When coach Butch Davis left to take over the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 29, nine days before national signing day, it seemed as though the Hurricanes might struggle again, as they had in the mid-'90s. The Miami players felt betrayed because Davis had repeatedly told them he would remain with the program, and rival coaches suddenly were back sniffing around a strong group of recruits who had orally committed to Davis. What's more, the administration was looking outside the program for Davis's replacement, courting, among others, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, who presumably would bring in a new system.
In the end Alvarez stayed put and, to the delight of the Hurricanes, veteran Miami offensive coordinator Larry Coker was promoted. "When Coach Coker was hired, it was a big relief because we knew that nothing would change," says junior quarterback Ken Dorsey. "We knew that we could compete for the national championship."
With 14 starters returning from an 11-1 team that proved it was back among college football's elite by defeating Florida State, Virginia Tech and, in the Sugar Bowl, Florida, Miami will be a leading contender to win the national tide, which it last won in 1991. The Hurricanes, who ended the season ranked No. 2, have as much talent as any team in the nation despite having lost four starters who were first-round NFL draft choices.
The key to Miami's championship hopes is Dorsey, who last season threw for 2,737 yards and 25 touchdowns while being intercepted only five times. He will be protected by an experienced line anchored by two senior All-America tackles, Bryant McKinnie, who didn't allow a sack last season, and Joaquin Gonzalez. Dorsey, however, will be working without an established receiver, and that will force him to assume a greater leadership role, something he relishes.
"I understand what's expected of me," says Dorsey. "For the first time in my career I have to go to guys and tell them what to do. We don't have a Santana Moss or a Reggie Wayne anymore. We all have to work together."
The 53-year-old Coker, who was the Hurricanes' offensive coordinator for the past six seasons, says he will have an offensive philosophy similar to Davis's but hopes to put more emphasis on the running game. Despite losing last season's leading ground gainer, James Jackson, Miami should be able to run the ball because of a trio of talented backs: senior Najeh Davenport, who gained 308 yards last fall; junior Clinton Portis, who averaged a team-high 6.3 yards per carry last year; and sophomore Jarrett Payton, son of the late Walter Payton.
The loss of Butkus Award-winning middle linebacker Dan Morgan to the Carolina Panthers leaves a major hole on defense, which is why sophomore D.J. Williams, the 1999 USA Today [high school] Defensive Player of the Year, will move back to linebacker after playing fullback last season. The secondary is loaded, led by senior strong safety Edward Reed, who was third in the nation last season with eight interceptions, and cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon, a junior, and Mike Rumph, a senior.
To compete for the national championship Miami will have to win at Penn State, Florida State and Virginia Tech, but the Hurricanes insist they have already won the most important fight with the hiring of Coker. "Right now everyone is feeling pretty good," Coker says. "The players went to battle for me, and I have a responsibility to them to keep this program on the right track. There's no uncertainty. They're comfortable with me, and I'm comfortable with them. Before Coach Davis left, we had our sights set on a national championship. That's not going to change."