The talk coming out of Florida's locker room and practice field last week ranged from mildly disparaging to outright threatening. But each time a reporter relayed to Brock Berlin another dig at him from a former Gators teammate, the Miami junior quarterback batted it away with an aw-shucks grin or a "he-didn't-mean-it" response. While observers marveled at Berlin's seeming passivity, his former high school coach, Dennis Dunn, knew better. "I'll tell you a little secret," Dunn said last Friday, two days after he talked to Berlin on the phone. "There's a fire in Brock's belly like you wouldn't believe."
It took awhile—6� quarters, to be exact—but that fire finally flared last Saturday night in a packed Orange Bowl in Miami. Midway through the third quarter, with the Hurricanes trailing Florida 33-10 and Berlin coming off his second interception, the 22-year-old quarterback was told to run the no-huddle offense to save time. What he did was save the game—and maybe the Hurricanes' season. Of Berlin's final 20 throws, 18 were completions, including touchdowns of 26 yards to senior receiver Kevin Beard and six yards to freshman wideout Ryan Moore. Berlin's 62-yard pass to Beard set up a touchdown plunge by sophomore tailback Frank Gore that cut the lead to 33-25, and on Miami's last drive Berlin led his team 89 yards in 11 plays, with Gore carrying 12 yards for the touchdown that put the Hurricanes up for good. The final score: 38-33.
"You could hear the crowd start to boo after Brock was picked off at the beginning of the second half, and it was the sort of thing that would send most new quarterbacks into a shell," Beard said. "Instead, Brock got into a rhythm, our offensive line started to make the blocks they were supposed to make, and we receivers started catching all the balls we were supposed to catch. It was courage and teamwork."
Come again? In recent years Miami's primary virtues have been talent and experience. But the Hurricanes lost plenty of both in the off-season. After a bitter overtime loss to Ohio State in the national championship game, they bid farewell to Ken Dorsey, the winningest quarterback in school history, as well as running back Willis McGahee, wide receiver Andre Johnson, and defensive linemen Jerome McDougle and William Joseph, all four of whom were first-round NFL draft picks. Against Florida four positions on both offense and defense were manned by players with no more than one start—a season-opening 48-9 walkover against Louisiana Tech—to their credit.
Three years ago the possibility that Berlin would be among those reinforcements would have been unthinkable. Miami was one of the many big-time programs to recruit him during his stellar high school career at Evangel Christian Academy, the small Shreveport, La., football powerhouse. But the self-described country boy preferred the college-town feel of Gainesville, and he wanted to study under Gators coach Steve Spurrier. Problem was, so did Rex Grossman, who came to Florida in 1999, a year ahead of Berlin, and blossomed just as the Louisianan arrived. By 2001 Berlin was a distant second on the depth chart. His Florida roommate, Reid Fleming (who started at middle linebacker for the Gators on Saturday), remembers seeing his friend struggle that year to keep his chin off his chest. "Brock is such a positive, fun guy, but he kind of withdrew," says Fleming. "Anyone who knew him could tell how low he was."
Berlin's parents, Rick, a pastor, and Nancy, a Mary Kay Cosmetics sales director, also missed the Brock they knew: the one who as a kindergartner led the pack of neighborhood kids on his Big Wheel; who as a 16-year-old audaciously drove his mom's pink Mary Kay Cadillac around town; who as a high school senior steered his team to a come-from-behind win in the state championship game before more than 45,000 fans. During a heart-to-heart early in Brock's sophomore year, Rick helped his son put together a list of the pros and cons of cutting bait with the Gators. "He knew he wanted to go to the next level after college, and that meant going to a school where he would get broad exposure quickly," says Nancy. "That led us to Miami."
Hurricanes coach Larry Coker, who isn't one for slick sells or ego massaging, told Berlin he was welcome to join the team but that a starting job would not be waiting for him after he sat out his mandatory season. Berlin nevertheless made the move and prepped for the battle ahead. Although he good-naturedly accompanied his new teammates when they sampled the South Beach nightlife during his first week in Miami, Berlin committed himself to a nearly uninterrupted regimen of intense weight-room workouts and film study. "He created his own little world in the middle of that big city," says Nancy. "Outside of class his daily life followed a triangle: from his apartment to the football complex to the local Quiznos and then back home." This narrow focus paid off, as did his charisma and strong arm. Last spring he beat out three others for the job of taking up where Dorsey left off.
In his first start, against Louisiana Tech, Berlin looked a lot like his predecessor—circa September 2000, when Dorsey, then a sophomore, was still searching for his groove. Berlin wasted two of Miami's first-half timeouts and was just 14-28 for 203 yards. "He read some things off his wristband incorrectly and was not as smooth as we'd like in and out of the huddle," says quarterbacks coach Dan Werner, who set the Hurricanes' practice-field play clock in motion five seconds early in the following week's workouts to force Berlin to act more quickly.
Then came the taunts from the Gators, the most vocal of whom was guard Shannon Snell. "I hope our defense makes his mouth bleed," said Snell, who added an even more ego-bruising dig: "I don't think he'd start for us."
In the first half on Saturday, Berlin made Snell sound like an Emmy-winning analyst. He hit on just 8 of 16 throws, was out of sync with his wideouts and looked especially shaky on two passes he tossed in the general direction of unsuspecting receivers, one of which, a lateral, was scooped up by Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, who carried it 34 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. But once Coker called for the hurry-up offense, a mandate that would have flustered many first-year starters, Berlin—as his high school coach predicted—sparked to life, and Miami's offense began churning out yards and points. "Suddenly the defense wasn't able to give him so many looks," says Werner, "and things cleared up for Brock immediately." Said Berlin on Sunday, "It was just a matter of getting some flow to our offense, and getting some confidence and momentum."