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College football

A new start for Berlin

Miami gives former UF quarterback a second chance.

By BOB HARIG
Published August 31, 2003

Miami head football coach Larry Coker and quarterback Brock Berlin take a time-out during the third quarter against Louisiana Tech. [AP photo]
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CORAL GABLES - For the first time in his life, Brock Berlin felt helpless. He wasn't leading his high school team to a 45-0 record or being wooed by every major college program in the country or experiencing the highs and lows of learning from the famous ball coach, Steve Spurrier.

Berlin, frankly, wasn't doing much of anything other than playing on the Miami scout team and yearning for the day when he might again be the man behind center, the star college quarterback, the place where he always seemed destined.

"It was one of the toughest seasons of my life," Berlin said of last year. "No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, you ain't getting out on that field. It was a tough situation to be in."

You could say the same thing about the situation Berlin now finds himself in, although he relishes it.

Replacing Ken Dorsey and following in the UM quarterback tradition is a tough task, but one Berlin figures to tackle head on. He made his first start for the Hurricanes on Thursday night in their 48-9 victory over Louisiana Tech in his hometown of Shreveport.

And Saturday in Miami, Berlin faces his old teammates, the Florida Gators.

At one time, Berlin figured to be the starting quarterback on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He signed with Florida and Spurrier in 2000 after winning the USA Today and Gatorade player of the year awards.

Instead, he will be playing against his old school, which happens to be a bitter rival.

"It's a storybook tale, to be able to play for the No.1 team or No.3 team and not the number whatever they (Gators) are," said Berlin's mother, Nancy. "And to be with a coach (Larry Coker) who he absolutely adores and would do anything for. He has developed a wonderful friendship already, a great bond with all the young men on the team. It's like a family. That's the way he was brought up here in Shreveport.

"There's been a waiting period, and it was a dark time. He had some low moments. But his faith got him through it."

Needless to say, Berlin's faith was questioned. How could a guy who never lost a game in high school, passed for more than 13,000 yards, led Evangel Christian Academy to three state titles and was recruited by everyone in the country end up on the bench?

This, after disappointing many in Louisiana by choosing Florida over Louisiana State.

"There was a lot of hometown resentment. Still is," Nancy Berlin said. "LSU is big. Those who knew him knew he wanted to stay in state. He went to some of the camps down there. There is quite a bit of resentment to this day. People just don't understand. He realized that they just didn't do the throwing game. He needed to go where somebody would teach him an NFL offense."

That would be Florida and Spurrier, of course. But the Gators had another touted quarterback, redshirt freshman Rex Grossman.

Known for precise, missile-like throws, Berlin could not beat out Grossman, who was a Heisman Trophy runner-up as a sophomore.

"Everyone saw he put up numbers that were unbelievable," Berlin said. "In my mind, I felt I could be doing the same things. But you just can't take somebody out who is putting up those kind of numbers. It's something I had to deal with."

And that became more difficult. Being the same year in school as Grossman meant even if Berlin took a redshirt season, he likely would have one year as the starting quarterback.

That realization caused Berlin to consider transferring.

"Brock Berlin needs to play two years of college football somewhere," Spurrier said after giving Berlin permission to transfer. "It's not fair to him to back up Rex Grossman for four years. In practice, there's not much difference between (Berlin) and Rex. Rex played a little better in the preseason and kind of took it from there."

Berlin started one game as a Gator - his last. That came in the 2002 Orange Bowl because Grossman was punished for a curfew violation. Berlin completed 11-of-19 for a then career-best 196 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions.

His career numbers at Florida were 53-of-87 (60.9 percent) for 653 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 games.

Berlinhad decided to leave Florida before the Orange Bowl, then, coincidentally, a few days after the game, Spurrier left. He became coach of the Washington Redskins a few weeks later.

"When you're sitting on the bench and have never sat on the bench your whole life, you're not used to that," Berlin said. "It's tough. But once I made the decision to come to Miami, I really had a peace about becoming a part of this university."

