Saturday, September 1, 2007

Are the Canes Back? Not Quite

New Canes stars: linebacker Colin McCarthy (left), running back Graig Cooper

It's been said patience is a virtue. But don't tell that to most University of Miami football fans. With a fickle fanbase that has more of a pro-sports mentality than a true college atmosphere, Cane fans demand excellence every year. And why not? With five national championships and the winningest football program over the last 25 years, it's easy to get spoiled with that kind of constant success.

But lately Canes football has hardly been great--if not mediocre. How tough are the expectations for the Canes? Larry Coker won his first 24 games as head coach. But declining records following 2002 and a miserable 7-6 campaign in 2006 led to his dismissal.

Enter Randy Shannon and his no-nonsense approach. The Canes have only played one game so far (31-3 win over Marshall). But already Shannon has put his stamp on the program. Team unity and discipline have been preached throughout the offseason. So far, so good. One of Shannon's first moves was a bit unorthadox. He decided to change the team uniforms and remove the player's last names from the back of each jersey. His message is no stars or individuals, but rather one cohesive team.

Another change has been to harp on discipline and accountability. During yesterday's Marshall game, the Canes were penalized 7 times for just 50 yards. That's a huge improvement over last year when it wasn't uncommon for the Canes to pile up over 100 yards of penalties in a game. We didn't see the foolish false starts, offside or concentration and mental errors. Granted, it's only one game. But you have to start somewhere.

Through one game, offensive coordinator Patrick Nix is starting to build an offensive identity. This team will run the football. When you have running backs like Javarris James and Graig Cooper, it isn't hard to notice where the strength of the offense is centered. James and Cooper combined for 215 yards on 26 carries for an average of 8.3 per carry against Marshall. What makes this duo lethal is its contrast of styles. James, who is 211 pounds, is more of a tough and physical runner who uses his vision to run between the tackles. Cooper is a speed back who prefers to get to the corner of the defense and make big plays. Cooper, a true freshman from Memphis, gives the Canes something they haven't had since Willis McGahee--the constant threat of the long run. He has tremendous acceleration and once he gets in the open field, forget about it.

As usual the defense has been solid. Even last year, the Canes had one of the top 10 defenses in college football and ranked among the best in stopping the run. But while Shannon has preached team. There are some individuals who have stepped to the forefront. The most visible has been defensive end Calais Campbell. At 6-foot-8, Campbell is a player often compared to Jason Taylor and Ted Hendricks. Yesterday, he made a play that we've seen Taylor make several times--intercepting a pass from his defensive end position.

But the kid who really caught my attention was sophomore linebacker Colin McCarthy. A couple of times, I had to rub my eyes and make sure the Canes didn't sneak Dan Morgan back into his old #44 Canes jersey. But when you watch McCarthy play, it's almost like watching Morgan all over again. He seemed to be in almost every tackle. One of the first things you notice from great linebackers is their ability to bring down the ball carrier in open space. McCarthy has that gift. Like Ray Lewis and Morgan,he rarely misses tackles and when he hits you, you go down. Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to put McCarthy in the same category with Lewis and Morgan. But you can see those same characteristics and potential.

Perhaps the most improved part of the team is the offensive line. Quarterback Kirby Freeman went the whole game without getting sacked and there were big holes for James and Cooper to run through the entire afternoon. The Canes were able to shuffle in and substitute players along the offensive front. This something I haven't seen from past UM teams. Left tackle Jason Fox and right guard Derrick Morse are the most consitant players up front. But it's nice to know UM can bring in backups like left guard Orlando Franklin and right tackle Chris Rutledge and not miss a beat.

Okay, now for the not so good news. Is Miami back as an elite team? No. And the reason is the passing game is still well below average. Quite frankly, Randy Shannon could have put anyone at QB and won this game. James and Cooper were running wild all day. Kirby Freeman is a mediocre talent at best. He's uncomfortable sitting in the pocket and throwing the football. Freeman prefers to roll out of the pocket when he throws. But his accuracy and decision making is still too adventurous for my taste. To compound the problem, UM's receivers catch the football like a grenade is coming at them. Lance Leggett, Darnell Jenkins and Khalil Jones all had drops. It also didn't help that starter Sam Shields was suspended for the game for breaking team rules.

The lack of passing game is going to hurt the Canes. Starting next week against Oklahoma, expect to see teams put 8 defenders in the box and concentrate on stopping the run. Freeman has not demonstrated to ability to beat anyone with his arm. He'll need to if the Canes are to return to the elite.

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