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Cautious confidence

For the first time in several years, the swagger is back. But nobody is bragging too much yet.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

UM: game by game

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CORAL GABLES -- Butch Davis is well aware of the tradition at the University of Miami. As an assistant in the 1980s, he helped put the pieces in place for three national championships in five seasons. He knows what it's like to have lofty expectations -- and meet them.

Now, finally, a decade or so later, that same sort of euphoria is sweeping the campus. The Hurricanes are ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and they don't shy away from national championship talk.

Sort of like the old days.

"This should be an annual occurrence," said Davis, who begins his sixth season Aug. 31 against McNeese State. "It should not be front-page news that Miami is in the Top 10."

It is, which says something about how far the Hurricanes had fallen. Davis, 48, has spent most of the past five seasons trying to rebuild the dynasty, sometimes believing it would come faster than it has, other times saying it would take longer.

UM was slapped with NCAA probation late in his first season in 1995, and the resulting reduction in 31 scholarships over three years was a blow from which the Hurricanes are just now recovering.

For once, there will be a full contingent of scholarship players battling on the practice field. There will be the speed and depth on both sides of the ball that previously made UM the most feared program in the country. And there is a belief that the 'Canes should be a contender instead of a pretender.

[Photo: AP /1999]
Coach Butch Davis feels that his carefully built Hurricanes may be ready again for the big time.
"We've steadily progressed," senior linebacker Dan Morgan said. "Now, this could be the year. We've got all the maturity you need, we've got all the leadership you need, we've got all the skill you need."

Morgan grew up following UM in Coral Springs. He accepted a scholarship offer in 1997 knowing the program was not up to its usual standards. He has seen the dark days of a 5-6 season, unheard of in these parts.

"My freshman year, I remember standing there for the first game against Baylor, running out of the tunnel," he said. "We beat them pretty good that day. And I thought we were just going to mop people up. And we ended up going 5-6. I was shocked.

"I had been watching Miami since I was about 6 years old. It was hard to take. Things were pretty low around here. And you thought it was going to take a long time before things were the way you wanted them to be."

There is excitement for several reasons. Miami finished 9-4 last season, 6-1 in the Big East, and won seven of its final eight games, including an impressive 28-13 victory over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. It was Miami's first New Year's game since 1995 and led to offseason optimism.

When you consider that 14 starters return, including a backfield boasting James Jackson and Najeh Davenport, a receiving corps loaded with Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne and Andre King, and a defense with the entire secondary intact, it's easy to get excited.

That's not to say that the Hurricanes will cruise to a Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series spot in the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship.

Quarterback is a key component after the departure of Kenny Kelly, who elected to play baseball full time in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization. His backup, sophomore Ken Dorsey, 19, started just three games last season when Kelly was injured. In six games overall, Dorsey completed 74 of 120 passes for 807 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Nobody behind him has played a college game.

And there are two pretty huge roadblocks on the schedule: Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Both games are home, but Davis is 0-10 against the Seminoles and Hokies.

"That's the next step," he said. "We've taken small steps in beating Ohio State last year at the Kickoff Classic and UCLA the year before. Now we'll see if we're ready to take the next step."

"This is the year that's do or die," Moss said. "We have more depth and we have our scholarships. We have no excuses."

To their credit -- and in a departure from the old days -- the Hurricanes have not been overly boastful because of the high preseason ranking. They know a big road game awaits at Washington. They know that no player on the UM roster has ever tasted victory over FSU or Virginia Tech.

"Don't get us wrong, we love the ranking," Jackson said. "But we have to stay focused, keep our composure and don't believe the hype. We have to go out there and prove ourselves each and every day."

Davis, for one, knows how fickle preseason polls can be. He remembers beating up on more highly rated teams when he was a UM assistant in the '80s. And he remembers four of the past five seasons, when the 'Canes were rated higher in the preseason than season's end.

"Coaches and players always have expectations," Davis said. "This year, the expectations are probably closer to reality. When the expectations are unrealistic, that's when you can set your program up for some problems.

"I think the guys are excited about it. And they know how hard and how much sacrifice has gone into the preparation for this season."

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