Miami senior quarterback Stephen Morris is the lynchpin to the Hurricanes' offensive success in 2013.
Despite covering Miami Hurricanes athletics for upwards of 16 years, I still feel like I've been on the scout team and only made first team when Bleacher Report reached out weeks back. I'm truly humbled by the opportunity and plan to make the most of this experience.
I've run my own U-fueled blog for over of a decade, sprung from a 'Canes-themed business in our family that was purchased during the year of my birth. I grew up behind the register at allCanes as a pre-teen during the "Decade Of Dominance" era of UM football, spending half of my time working and the rest of the day collecting signatures from just about every Hurricane great who shopped there.
Between summers spent working at allCanes and fall Saturdays spent at the beloved Orange Bowl every fall, I never had a chance to bleed anything but orange and green.
My coverage of the 'Canes was birthed out of a two-year stint in Gainesville—of all places—as a student at the University of Florida. Gator-spewed drivel in The Independent Florida Alligator had me trading email banter with a few beat writers, which led to the Editor In Chief offering me a writing assignment.
I accepted half-heartdly, as the desire to be a sports writer dwelt within, but my disdain for "that team up north" ended my career after one gig. I simply couldn't write anything positive about the orange and blue and immediately retreated to a UF computer lab, wrote a 'Canes-themed site, offered to cover football for free and spent the next few seasons helping Miami fans make sense of the recent probation-fueled skid.
The rest has been history.
The fine folks at Bleacher Report launched some "first day of school" type questions my way, so I'll answer them below and then we'll get back to business. It's a 'Canes thing...
Athlete Or Coach You'd Love To Interview
Pat Riley, hands down.
I'm drawn less to Xs and Os and more to the psychology of sports, which is why I was such a Jimmy Johnson fan and also buy into all things Golden Al. I read Riley's "The Winner Within" dozens of times in college, and growing up without basketball in South Florida, I was enamored with "Showtime" and Riley's Lakers.
I was thrilled when the hometown Heat brought Riley in from New York, and a decade later, he delivered on that original promise of a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard. Since then, two more championships have been brought to Miami. Riley's career as a coach, followed by what he's done as Heat team president, is second to none.
Let it be known that if the question were, "Coach You'd Live To Go Fishing With", it's J.J. all day, every day. Hanging with Jimmy down on his yacht "Three Rings", sucking back Green Lizards and hearing about his all-world 'Cane squads between 1984 and 1988 would certainly be a bucket list experience.
Best Team Covered
The 2001 Miami Hurricanes, no question.
I covered UM at a distance, having moved to Southern California a few years prior, so I was as close as cable TV and and an Internet connection could take me. Still, descending on Pasadena during the week of their championship appearance, I witnessed such a calm, confident, cool, collected bunch. The 'Canes carried themselves as professionals and knew how good they were, to the point where the Rose Bowl itself was nothing but a formality.
Then those wee hours back at the team hotel after the 37-14 dismantling of Nebraska (up 34-0 at the half, Larry Coker called off the dogs) were euphoric. It was a storybook ending to a dream season, especially in regards to how the mid-to-late 1990s played out. I witnessed four national championships between fourth grade and my senior year of high school, so like all 'Canes fans, I was spoiled.
When probation hit in the 1990s, many critics called for Miami to fade away. (Lee Corso went as far to predict that Central Florida would knock UM from the Sunshine State's "Big Three.") The belief that Miami would return—and the fact that the program actually did—made that fifth ring even more special than the first four.
Most Memorable Game Covered
Miami vs. Florida State in 2000.
The 'Canes were ranked No. 7 in the country, having recently lost at Washington, and the Seminoles were the defending champs and top-ranked team. UM had lost five straight in the series between the two teams and absolutely needed this win to be considered "back."
I was an editor for the FANSonly Network, which ran UM's official site, so I parlayed a trip back for the game into a work experience and a sideline photo pass. It was still a pre-9/11 world, so everything was lax and access was plentiful. I was like William Miller in Almost Famous, when he crashed the backstage party and bonded with Stillwater.
I kept my camera clicking during the first half as Miami built a 17-0 lead, but as things tightened up, the fan in me emerged. I backed my way into some huddles and found myself sandwiched between Michael Irvin and Ryan McNeil as they discussed how great true freshmen Jon Vilma and D.J. Williams could be.
Prior to the final drive, I was within earshot of Bernie Kosar talking to Ken Dorsey. Mid-game, I was feet away from Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne rallying the troops. When Dorsey hit Jeremy Shockey for the game-winner, I was behind the end-zone and can be seen grooving under the goal post for the extra point, work polo on my shoulder like a sweat towel and 'Canes garb displayed proudly.
When Florida State's Matt Munyon's kick sailed ... wait for it ... wide right, I wound up in the middle of the team's dog pile towards midfield. Lost in the moment, I grabbed a chunk of the "U" on the 50-yard line, pocketing it as a souvenir, and grabbed another clump to eat for good luck. (I still stand by the decision.)
On paper, I technically "covered" the game, but in all reality, it was really college football's version of Wedding Crashers.
Who's more vital to the success of UM's offense, Duke Johnson or Stephen Morris?
I don't even want to imagine this squad without either of the two aforementioned players, but the answer is Stephen Morris.
