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Preseason countdown: No. 16 Miami

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Miami is continuing its quest to recapture the glory years. Or, better put, the Golden years.

After four forgettable seasons under Randy Shannon, the Hurricanes changed course by hiring Al Golden away from Temple. Shannon was never able to maximize his school’s talent, going 28-22, including lackluster losses in the Emerald and Champs Sports Bowls. Golden, on the other hand, was busy breathing life into a dormant Owls program.

MIAMI

The same school that had been exiled from the Big East at the end of 2004 was competing for MAC championships and sending late-bloomers to the NFL. Athletic directors, marveling at Golden’s ability to instill toughness and develop marginal high school talent, were paying attention. The coach stayed in Philly a little longer than most expected, but found the lure of Miami irresistible.

Golden and key assistants, such as defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, excelled at transforming two-star recruits into next-level talent. Think recent draft draftees Muhammad Wilkerson and Jaiquawn Jarrett, and current Owls Bernard Pierce, Evan Rodriguez, and Adrian Robinson. Yet, how will the coaches manage the four and five-star recruits who routinely make Coral Gables their home? The lessons and philosophies will be the same, but it’ll be interesting to see if it still resonates with athletes who were hotly pursued coming out of high school.

The new regime’s top priority will be to fix an offense that turned the ball over too many times last season. More specifically, a quarterback needs to emerge after Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris played poorly in 2010. Golden & Co. watched closely during the spring, but refused to name a starter. One of the two needs to put it together in order to unlock the potential of the skill position players, such as RB Lamar Miller and WR Travis Benjamin. For a change, the Brandon Washington-led line has a chance to be among the best in the ACC.

Unlike the last time the program did a job search, the 'Canes weren’t conservative with this latest hire. The new staff is a collection of outsiders who bring experience and a proven track record of maximizing the talent around it. If it can do at Miami what it did at Temple, the Golden Boys could be back among the nation’s elite programs before very long.

What to watch for on offense: Go Fisch. The biggest unknown of Al Golden’s new staff is coordinator Jedd Fisch, the 34-year-old former quarterbacks coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He’ll be installing a pro-style offense that mixes the run with the pass, but his biggest priority will be to maximize the talent of his two competing quarterbacks. Their progression during the summer and early parts of the season will dictate just how conservative the attack is in 2011. If the coach has confidence in Harris or Morris, he’ll unfurl a longer leash. If not, expect the Hurricanes to do whatever is necessary to limit the team’s number of turnovers.

What to watch for on defense: The situation at cornerback. Although there’s a solid core to build around on defense, the 'Canes do have issues on the back seven. None is bigger than the loss of last season’s starting cornerbacks. To address the issue, Miami is counting on a pair of imports, former safety JoJo Nicolas and one-time running back Lee Chambers. Both have the necessary athleticism, but defending the pass transcends measurables. To keep the two seniors in a defensive mode, Brandon McGee has been shifted over from nickel. Don’t look now, but true freshman Thomas Finnie appears capable of passing everyone at some point this season.

The team will be far better if: It dramatically cuts down on its turnovers. You just can’t win consistently the way the Hurricanes handled the ball a year ago. Despite ranking a respectable fifth in the ACC — and 23rd nationally — in takeaways, Miami was still in the red, throwing more interceptions than any program in the country. At the very top of the 2011 to-do list is to protect the ball better, even if that means forcing the quarterbacks to take fewer risks.

The schedule: The Hurricanes aren't exactly letting Golden take it easy right away with the ACC opener to kick things off at Maryland. Ohio State might be depleted, but it's sitll Ohio State and it's still a statement game, and that's followed up by yet another test against a good Kansas State team. The Bethune-Cookman layup is forgiveable with a road trip to Virginia Tech to follow and a nasty date at North Carolina to all but decide the Coastal before Halloween. If that wasn't enough, Miami still has to go on the road to face Florida State and South Florida.

Best offensive player: Junior G Brandon Washington. It’s been a long time since Miami could say its best offensive player never touches the ball. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Washington took a decisive step toward a future in the NFL, landing on the All-ACC first team. The one-time can’t-miss recruit from the 2009 class is fulfilling expectations with a mix of raw power and excellent footwork. One of the early favorites to win the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, the junior will leave an imprint as a road grader and a pass protector.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Sean Spence. One of the best all-around athletes on the roster is a 60-minute nuisance for opposing offenses. The 6-0, 224-pounder plays with the speed and agility of a safety, yet will light up backs and receivers with maximum ferocity. Coming out of an injury-plagued sophomore year, he erupted for 110 stops, a team-best 16 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He harbors the right skill to be one of this year’s most disruptive outside linebackers.

Key player to a successful season: The starting quarterback, either senior Harris or sophomore Morris. Not since 2002, Ken Dorsey’s final season, has Miami truly felt good about its situation behind center. Inconsistency has been the positional buzz word to describe a program that used to produce NFL-ready quarterbacks every couple of years. The 'Canes need more than just a game manager this season. They’re pining for a reliable distributor, who can leverage the athleticism of the wide receivers, while keeping defenses from crowding the box.

The season will be a success if: The 'Canes win nine games and begin taking on the personality of their new head coach. Obviously, the wins are always critical, but of equal importance this season will be to digest Al Golden’s systems and lessons for success. While an occasional rugged road game dots the schedule, it’s a manageable slate that includes a Sept. 17 visit from undermanned Ohio State. Finishing the year in the Top 25 would cut it as a successful debut for the new administration.

Key game: Oct. 8 at Virginia Tech. Is Miami going to end the year at another second-rate December bowl game or in a marquee event? This trip to Lane Stadium will go a long way toward answering that question. The Hurricanes have struggled to beat the Hokies since 2002, winning only two of the eight meetings. The Coastal Division bar remains colored Chicago maroon and burnt orange, which is why the road to the ACC title game still travels through Blacksburg.

Tagged: Troy, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Virginia, Temple, Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Boise State, Western Michigan, Ohio, Washington, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, Tulsa, Nevada, Navy, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Logan Thomas, Nathan Scheelhaase, Taylor Martinez, Brandon McGee, Dayne Crist, Hafis Williams, John Simon, Andre Ellington, Brandon Thompson, Mike Martin, DeVier Posey, Nathan Williams, Ross Homan, Ryan Winterswyk, Ian Williams, Kellen Moore, Billy Winn, Doug Martin, Austin Pettis, Shea McClellin, Titus Young, Dan Herron, Brian Rolle, Dane Sanzenbacher, Tyrod Taylor, Nick Perry, Jacory Harris, Matt Kalil, Mike Adams, Jared Crick, Andre Branch, Michael Floyd, Terrelle Pryor, Matt Barkley, Brandon Washington, Case McCoy, Connor Wood, Stephen Morris, Tajh Boyd, Garrett Gilbert, David Wilson, Denard Robinson, Manny Diaz, Mike Davis, Mack Brown, Johnathan Hankins, Cam Newton, Ishaq Williams, Braxton Miller, Malcolm Brown

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