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Time is now

As the Hurricanes seek to march back into the hunt for a national championship, Larry Coker knows fans don't really care as much about X's and O's as W's and L's.

By BOB HARIG
Published September 1, 2006


MIAMI -- Larry Coker tried his best to explain the differences observers might see in Miami's offense this fall. Some will be visible, some won't, he said. The playbook is new. So is the terminology, the snap count. You know, the technical stuff.

Then the embattled Miami coach realized none of that really matters to those not in the huddle.

"The bottom line is production," he said. "Third-down production. Red-zone production. Getting the ball in the hands of our players ... all of those things. Yeah, that is the big difference."

Well, that and those individuals who are paid to coach the players, yelling instructions from the sideline or relaying plays from the coaches' box, the ones who are expected to recruit future stars.

Somewhat lost in the shock of four prominent Miami assistant coaches - including three on offense - being fired in the days after a 40-3 Peach Bowl loss to LSU was the fact it would perhaps mean a different look for the Hurricanes in 2006.

Florida State doesn't have to worry about preparing for the wishbone or an option-based running attack in the season opener Monday at the Orange Bowl.

But the Seminoles will notice some tweaks. In getting to the goal of more production, as Coker would like, the Miami offense has undergone some changes.

"Basically, we're trying to utilize our guys," said quarterback Kyle Wright, who returns for his second season as the starter. "It's setting up plays, keeping defenses off balance while we stay balanced. Fans won't notice the differences in X's and O's, but we're trying to take advantage of the guys we have."

That was one of the big complaints about the Hurricanes a year ago.

Sure, they finished 9-3, a record that would get many coaches a contract extension. But at Miami, home of five national championships, being unable to even compete for the Atlantic Coast Conference title, followed by the bowl-game debacle, meant plenty of angst.

Forget the Peach Bowl, where the Hurricanes lost their way and their composure. In two regular-season defeats, the offense came up short: a 10-7 season-opening loss at Florida State and a 14-10 home loss to Georgia Tech that cost Miami a shot at playing for the ACC title.

Although Wright was second in the conference in passing efficiency, the Miami offense was amazingly inefficient when needed most. The team averaged 27.1 points and 353.1 yards per game - both lows in Coker's five-year tenure.

Those numbers did not rank in the top half in the ACC. And the team allowed more sacks (36) than any other, was 11th in third-down conversions (just 32 percent), 11th in time of possession and ninth in first downs.

So maybe changes were necessary.

The biggest and most shocking were the departures of line coach Art Kehoe and running backs coach Don Soldinger. Both had been with the program through numerous head coaches. Kehoe went back to the days of Howard Schnellenberger and the first national title in 1983. Perhaps not so surprising was the dismissal of offensive coordinator Dan Werner. His three-year stint saw declining offensive numbers.

Still, the moves came as a jolt, especially given Coker's history. A career assistant coach before getting the promotion when Butch Davis left for the NFL's Cleveland Browns after the 2000 season, Coker, 58, was chided for his lack of loyalty. Many among the Miami faithful remember that Coker served as Davis' offensive coordinator, and there were calls for his head, too. But he remained and prospered.

Coker, perhaps with some prodding from Miami athletic director Paul Dee, felt changes were necessary, however painful.

The new offensive coordinator is Rich Olson, who spent the past 12 years in the NFL as the quarterbacks coach for four teams and the offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. This is a return to Miami for Olson, who was on the staff from 1992-94, including one year as offensive coordinator under Dennis Erickson.

"I've told them we're going to attack people," Olson said. "They didn't throw it much last year. And when they did, Kyle would have to make a play or they wouldn't get a first down. If we throw a bad one, we'll throw again."

The new quarterbacks coach is Todd Berry, former head coach at Illinois State and Army. Marquis Mosely is the new wide receivers coach after spending two seasons at Northern Illinois.

"I think we had problems with scheme and execution," Miami tight end Chris Zellner said. "Don't get me wrong, we had a good scheme with Coach Werner. Sometimes we didn't execute the way he wanted us to. But I think the plays we have in now are a big help and will make it easier on a lot of people. This offense is made for everybody. It's more of a complete offense."

The players still have difficulty, though, coming up with what went wrong in the losses last year. At FSU, they can point to allowing nine sacks. Against Georgia Tech, there seemed to be a lack of urgency.

All of it can be rectified, Wright said, by doing a better job of getting the ball to the team's stars. And there are plenty of them.

Tailback Charlie Jones took over for injured starter Tyrone Moss in the eighth game last year and had 507 yards on 123 carries. Moss, who had 701 yards and 12 touchdowns, returns but is sitting out for the opener because of a suspension. The team has talented receivers in Darnell Jenkins, Lance Leggett and Ryan Moore, who was suspended indefinitely. And tight end Greg Olsen has been compared to former Miami tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow Jr.

Miami could use more production from its offensive line, which allowed all those sacks, although Olson attributed much of those problems to Wright. To counter the situation, more three-step drops have been incorporated into the offense, whose new look will be a matter of perception.

"It's still a pro-style offense," Wright said. "We have the type of guys where teams have an idea of what we are going to run. We have the types of athletes where if we know our assignments, nobody can stop us. That's been our trouble. At times, we looked great; at times, it looked like we didn't have a clue what we were doing. It goes back to utilizing our guys, being consistent.

"The biggest thing we have to concentrate on this year is getting our stars the ball. We've got guys out there who are big, strong and fast. And they will make us look good."