2011 College Football Preview: Jacory Harris and the No. 19 Miami Hurricanes
The Miami Hurricanes can't be that far gone. Can they?
Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to look all of the way back to the 1980's to find the swagger that pushed "The U" to the forefront of national prominence.
The 2001 and 2002 'Canes—like their counterparts from the 80's—were the baddest team in college football. In fact, the '01 version is still regarded by many as the best team in college football history.
Heading into their 2002 BCS National Championship matchup with Ohio State, Miami had run off 34 consecutive victories. 35 seemed like a lock. The Buckeyes' last gasp looked to have come on a 4th-and-3, trailing by seven in overtime. Craig Krenzel's pass fell to the ground, incomplete. Players and coaches rushed the field. Fireworks were in the air. Helmets were in the air.
So was a penalty flag.
If you're looking for a starting point to explain the regression of the Miami Hurricanes football program, referee Terry Porter's phantom pass interference call is it.
Sure, the 'Canes won 11 games and the Orange Bowl in 2003. But the aura of invincibility was gone. From 2000-2002, Miami went 35-2. From 2004-2006, the Hurricanes were 25-12. In 2007, Miami suffered their first losing season since 1997 (and only their second since 1979), and were further disgraced by a brawl with lowly Florida International.
The program gained momentum under Randy Shannon from 2007-2010, but he never could get Miami all the way back over the hump.
Enter, Al Golden.
Golden worked a miracle at Temple—turning one of the nation's cupcakes into a bowl team, and restoring pride to a program that had one foot out the door. The resources in Coral Gables are among the most plentiful in all of college football. Which leads one to believe that a guy who can turn the Owls into a winner, can resurrect the University of Miami.
Can the program do a "U" turn in his first season?
Who is Jacory Harris?
The 2009 version of Jacory Harris was outstanding. Only a sophomore, Harris tossed for 3,352 yards and 24 touchdowns vs. 17 interceptions. He threw for 386 yards and two scores in a 38-34 victory over the Seminoles. The following week he posted 270 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions vs. Georgia Tech.
And, in a huge non-conference matchup with Oklahoma, Harris threw interceptions on each of the Hurricanes first two drives—then rallied the Hurricanes back with 202 yards and three touchdowns, on the way to a 21-20 victory.
Erratic at times? Sure. But he did enough to become an early Heisman Trophy candidate heading into 2010.
But, once last season actually began? The wheels came off. There were four interceptions in a loss to Ohio State—Eight, total, in the first four weeks. Then, just when Harris seemed to get it going toward the middle of the season, he was knocked out after taking a vicous hit vs. Virginia. He sat out the next three games.
And, when he finally returned for the last two games of the season, he was nothing short of atrocious. Harris combined for four interceptions, and no touchdowns vs. South Florida and Notre Dame, before being yanked in favor of Stephen Morris in the second quarter of the Sun Bowl.
Now, the guy that was once dubbed the next great quarterback at Quarterback U, is in a "competition" with Morris for the starting gig. There is little doubt who wins that competition. But, that's not the point. If Harris can control the football and make smart plays, the Hurricanes can beat anyone. If not? The Hurricanes can lose to anyone.
The real Jacory Harris needs to stand up.
If it's speed you want, you need look no further than Miami, Fla.
The Hurricanes feature, arguably, the fastest backfield tandem in the country in Lamar Miller and Storm Johnson. Ironically, the lead back for Miami—at least, initially—will likely be Mike James. James has the edge in experience and has proven himself to be a tough runner, but lacks the top end speed of his counterparts.
Realistically, Hurricane fans have to cross their fingers that one of the three establishes himself as "the man." An every down tailback is something Miami has been missing for quite some time.
Receiver has the potential to be a strength for this team. But, only if guys like LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin can cut down on the mental errors. Each has shown flashes of brilliance during their time in Coral Gables, but neither has been able to sustain it.
The Hurricanes are expected to go to a double-tight look almost exclusively in 2011, which puts a great deal of emphasis on senior Chase Ford and Southern Cal defector Blake Ayles.
The offensive line is Miami's greatest asset. Four starters return, including junior guard Brandon Washington and sophomore tackle Seantrel Henderson.
Seven starters return for a unit that ranked 22nd in total defense a season ago.
Among them, the 'Canes return three starters along the defensive front. But, while defensive end figures to be a strength with juniors Olivier Vernon and Adewale Ojomo heading up the group, the interior is a concern. Micanor Regis and Marcus Fortson are each returning starters, but Fortson has been oft injured, and generally disappointing to this point in his career.
The linebacker position looks solid, if only due to the return of senior Sean Spence. An All-American candidate in 2011, Spence is the best player on the Miami roster. His speed, athleticism, and fierce hitting ability separate him from his peers, making him one of the few current Hurricanes that appears reminiscent of those dominant teams from the previous decade.
It goes without saying, but this Miami secondary will not lack athleticism. What they will lack, however, is starting experience. Jojo Nicolas was a starter at safety in 2010. But, he's moving down to corner, where he'll join first year starter Brandon McGee.
The safeties will be solid, assuming that Ray-Ray Armstrong is accountable to the position and plays as something more than just a hitter. Vaughn Telemaque is one of the bright spots for the 'Canes at free safety.
Special teams is a huge question mark for the Hurricanes.
Matt Bosher did it all. His departure means a new kicker, a new punter, and a new kick off specialist for Miami in 2011.
Jake Wieclaw and Matt Goudis will battle for the place kicking role, while JUCO transfer Dalton Botts will handle the punting.
Travis Benjamin will likely top the depth chart as the punt returner. But, Lamar Miller, LaRon Byrd, and a slew of other Hurricane skill players could find their way underneath a kick, as well.
Game of the Year
Nov. 12 @ Florida State
The Hurricanes' Oct. 8 visit to Blacksburg looms large. But, no game is bigger than Miami's annual matchup with the Seminoles.
The two teams could meet in the thick of their own ACC divisional races. And, after the 45-17 thrashing that the 'Canes received last season, revenge will undoubtedly be on their minds.
Reliable fantasy picks are sparse in Coral Gables heading into the 2011 season.
Jacory Harris was a popular choice this time last year. The same cannot be said this time around. Harris will likely go undrafted, and there's no way I'd advise the use of any draft pick on him.
Due in part to the enigmatic quarterback situation, and partially due to their own inconsistencies, LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin probably won't be showing up on anyone's draft board, either. Personally, I'm a fan of Byrd, in particular. I'm not saying that a 19th round selection of Byrd is the greatest idea in the world. But, it wouldn't be the dumbest thing you've ever done, either. How's that for a vote of confidence?
Lamar Miller is the Hurricane that you want. And, for the price (9th-11th round) he presents considerable upside. But, Mike James—a Miami running back that you can probably live without—could ruin things for you if Jedd Fisch decides that he likes James in the red zone.
The "U": Final Forecast
On paper, the Hurricanes are plenty talented enough to contend for an ACC Coastal Division championship in Al Golden's first year as the eye of the storm.
That's the good news.
The bad news, is that Golden must figure out a way to end the lack of discipline that has plagued this program for nearly a decade. That could be easier said than done.
The worse news, courtesy of a Jacory Harris meltdown in 2010, is the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position. The 'Canes need Harris to be the answer—not the question.
The worst news, is the schedule. A non-conference slate featuring Ohio State, Kansas State, and South Florida isn't doing anyone any favors. Conference road tilts with Maryland, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Florida State doesn't make things any easier.
Projection: 9-3 (5-3)