It's funny how things work out. Spurrier left and Grossman did not have nearly the same success under Ron Zook, then declared early for the NFL draft. Had Berlin stayed and redshirted last season, he would have started two seasons for the Gators. Would he rather be in that situation than the one he finds himself in now?

Berlin takes the high road. He has nothing but good things to say about his time in Gainesville, the friends he made, the things he learned from Spurrier.

"I don't regret going there," Berlin said. "These past years have really made me a better quarterback, a better person."

And Spurrier?

"I always got along with him very well," Berlin said. "He's just a perfectionist and wanted things done right. That's how you have to take it. If you take it any other way, it might get personal. I'm very thankful for what he taught me and what I took with me."

In fact, Berlin said, he had a nice chat with Spurrier this spring when his former coach visited Coral Gables to scout various Hurricanes during UM's pro day.

"Coach Spurrier is a great coach, he's very smart," Berlin said. "He's a serious competitor. Hates to lose, too. I feel like I learned a lot from Coach Spurrier. He's brilliant. He knows what he's doing. He knows how to accomplish it. I had a great conversation with him. We ended on a good note."

Players transfer all the time, but rarely do they end up at such a high-profile school, an in-state rival. To get off to a good start at Miami, Berlin had to earn the trust and respect of new teammates. Some were skeptical, rivalries being what they are.

"I had to win them over," Berlin said. "I had to take grief when I first got down here for being a Gator. But I think I won them over as time went on. I ran the scout team last year and showed those guys that I was able to lead and really show them that I was here to play and I meant business about it."

It helped Berlin to have someone with whom to share his struggles. Tailback Frank Gore, who was slated to start last season, injured a knee during spring practice, paving the way for Willis McGahee to have a breakthrough season.

With McGahee's success, there was no reason for Gore to rush back, so he redshirted and spent time on the scout team with Berlin. The two bonded.

"We got really close last year," Gore said. "We would talk about how we couldn't wait for next year. He tried to keep me up because he knew I was down, too. We knew we couldn't play, and we knew we had to come here and practice. We weren't miserable, but we wanted to try and do things to help the team."

It didn't hurt Berlin to be waiting behind Dorsey, a three-year starter who led the Hurricanes to consecutive national title games and lost just two career games.

Berlin took his time learning the offense, while developing a relationship with teammates.

"I expect nothing but the greatest from Brock," defensive back Mo Sikes said. "He has really earned my respect. Obviously he had to earn his stripes, coming in being a Gator and everything. But he's done it. He's done all the things that it takes to be a leader. We have a real good leader in Brock. We'll go to war with him this year.

"Everybody's going to compare him to Dorsey. He can't be Dorsey. He's got to be Brock. He has to be the best he can be, and if he is, he'll have no problem."

It might be too much to expect UM's offense to be as proficient as it was with Dorsey. Not only are the Hurricanes going with a new quarterback, who until Thursday night had not thrown a meaningful pass for them, but they are breaking in several offensive linemen, receivers and a running back.

Some of the problems were evident in the opener. Berlin completed 14-of-28 for 203 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. At least three possible interceptions were dropped, several open receivers were missed, and Berlin looked like someone who has not played much.

Coker, however, admits the Hurricanes are fortunate to have a quarterback of Berlin's ability stepping in.

"It seems like a huge, huge coup for us to get Brock Berlin," Coker said.

And it will require more than Berlin for UM to be successful.

"It wasn't Ken Dorsey who did it all," Coker said. "He had a big part, obviously. But he had a supporting cast. Football is such a team game. I don't think anybody is concerned about having to follow his legacy. Look who all these guys follow. You hope it's always going to be that way here, a tough act to follow."

Berlin is ready for the challenge and no longer worries about old allegiances. In fact, that part was easy, as his mother attests.

"I took off my Gator sweatshirt and put on my 'Canes sweatshirt overnight," Nancy Berlin said.

[Last modified August 31, 2003, 08:28:10]


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