The departure of record-setting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was an early entrant into the NFL Draft, is the obvious storyline regarding Miami football. But the program must also deal with the loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was hired away by Cincinnati after installing a simplified system that transformed the RedHawks into one of the finest defenses in the Mid-American Conference.
Brian George and Joe Palcic, the new co-coordinators, will have nine defensive starters back, and this veteran unit will have a huge early season test when Miami travels to Michigan.
OffenseThe RedHawks have a spectacular corps of receivers, led by Martin Nance, who set the school single-season record with 1,498 receiving yards.
They also have a productive running back in senior Mike Smith, who led the MAC with 18 touchdowns last season. But Miami must find an able replacement for Roethlisberger, who left a year early for the NFL, and three offensive linemen who combined to start more than 100 games over the past three seasons.
Center Todd Londot returns for his second full year as a starter after making 22 of a possible 26 starts over the past two seasons. The line must focus more on protecting the quarterback since neither of top two candidates to replace Roethlisberger, junior Josh Betts and freshman Mike Kokal, possesses his sack-shedding stature. Experience gives Betts the edge.
DefenseThe entire secondary returns, including senior strong safety Matt Pusateri, the team's tackles leader each of the past two seasons. Junior cornerback Darrell Hunter owns the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.29) since the program started keeping records in the 1970s.
Junior Terna Nande leads a group of aggressive linebackers that includes junior John Busing, last year's team leader in interceptions. Fifth-year senior tackle Will Rueff returns for his second year as a starter. The defense's experience will help make up for the loss of middle linebacker Terrell Jones and ends Will Stanley and Phil Smith, last year's sack leaders.
Injuries curtailed the spring activities of Busing and linemen John Glavin and Larry Burt, who shared a tackle spot last season.
SpecialistsJared Parseghian returns for his third season as the regular kicker. Todd Soderquist handles kickoffs and longer field goal attempts. Both will have to break in a new long snapper and holder. Mike Wafzig is back for his fourth season as the RedHawks' punter.
Electrifying sophomore Ryne Robinson, a wide receiver, led the MAC in punt returns last season with an average of 17.2 yards per return and three touchdowns.
Final AnalysisMiami has developed a reputation for producing efficient, productive quarterbacks, so the loss of Roethlisberger might not be felt as deeply as some might think. Betts has accumulated a fair share of playing time in blowout wins over the past two seasons, and that, plus his two-inch, 34-pound size advantage over Kokal might be the combination that makes him the RedHawks' starting quarterback in the 2004 opener against Indiana State.
Defensively, Narduzzi needed just a year to see his no-frills, attacking style turn Miami into one of the MAC's top units. But Narduzzi moved on to Cincinnati. Hoeppner promoted from within, which should maintain the continuity and lead to a banner year for Nande, dubbed by Hoeppner as "The Nigerian Nightmare."
Last season, the RedHawks capitalized on an advantageous schedule that featured home games against two of the top teams in the MAC -- Bowling Green and Marshall. This year, they'll face the always dangerous Thundering Herd at Huntington, where they haven't won since 1979. Another postseason trip is an attainable goal, but the RedHawks will be hard-pressed to repeat their magical 2003 season.