By Christina De Nicola
Miami's Campus Correspondent
The Miami Hurricanes no longer use youth or lack of experience as excuses. With the top-ranked recruiting class from 2007 suddenly upperclassmen, the time for winning is now.
Over the offseason, head coach Randy Shannon received a four-year contract extension. For the first time in several seasons, both the offensive and defensive coordinators return.
After getting off to a surprising 3-1 start with a tough schedule against top-25 teams, the Canes fell just short in the Coastal Division as well as the Champs Sports Bowl in a 20-14 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers.
Since its arrival in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, Miami has failed to reach the league's championship game. In Coral Gables, players, coaches, fans and media alike hope that's about to change.
Quarterbacks: Junior Jacory Harris became the first University of Miami quarterback since 2002 to pass for 3,000 yards in a season. Despite throwing 24 touchdowns, his 17 interceptions were second most in college football.
Hampered by a right thumb injury, Harris had surgery to repair torn ligaments and missed all of spring practice.
According to Shannon, Harris' time on the sideline allowed the Davey O'Brian Award semifinalist to work on footwork, spend additional time with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and watch more film.
His backups include sophomore Alonzo Highsmith, freshman Stephen Morris and junior Spencer Whipple, who transferred from UMass to become spend more time with his father and become the team's scout team quarterback unless his play changes things. Only Highsmith has thrown a pass in Football Bowl Subdivision action. He went four-for-six with a touchdown in mop up duty last season.
Running Backs: Senior Damien Berry (616 yards, 8 TDs) didn't see the field until Miami's 48-16 victory over Florida A&M in last season's fifth game.
But with a touchdown and 162 yards rushing, Berry solidified his status as the offense's catalyst.
For a team-high seven straight games, he scored a touchdown.
With senior Graig Cooper looking to return from an ACL injury he suffered in December's Champs Sports Bowl, Berry heads into the fall as the favorite to start.
Also looking for playing time are redshirt freshman Lamar Miller, sophomore Mike James and heralded recruit Storm Johnson. Junior Lee Chambers (153 yards, 1 TD) made a position switch to cornerback to help with depth.
When redshirt senior fullback Patrick Hill went down with a season-ending injury, James (46 yards 1 TD) took over a position he had never played before. Hill's recovery bodes well for the backs and offensive line since he's a top blocker.
"We're loaded. We've got running backs that can do it all," Cooper said. "Each back brings something different to the table. This is the most loaded we've been since I've been here. It's crazy. Sometimes I sit back and say we have too much talent on this team."
Receivers/Tight Ends: Easily the deepest unit on offense, each wide receiver returns to the squad, including senior Leonard Hankerson.
Previously known for his dropped passes, Hankerson became Harris' go-to weapon with a team-high 45 catches, 801 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Junior LaRon Byrd's only touchdown came in the 33-17 win against Georgia Tech in the season's second game, while speedy junior Travis Benjamin (501 yards, 4 TD) and his trademark dreads caught the game-winning touchdown at Wake Forest.
What Harris and Whipple will miss is the surprising production from the tight-end position.
Gone are 10 touchdowns, from Dedrick Epps (3), Jimmy Graham (5) and Tervaris Johnson (2).
Redshirt senior Richard Gordon missed last season with an injury, and is best known for his blocking ability and speed. Shannon compares junior transfer Chase Ford to former UM player Jeremy Shockey.
"He's 6-5, good hands and wasn't recruited out of high school," Shannon said.
Offensive Line: The offense will succeed so long as the line can protect Harris and the running backs.
In a loss to Wisconsin at the Champs Sports Bowl, Harris was sacked five times and rarely found time to look for the open receiver.
Drafted by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round, Jason Fox started 47 games for the Hurricanes, which is second all time. When he went down with various injuries late in the season, the left tackle position proved to be troublesome. Returning are seniors Orlando Franklin and Joel Figueroa, the latter who has been nursing an injury and hasn't practiced of late. "While Fig's very, very big, he's very, very athletic," junior center Tyler Horn said. "He can run as fast as any offensive lineman, just as high, real strong, real quick."
Horn, who replaces A.J. Trump, said the most important thing he learned is to be vocal as the offensive line's "conductor." According to junior defensive lineman Adewale Ojomo, junior Harland Gunn is the team's strongest player. St. Thomas Aquinas' highly touted Brandon Linder (6-6, 300), among other newcomers, has surprised Horn. Expect it to take some time before former USC recruit Seantrel Henderson (6-8, 330) gets on the field since he just arrived at UM.
