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Road to Recovery: Miami

Great programs on hard times.
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The scariest thought for Miami fans must be not that the 'Canes are in a trough since the run of dominance from 2000-04, but that, on the heels of another "trough" in the mid-to-late-nineties, that the top-end success over the first half of the decade is the anomaly in a long-term decline.

Miami is not a histortical power prior to the early eighties; since 1995, the trend points to mediocrity as norm as much as it does excellence.

What Went Wrong: Anything and everything related to the passing game, once a great strength at da U, now embodied in one of the most astonishing individual lines of the last two seasons, delivered by Kirby Freeman in the overtime loss to N.C. State:

1 of 14, 84 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT
That game produced this hilarious message board post, got Freeman nailed to the bench for the rest of the season and a nice transfer letter when - according to plenty of rumors but no credible news sources - his scholarship was revoked. His completion percentage for the year: 31.03 (18 of 58) with six interceptions and a shameful rating of 64.49, which is low even under the NFL rating system. For some comparison for Freeman's badness, compare it to that of regular starter Kyle Wright, official bust, who was almost twice as efficient (124.21) despite lobbing up by far the worst interception rating of any full-time starter in the ACC. Here were two terrible, underachieving quarterbacks, who combined who combined to complete less than half of their passes for less than 100 yards in five different games, good enough (er, bad enough) to finish last or next-to-last in passing, scoring and total offense in the most offensively bereft conference in the country. If not for Wright's brilliant game against Texas A&M, it wouldn't have even seemed possible.

Wright and Freeman: Double trouble, for the wrong team.
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Given the ongoing lack of firepower in the passing game, the running game can hardly be blamed for its mediocrity (65th in the nation in per game average on the ground was still good for third in the ACC, after all) but the receivers can take the heat for the depressing number of passes they allowed to clang to the ground for the second straight year. Nobody I'm aware of keeps track of drops, but anecdotally, the collection of Darnell Jenkins, Lance Leggett and Sam Shields must be the worst offenders anywhere; pray for any group that was somehow less adept at holding onto the ball. Receivers coach Marquis Mosley was sent packing last month, a thousand frustrated groans ringing in his ears.

What's most disappointing about the Canes' abject failure to consistently complete passes is the high talent level: according to Phil Steele's aggregate position ratings, Kyle Wright was the No. 1 quarterback out of high school, Freeman No. 14, Leggett and Shields top 16 receivers, tight end Dajleon Farr No. 3 and Jenkins, the "diamond in the rough" of the group, No. 35, all behind an offensive line with three starters ranked in Steele's top six linemen out of high school. Struggling with Oklahoma and Virginia Tech is one thing, but there is no excuse for such consistent atrocity with that kind of bodily-kinesthetic wealth.

What Went At Least Moderately Right: Again, it helped to play in the offensively challenged ACC, but the defense was generally competent, at least enough to qualify for a rock bottom bowl game with just a little help from the other side. The run defense last year was as good statistically as the nine-win team in 2004 and the awesome near-mythical championship team in 2002, and roughly comparable to the transcendent 2001 team that dominated all comers. The front four was talented - not on the Russell Maryland/Cortex Kennedy/Warren Sapp/William Joseph/Kenard Lang/Jerome McDougal level, except for oft-double-teamed end Calais Campbell, but talented - and generally good at rushing the passer. Just good, though, and not good enough to overcome a secondary that didn't equal the sum of its parts.

Changes, Building Blocks and Other Cautious Optimism: Randy Shannon is already on notice, and the combination of desperation and rejuvenation might work for a revamped team - there will be a new quarterback, mercifully, and even if Robert Marve isn't much more productive than the Wright/Freeman disaster of the last two years, he will at least be a young 'un on a presumably upward trajectory. The running backs, mainly Javarris James and Graig Cooper, were inconsistent but had no help from the passing game, are still in the "maturing" phase of their careers, too, and both look like they just need one good excuse to break out of the thankless ""move-the-chains" role. The defense has six new starters, which might be good overall despite the early exit of Campbell and fellow first rounder-to-be Kenny Phillips because five of those six are VHTs that provide, yes, the audacity of hope, if a paucity of actual experience. There must be a sense of urgency on Shannon's part that should trickle down, or another coaching search will commence quickly and the cycle begins anew with the outside hire UM allegedly wanted after it fired Larry Coker.

Dude, let go. I'm not coming back.
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Obstacles: See the youth above, especially at quarterback, and on top of that the surprising inability to not only not return the freight train to the tracks after the gradual careening of the Coker era, but to somehow regress with losses to North Carolina, NC State, Georgia Tech and a pathetic 48-0 blowout at the hands of lo-fi Virginia in the Orange Bowl finale, a disgrace to the great field and the program that did so much to put it on the map and a symptom of malaise that may be too entrenched under the current administration to root out before Shannon's time is up. An alarming though re: offensive coordinator Patrick Nix, who in the last two years has shepherded the ignominious senior efforts of Reggie Ball in 2006 and then Kyle Wright: on some level, what if it's Nix? Redshirtt freshmen quarterbacks are always a lot of fun, but somebody get Robert Marve a paper bag.

Target Date For Reacquisition of Mojo: The general talent level is still well above average by ACC standards, but nothing but gloom awaits unless the incoming quarterback and the new starters on defense are "instant impact" kinda guys, which recent history suggests they will not be, at least not enough to make up for the loss of two likely first round picks that only buoyed the D to the higher end of mediocrity last year. There was nothing to suggest Miami was anything but just another 5-7 team that finished next-to-last in its conference (the only worse conference record in either division of the ACC was Duke's 0-8), and the next immediate step is just crawling back above .500. Given the performance here at the end of Coker's tenure, and that the same malaise rolled over to Shannon even as the latter endeavored to run a much tighter ship, the only really strong argument for anything better than a random December bowl game is something like, "This is Miami!" So the short-term prognosis is not particularly good.

The turning point is not likely to come this fall, then, when the first two games are at Florida and Texas A&M, both of which will be favored, and the first five ACC games are virtual toss-ups at best. The good news about playing in a conference with so much parity is that there need be no miracles - the upcoming season will be about establishing consistency and winning the majority of either/or conference games, then seeking a breakthrough at the start of 2009 against Oklahoma and South Florida.