -- was named offensive MVP.

Yet this spring, with Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy pub, Carey showed up content. That didn't last very long. "We went at it again," Kehoe laughs. "I gave him two things to concentrate on: No. 1, shut up, and No. 2, block. Everything else, I told him to just close his damned mouth and take care of business."

Carey did, and showed up at Big East media day looking sleek. For a 340-pound guy, anyway. "Not exactly ready to run a marathon yet," coach Larry Coker says. "But he's our best lineman and I think he can be a great, great player for us."

Great? Kehoe says Carey can be better than great.

"If Vernon puts everything together, his size, his speed, his strength & wow," he says. "He could be frightening. Just absolutely frightening."

That'd sure beat OK.

Ryan Hockensmith is a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine.