Since replacing Butch Davis at Miami, Larry Coker has been one of college football's most successful coaches, winning 44 of 50 games in four seasons, the fifth-best start in NCAA Division I-A history. But what has alarmed Hurricanes fans is how Coker has lost six games -- his first Miami team went undefeated and won the 2001 national championship, his second team lost once, his third team twice and the 2004 squad lost three times.
So as the Hurricanes begin their second season in the ACC, many Hurricanes fans are beginning to wonder whether Coker has recruited as well as his predecessor. Davis built Miami into one of the country's top programs -- from 2001 to 2004, the Hurricanes produced 19 NFL first-round draft picks, the most by any team during a four-year period.
But as star players such as Kellen Winslow Jr., Jeremy Shockey, Sean Taylor, Clinton Portis and Santana Moss left Miami for the pros, the Hurricanes have struggled to replace them with similarly talented players. How else to explain Miami's two shocking losses last season? After winning their first six games, the Hurricanes lost at North Carolina, 31-28, and to Clemson, 24-17 in overtime, at the Orange Bowl the following week.
After squandering a two-game lead in the ACC standings, the Hurricanes then lost to Virginia Tech, 16-10, in the regular season finale, costing Miami the league title and a spot in a Bowl Championship Series game.
"We know that that's not acceptable down here," defensive end Thomas Carroll said. "A three-loss season, hey, that's great for some teams. But guys do come back here and they're like, 'Nah, that didn't cut it last year, man.' They don't expect us to lose three games. I really think guys from other schools don't expect us to lose three games. It's really unheard of down here, especially in the last four or five years. We're looking forward to stopping that trend."
Miami Athletics Director Paul Dee is apparently convinced Coker can reverse the slide, as he gave the coach a five-year contract extension earlier this month. The deal will increase Coker's annual compensation to nearly $2 million per season, according to published reports.
"I don't think we have slipped talent-wise," Coker said. "I think we're talented enough to play with anybody. But I do sense our guys are not happy, not satisfied, and they shouldn't be, with last season. There really was some embarrassment there for all of us. No doubt, there is a sense of urgency. We need to go out with excitement, with hunger, every week. We had that at times last season, but not all the time. I guess you could point the finger at me, but we did not play with consistency."
Whether Miami rebounds this season could be determined by the development of Kyle Wright, a sophomore from Danville, Calif., who was ranked by some recruiting publications as the country's No. 1 high school quarterback as a senior. Wright sat behind Brock Berlin the past two seasons, the first as a redshirt, and then beat out redshirt freshman Kirby Freeman for the starting job during spring practice. Wright, 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, has a strong arm and is more athletic than Berlin and his predecessor, record-setting quarterback Ken Dorsey.
Wright is "just a different person now," tackle Eric Winston said. "You come into Miami as an 18-year-old and you get a little wide-eyed, like 'Holy crap, what's going on here?' Now, you kind of get through a couple years, it's not so much of a big deal anymore. Now it's his time, the pressure's off a little bit, he understands what he's got to do. And it's just a matter of knowing that he doesn't have to make the big play."
Wright should get better protection from Miami's offensive line than Berlin did last season. The Hurricanes were ravaged by injuries in 2004, losing Winston and guard Tyler McMeans to knee injuries by midseason. Those seniors, both considered NFL draft prospects, are back with three other returning starters on the offensive line.
With that kind of experience returning this season, Carroll is confident Miami will return to its winning ways.
"I do kind of take it a little bit personal because we're better than that," Carroll said. "We slipped up a couple games last year, and we shouldn't have. I think we should be undefeated" this year.