Benefit of Independence Bowl for Hurricanes? Extra practice

On Saturday Dec. 27, the Miami Hurricanes will take on the South Carolina Gamecocks for the 2014 Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The Duck Commander Independence Bowl isn’t the destination the Miami Hurricanes envisioned entering the 2014 season.

For a five-time national champion program such as Miami, reaching a bowl can be taken for granted. And yet, seniors on this team went two seasons without that opportunity because of self-sanctions from 2011-12.

Although Shreveport, La., isn’t Pasadena or Atlanta, the luxury of being able to hold bowl practices provides an opportunity that wasn’t afforded to the current upperclassmen. The coaching staff has extra time to develop the student-athletes who will see increased playing time in 2015 and beyond.

"One of the things we talked to the team about is we’ve got to learn this process, we’ve got to learn how to go from this practice to exams," head coach Al Golden said last week. "(This) week it’s exams and the bowl site. We’ve got to learn how to do that while preparing for an excellent South Carolina team. We’ve got to keep moving our program forward."

It’s a unique challenge over a two-week stretch, managing practices with various factions and the expectations. Some, like senior linebacker Denzel Perryman, face their final game wearing the orange and green. Most, like freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, have years of eligibility left.

After a two-week hiatus for players to regroup and coaches to recruit, the Hurricanes reconvened at Greentree Practice Fields last Friday.

High-rep guys like Perryman, junior running back Duke Johnson and senior wideout Phillip Dorsett didn’t wear pads. They donned workout clothes and whistles, helping the coaches evaluate the future talent.

Golden called it a chance to coach players that lift and serve as scout team members for four months. Then there are the injured players who received medical hardships, like senior wideout Rashawn Scott and junior defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins, that can work their way back for 2015.

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"I was really happy with a lot of the young guys that competed to show the staff and coaches who I am and what I’m going to do," Golden said. "From that standpoint we’re moving those guys forward while getting the seniors rested up. And a lot of the older guys coached us, which is awesome."

Getting to watch from the sidelines, Johnson noticed the backfield make strides. Sophomore fullback Walter Tucker looked physical. Freshman Joe Yearby showed "some great signs." Sophomore Gus Edwards, who battled an ankle sprain this season, now understands his role on the team.

"Gus is realizing he’s a big back," Johnson said. "He’s not me or Joe. What he does is total opposite of what we do and vice versa. He’s understanding that and getting a feel for that. He’s understanding what his size does for the opponent."

On the first day back, there were position changes.

Freshman Marques Gayot got looks at Will linebacker as he’s already in the 210-pound range. Freshman David Njoku, who weighs almost 240, was slotted at tight end rather than wideout. Both moves will provide depth at those positions.

For returners already in the rotation, these added practices help finetune details not only for the bowl game but also the 2015 season.

"We can all improve on our technique and our football intelligence," junior defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou said. "The next two weeks can help us in that aspect."

Independence Bowl breakdown

Kaaya has the benefit of this extra time, something his peers didn’t have during their early years. It’s crucial considering he didn’t arrive on campus until the summer. He won the starting job less than three months later.

Even with the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year honor, he wants to continue to develop.

"Get better on all the technical stuff, get better as a player, watch film, go back to the drawing board," Kaaya said. "Just overall improve my toolbox. That’s big for me with a lot of time off and time to improve before spring practice starts."

Added Golden: "(This time is) big. We’re not going to get as many as some others because of our exam schedule but they’re big. We got a lot in (last Friday). We’ll have good film on it and same thing (last Saturday). It’s a great opportunity for them to improve and also make sure they’re in the coaches’ thoughts as we prepare for next season. They want to be in the plan, all those guys. Things of that nature."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.