Defensive Line: Last season, injuries decimated one of the top units on the football team. With its depth returned, the line must provide pressure to help the secondary and linebackers.
Players like Ojomo, Marcus Forston and Dyron Dye stood on the sideline and forced newcomers Curtis Porter and Micanor Regis to step up.
Highlighting this unit is senior defensive end Allen Bailey, who will switch back to his natural end position. He also happens to be one of the 2011 NFL Draft's top prospects. After recording seven sacks last season, he expects to be double-teamed and open up opportunities for Ojomo. "It could be real good. We are 14 deep and everyone has talent," Bailey said. "They can take me out and we'd still produce the same thing. We have great potential."
Linebackers: While Darryl Sharpton continues his transition to the Houston Texans, the Hurricanes must find a replacement for him at middle linebacker.
Until recently senior Kylan Robinson, a converted running back who has impressed Shannon and others in the spring, was considered the frontrunner.
"At first it was rough, but over the years I've learned that the small things make the big picture come together," Robinson said. "Just learn the defense and come in and get as much work in with the coaches to get better."
Redshirt senior Colin McCarthy (95 tackles, 1 INT) has begun practicing in the middle, while junior Sean Spence (36 tackles, 3 sacks) mans the outside.
McCarthy, who was second on the team in tackles, struggled alongside Sharpton in tight-end coverage last season. Wisconsin's Lance Kendrick caught seven passes for 128 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Spence suffered through injuries and a sophomore slump, including a tough assignment against Clemson's C.J. Spiller in an overtime loss at home.
Ojomo said junior Jordan Futch, who played five games before tearing his ACL, will be a player to watch. The same goes for junior Ramon Buchanan and redshirt freshman Shayon Green.
"He plays with a lot of passion, he's just a football player and he has great football instincts," Ojomo said of Futch.
Defensive Backs: Junior Brandon Harris was recently named to the Jim Thorpe preseason watch list.
Last year, he was second in the nation with 15 pass breakups. He finished third on the team with 58 tackles and also intercepted two passes.
Senior DeMarcus Van Dyke could be a breakout player as well as redshirt sophomore Brandon McGee. Both had outstanding springs.
Hard-hitting safeties Vaughn Telemaque (84 tackles) and Ray-Ray Armstrong (21 tackles) could be a dangerous tandem with experience already under their belts. Armstrong's "Welcome to College Football" moment came against Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, the unit picked off opposing quarterbacks just nine times last year.
Redshirt senior Ryan Hill, a converted wide receiver, believes the younger guys like redshirt freshman Jamal Reid and freshman Kacy Rodgers can make an immediate impact.
"It's hard to right now to pick anybody, but this group of guys, they listen. I think that's the one thing that will take them a long way," Hill said. "And they all do something different. One guy may have more size than the other, another guy might have better feet. When you put it all together, that's a piece to the puzzle."
College football's most dynamic player can do it all.Senior placekicker/punter Matt Bosher made 14-of-16 field-goal attempts, averaged 42.5 yards per punt, recorded six tackles, made both the All-ACC first- and second-team and recovered his own onside kick.
Still, Bosher isn't satisfied with what he has accomplished through three seasons. "I just need to work on small fundamentals and get better," he said. "There's always room to get better. I wasn't perfect last year on field goals and punts could've been better. There's definitely work to be done and hopefully this year I can do whatever I can to help the team."
Thearon Collier, last season's primary punt returner who returned two for touchdowns, was asked to leave the team and must be replaced. Candidates include Benjamin and Cooper, though the latter is returning from injury.
Also yet to be decided is kickoff duties.
Last season, Miami struggled in coverage and senior walk-on Alex Uribe actually took 30 kicks.
Bailey said it best during the University of Miami media day following the first fall practice."We've got some young talent, but we've also got some senior leadership," he said. "The sky's the limit. The potential is there. The talent's there.
"We'd be disappointed [not to make the ACC Championship] because that's what we're working towards right now. It's a process. We take each week-by-week, game-by-game to get to an ACC Championship."
It seems as though it's ACC title or bust for the Hurricanes, who face another rigorous early-season stretch as well as one of the nation's toughest overall schedules.
Following a tune-up against Florida A&M, the Canes head on the road to face BCS-title favorite Ohio State, the Big East's Pittsburgh and ACC championship runner-up Clemson before coming home to rival Florida State. In all, the Hurricanes face six games against teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 including Ohio State (2), Virginia Tech (10), Pittsburgh (15), Georgia Tech (16), North Carolina (18) and Florida State (20), with four of those-Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and FSU-being played on the road.
If the orange and green manage to survive, there could be a fiesta in Miami come January.