Duke Johnson is electrifying every time he touches the ball and is solidifying himself as one of the best running backs in the nation, but a vertical passing attack has proven to be Johnson's biggest ally.
Miami has had some stellar running backs over the past decade, but the team hasn't had a superior quarterback since Ken Dorsey rolled out of town after the 2002 season (no disrespect to the serviceable, yet erratic Brock Berlin). The next seven seasons, post-Berlin, brought a train wreck in the form of Kyle Wright, Kirby Freeman and Jacory Harris.
It seems that, over the years, Miami has proven only as good as the guy under center. Johnson going down would be tragic, but there's more faith in Dallas Crawford, Eduardo Clements and freshman Gus Edwards than there would be in relying upon Ryan Williams, Gray Crow or freshman Kevin Olsen if Morris went down.
UM has half a dozen quality receivers this season, and someone capable must get them the ball. Morris, a senior with a full season and some spot duty under his belt, is the guy.
What are the keys to the young Miami defense turning things around in 2013?
I think the answer is three-fold.
It starts with some early momentum this season. The past few years, Miami had some tough September opponents, and the 'Canes got tagged in the mouth. Young defenses need to get rolling out the gate, gain steam, forget the inexperience and learn on-the-go. Success breed success, so seeing Miami get off to a hot start will help these kids buy in and believe.
Second, the defensive line position has gotten man-handled the past few years. Due to an inability to get to the quarterback and the tendency to leave true freshman corners and safeties on an island, the 'Canes got flat-out torched. If the defensive line can start winning some battles, Miami's defense will get off the field quicker, allowing the offense to come in and work some magic.
That being said, the offense has to show up and work said magic, which is the third part of my answer. For all the grief UM's defense took last season, in the games the 'Canes got throttled—Kansas State and Notre Dame—the offense wasn't converting, was turning the ball over, was going three-and-out and was settling for field goals.
A telling loss last season was an 18-14 slugfest with conference rival North Carolina. Miami was 6-of-15 on third-down conversions, 2-of-5 on fourth-down conversions and had untimely penalties and turnovers that left potential points on the board and set an early tone. There were also those notorious drops by Phillip Dorsett at Notre Dame the following week (a would-be touchdown on the game's first play and an end zone drop later in the drive).
If Miami's offense can finish drives, convert third downs, stay on the field and score touchdowns where it settled for field goals last season, the 'Canes defense has a chance to build some serious momentum and jell.
What does Miami need to do to upset Florida in Week 2?
Outside of the obvious—like showing up prepared, getting off to a fast start and having a proper game plan—it really comes down to running the ball effectively.
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was able to pass for 266 yards in Louisville's Sugar Bowl win over Florida in January, but it was also the result of some early shifts in momentum, third-and-long conversions and the Gators being on their heels, as they didn't expect the Cards to come on out and punch them in the mouth.
Miami and Florida will both be ready for this one. So in an ideal world, the 'Canes can manufacture some points early to help take the pressure off the defense. Should the Gators put the 'Canes in an early hole, it would force the defense to play catch up and the offense to go score-for-score on every possession.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp will focus on shutting down Miami's ground attack, putting the pressure on Stephen Morris and forcing him to do his best Bridgewater impression by getting the ball into tight spots, making quick decisions and not committing mistakes. This is all very doable if Morris has progressed this off-season as much as coaches have said he has.
Having grown up watching Miami/Florida State, Florida/Miami and Florida/Florida State, these games always come down to big plays and shifts in momentum. It's the most hard-hitting and emotional game these Sunshine State kids will play all season long, and the team that keeps their composure is usually going to be the winner.
How will the offense change under first-year UM coordinator James Coley?
I don't think it changes too much. Jedd Fisch had tremendous offensive success with Miami's offense last season and left the cupboard full for Coley. One would expect things philosophically stay the same, but with a new touch as there are new coaches on that side of the ball besides the offensive coordinator.
Hurlie Brown is now coaching up the running backs, Larry Scott came over from South Florida to coach tight ends, and Brennan Carroll moved over from tight ends coach to working with the wideouts.
With player personnel remaining unchanged and being a year older, wiser and having success with Fisch calling plays last season, it is safe to assume that Coley will apply the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality while putting his stamp on things.
If they keep the continuity and add some new wrinkles, the 'Canes should be a force.
One wish on this end would be to find the tight end again. Between Asante Cleveland, the late season emergence of Clive Walford last season and the addition of top tight end JUCO transfer Beau Sandland, I am ready to see Miami reemerge as "Tight End U" and for that added dynamic to be added to the offense under Coley.
What is your 2013 season prediction for Miami?
I think a 9-3 record and reaching the ACC Championship game is very doable. They could go 10-2 if the they get some good breaks, and 8-4 if it goes the other way.
Getting past a Clemson or Florida State team in Charlotte might be asking a lot, but if this defense can come together and the offense can live up to the hype, this can be the best 'Canes team fielded in a decade.
If they beat Florida in Week 2, the sky's the limit. This team will be jacked up, and that will reinforce the buy-in the 'Canes need across the board. If they fall short of that, it will be another season of "playing for the ACC title", which is noble, but it's time for this team win a big game early and get to that next-level out the gate.
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