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'Canes' DBs face big test

Miami's secondary (most of it at least) knows Florida presents more of a challenge than FAMU.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002
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CORAL GABLES -- Compared with the vintage locker room material of a bygone Miami era, it was pretty tame. But for this group of mind-your-manners Hurricanes, the comment bordered on outrageous.

Sean Taylor wasn't exactly enamored with the opening-game performance of Taylor Jacobs, the Florida receiver he and a relatively inexperienced group of Miami defensive backs will try to stop Saturday.

"You have to remember they were playing UAB," said Taylor, a free safety. "They're playing Miami now. We're going to come, play hard, physical. If he can take however many shots, get beat up on every play ... "

Taylor's thought trailed off. Perhaps he figured he would be chastised for speaking out. Maybe it had something to do with the fact Taylor is just a sophomore who had not started a game before Saturday's against Florida A&M.

But the facts are these: Jacobs set a school record with 246 receiving yards; Florida quarterback Rex Grossman is a Heisman Trophy candidate who set an NCAA Division I-A record with 55 touchdown passes combined in his freshman and sophomore years; and Florida isn't FAMU.

Give Taylor kudos for confidence, but it will be a different atmosphere for him and the rest of Miami's secondary when the No.1-ranked Hurricanes play the sixth-ranked Gators at Florida Field in Gainesville. The 85,000 fans are one thing. So is the offense led by Grossman.

Safety Mo Sikes had a different perspective when he talked about playing Florida after playing Division I-AA FAMU.

"The receivers will be a lot better. The quarterback will be 100 times better," Sikes said. "The whole scheme will be a lot different. The speed will be a lot different."

And Jacobs?

"He's fast, has great hands, runs real good routes," Sikes said. "We've got to bring our A game for him. He's a good receiver, and it's obvious he's one of Rex's favorite guys right now."

Sikes, Taylor and cornerbacks Antrel Rolle, Alfonso Marshall, Glenn Sharpe and Greg Threat make up a talented but untested Miami secondary.

The unit is depleted due to injuries to reserve safety James Scott and projected cornerback Kelly Jennings, considered Miami's best cover man, who is expected back from a torn tendon in his right thumb. Still, there is no doubt this is the most vulnerable position for the defending national champions, who lost seniors Ed Reed, Mike Rumph and James Lewis along with Phillip Buchanon, who left for the NFL a year early.

One of the best secondaries in the nation last season, all were drafted. "They made it easy in the sense that they really eliminated a whole half of what an offense can do," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "They couldn't throw the ball, so we knew they would try to run it. If we shut them down running the ball, the game's over." "Our defensive secondary will get a tremendous test," coach Larry Coker said. "I would be concerned about it even if we had Ed and all the players from last year back. If we don't get pressure on Grossman, I don't care who your secondary is. It's going to be a long day.

"We have to play well as a defensive team. We can't just say the defensive backs have to play well."

Coker said his defensive backs missed just one assignment against FAMU, but that might be misleading. While they shut down FAMU's receivers, Miami's linemen and linebackers overwhelmed the Rattles up front, giving quarterback Casey Printers virtually no time.

Going against Grossman and Co. will be a different story.

"All of spring and all during two-a-day camp, we're going against our receivers and our offense," Miami secondary coach Mark Stoops said. "That's about as good as it gets. We know Florida is going to be very similar with the type of personnel we have. We feel like we're prepared. By working against our guys a good bit this week, we expected to get better.

"Our receivers know how to get open against us. They work us hard. It's easy for us to see that type of speed going against our offense. But (against Florida), it'll be a different system, a different scheme."

The Hurricanes are not sure who will cover whom. Eight players rotated throughout the game against FAMU. None had started before Saturday. A lot of five- and six-defensive back sets are expected.

But Sikes said that's not a concern.

Like their predecessors, these players were highly recruited. They learned from an excellent quartet of defensive backs. And they've been yearning for their chance.

"I think these guys want to play football," Sikes said. "That's what it boils down to. This is a football game. It's a great stadium, great atmosphere for college football.

"We came to UM to be the best, play in the game. That's what we're getting the opportunity to do."

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