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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

A slowdown in the pipeline

Hiccup in stream of top NFL talent is reason for Miami's struggles

Posted: Tuesday November 9, 2004 3:13PM; Updated: Tuesday November 9, 2004 3:13PM
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College football is all about developing blue-chippers. And, dating back to the days of Howard Schnellenberger, no one has done a better job of that than the folks at Miami. But here's the scoop on why the Hurricanes have started to struggle: the talent pipeline to Coral Gables has slowed to a trickle overnight.

Oh, the big, bad 'Canes still have players. They'll always have them. They have senior Antrel Rolle, arguably the top college cornerback and a certain first-rounder in the NFL Draft. But he's the only 'Cane bound for the opening round in April, and that speaks volumes when trying to understand why Miami finds itself on the canvas after back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Clemson.

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Rather than jockeying for position near the top of the BCS standings, underdog Miami heads to Charlottesville this weekend needing to beat Virginia to keep its Atlantic Coast Conference title hopes alive. This is no easy chore. Not for a team that's been exposed over the last month, most recently caught live on consecutive Saturday nights doing its part to help save the coaching gigs of John Bunting and Tommy Bowden. Pity it is for Ron Zook that Florida couldn't accommodate the 'Canes on this fall's schedule.

If you overlook an early tune-up against Louisiana Tech, Miami has played like the 'Canes of old against only Georgia Tech and Florida State. And the latter saw the offense come alive for only a final 10-minute spurt.

One would have expected Brock Berlin to be the culprit dragging down the Miami Express, but the senior quarterback has been adequate. While the offensive line hasn't done Berlin or the run game any favors, it's the once-stingy Miami D that has played tentative and tackled sloppily while surrendering 124 points and nearly 2,000 yards over the past four games.

Don't bother suggesting Larry Coker has lost his coaching marbles, or Randy Shannon his defensive genius. What they've lost are great players, and lots of them. Lest anyone forget, Miami had an NFL Draft-record six players taken in the first round last spring -- all of them gone by the 21st pick. Mouthy tight end Kellen Winslow was a favorite Berlin target and guard/tackle Vernon Carey steadied the offensive line, while the D waived goodbye to run-stopping tackle Vince Wilfork, ball-hawking free safety Sean Taylor and linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams.

Wonder why the NFL lords will put a bust of Al Davis in Canton before investing in a farm system? The big league already has one in a top-end program like Miami, which has pumped out 19 first-rounders since 2001. That's almost a handful every April.

Eventually, Miami's pipeline of talent was due for a hiccup -- and now the 'Canes are lining up young and inexperienced. And that's somewhat true on the sidelines, too, after offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left for the Cleveland Browns before the season and defensive backs coach Mark Stoops -- the more devastating of the two defections -- left for the University of Arizona.

Not to sound like an apologist for the swagger-less Canes, but the injury bug is also at play. Offensive tackle Eric Winston was figured to be a certain first-round pick before suffering a serious knee injury, behemoth guard Tyler McMeans is another casualty and Santonio Thomas was the team's best defensive tackle until he went down. Redshirt freshman tight end Greg Olsen emerged as a nice replacement for Winslow before breaking his wrist, and Ryan Moore, the top returning receiver, can't escape the trainer's room.

By now, all-world freshman Willie Williams figured to be on the field after sitting out a probationary period, but the injured linebacker's season was over before it began. And redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Wright, tagged to run the offense next fall, hasn't suited up in nearly a month because of an ankle injury, though there has been little call for mop-up duty.

But, hey, whether it's inexperience, injuries or some combination of both, Miami isn't playing up to its rep. Its kids aren't flying to the ball or blowing people off the line. When was the last time the 'Canes were called soft? Some say you have to go back to Jimmy Johnson's inaugural 1984 season. (Remember the Flutie Miracle?) A year later, J.J. had the 'Canes kicking tail and dominating.

The guess here is Miami won't turn it around against Virginia, but a mother lode of young talent will put the 'Canes back in the national title chase next fall. So beat up on them while you can.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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