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Monday, September 5, 2005
Hester, UM special teams not so special

By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- After observing Devin Hester's dismal performance Monday night against Florida State, we have to ask, was Deion Sanders mentoring the guy or practicing some form of mind control over him?

The Miami speedster, hailed in the offseason as the most explosive player in college football, completely fizzled in the prime-time spotlight as No. 14 FSU upset No. 9 Miami 10-7. Hester muffed a couple returns and failed to field a few more punts, allowing the 'Canes to lose in excess of 30 yards in a field-position battle. He also brought out another kickoff back from six yards deep in the end zone and was flagged for running into an FSU punt returner, yielding the 'Noles another 15 yards.

Midway through the game, Miami coaches pulled Hester on punt returns, sending Ryan Moore out in his place.

"If Devin makes bad decisions, he won't be back there," says UM special teams coach Don Soldinger.

At halftime Hester approached Soldinger and said, "I think I can do it." But, in truth, Hester's head was clearly spinning.

"He was pressing too much, you gotta let the game come to you," Soldinger said, adding that on other plays Hester had also misaligned himself. Freshman mistakes, the coach huffed. Yeah, but they were coming from an All-American.

It wouldn't be a stretch to wonder if Hester had gotten a bit too caught up in the hype game. He had done photo shoots and TV spots, and everyone was loving the "PrimeTime, 'Nole legend, shepherds 'Cane" angle of Sanders' budding relationship with Hester. The Miami junior had reached full-fledged folk hero status despite not even winning a starting job in the lineup.

Hester, who had four returns for touchdowns last year, talked this offseason of getting 10 returns for touchdowns. Last winter after attending the NFL combine, former UM players Frank Gore and Roscoe Parrish returned home to Miami and reported back to Hester that everyone there was asking how come Hester didn't come out. He had emerged as Miami's marquee guy. But suddenly the Miami big-play guy appeared too frazzled to make a big mistake.

In all fairness, Hester has been bothered by a turf toe injury that has limited him in fall camp. And Miami's special teams meltdowns were hardly limited to Hester. UM came up empty on three field-goal attempts, including a 27-yard chip shot that would've tied the game. Miami coach Larry Coker laid the blame with sophomore long snapper John Rochford. Would Coker consider making star tight end/punt snapper Greg Olsen the pivot on placements too? "I will now," he shot back.

Of course, Miami had a huge gaffe in its punt game too, when one of its linemen blew an assignment and FSU's Lawrence Timmons roared in and blocked Brian Monroe's punt. The 'Noles recovered at the Miami 1-yard-line. (Miami's D stiffened and FSU actually followed up with three consecutive plays for negative yardage before kicker Gary Cismesia hooked a field-goal attempt wide left.)

"We killed ourselves in special teams," Miami wideout Sinorice Moss said, shaking his head. "We just didn't play Hurricane football tonight."

Hester, who was one of the last UM players to leave the locker room, said he felt the better team lost and that he'd like to get more action at tailback. (He had one run, a sweep around left end for five yards.)

What a difference a year makes. Last year in the prime-time opener between the two archrivals, it was Hester who sparked Miami's come-from-behind win when he blazed in off the corner to block what figured to be a game-clinching FSU field goal. And the soft-spoken junior didn't slow down a beat from that moment. He won four games for Miami almost solely because of his flare for the dramatic.

But he knew what cost Miami on Monday night.

"Our special teams just didn't step up to the plate," he said.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine.