Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger never tires of telling his favorite Frank Gore story. "It was during two-a-days not long after Frankie had gotten to Miami [in 2001], and we were going over protections," says Soldinger. "There were about 12 or 13 to memorize, and I told the players to go home and learn 'em. So I'm fast asleep that night when the phone rings at 2:30 a.m. 'Hey, Coach,' says Frank. 'I learned the protections. You want to quiz me?' "
Two years later Gore still has that sense of urgency—only more so. After gaining 562 yards on only 62 carries in backup duty to Clinton Portis as a freshman, Gore tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee during 2002 spring practice. Then he watched his replacement, Willis McGahee, become a Heisman Trophy candidate last fall and play a major role in helping the Hurricanes reach the national championship game. Now that his knee is fully healed, and McGahee has moved on to the NFL, Gore faces high expectations in trying to sustain a Miami tradition. "I feel a lot of pressure because the running backs before me put up some big numbers, and people are talking about how I'm going to be the next one," says Gore. "When I get the call, I want to make the big plays."
For Miami to play in its third straight national title game, Gore will have to come through. While the Hurricanes' defense remains formidable—among those returning are two of the nation's top linebackers, middle man Jonathan Vilma and outside backer D.J. Williams, plus all four starters from a secondary that tied an NCAA record for fewest yards allowed per catch (9.5)—the offense will be breaking in a new quarterback. Junior Brock Berlin, a transfer from Florida who sat out last season, has played in only 12 college games and hasn't been tested in Miami's efficient, quick-strike system. So it will likely be up to Gore to provide the offensive pyrotechnics at the start of the season. Though Gore isn't as powerful a runner as McGahee, Soldinger believes the redshirt sophomore will meet the challenge. "He has the best raw skills and running technique of any player I've coached," says Soldinger. "On the sidelines we're always saying, 'Now, how did he get out of that one?' "
Gore was showing signs of his freshman form as early as March, in an intrasquad scrimmage. In his first contact drills since injuring his knee in a collision with safety Sean Taylor a year earlier, Gore insisted on shedding his hands-off jersey (much to head coach Larry Coker's discomfort). Running in his exaggerated, low-to-the-ground style, he carried five times for 37 yards, including a 22-yard run in which he dodged past three first-string defenders for a touchdown.
The session boosted Gore's confidence, as did a heart-to-heart with McGahee around the same time. "Willis told me that I would have no problem doing well if I remember to do two things to protect myself," says Gore. "The first was to never read what anyone says about you in the newspaper. The second was to get in the weight room and make myself stronger than ever."
Gore took the message to heart. During the summer he was up by 6:15 to be in the weight room at seven. In the team's notorious spring sprint gantlet—the players run 110 yards full-out 12 times and have to repeat a set if anyone's late—Gore pushed himself so hard that he fell into his bed immediately afterward. (The oldest of three siblings, Gore, 20, still lives in the Coconut Grove apartment where he grew up, so he can help his mother, Lizzie, a single parent who requires multiple dialysis sessions a week to treat a kidney ailment.) After briefly adding four pounds over the off-season (he subsequently shed the weight and comes in at 216), the 5'10" tailback worried about how the increased bulk would affect his mobility. "He kept asking, 'Do you think those four pounds are slowing me down?' " says left guard Vernon Carey. "It's a ridiculous question, because the guy's as quick as ever. He's become a perfectionist."
Gore expects near perfection again this year from the Hurricanes, who were 12-0 before losing to Ohio State in double overtime in the Fiesta Bowl. "As long as we stick together, we'll make another run at the championship," he says. "I'm just glad I have a chance to help us get there."
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