Seldom does a player make it through his first year without getting a nickname. When offensive tackle Eric Winston arrived at Miami in 2002, teammates didn?t take long to come up with a sobriquet. ?In strolls this 6'7" kid with long, wild hair, a huge forehead and the appearance of maybe he hadn?t taken care of himself in a little while,? says senior guard Chris Myers. ?What else would we call him but Neanderthal??
The suitability of this nickname starts and stops with Winston?s physical characteristics. A finance major who took so many advanced placement courses at Lee High in Midland, Texas, that he entered Miami at the sophomore level academically, Winston proved to be a quick study on the field as well. Heading into his second season as a starter, the 313-pound junior has shown an understanding of blocking principles and pass-protection techniques beyond his years. ?Eric came in as an exceptionally gifted student as well as an extremely well-trained football player,? says line coach Art Kehoe. ?You can tell this by talking to him, and more and more he?s showing it in his play.?
Yet few people from Winston?s native West Texas could have seen him as an interior lineman, much less one at Miami. While helping Lee win three Texas 5A championships, Winston built a reputation as one of the top tight end prospects in the country. After a senior year in which he caught 20 passes for 210 yards and three scores, friends and family members expected him to go to Texas A&M, where his brother, Matt, was a student. Instead he chose the school that had just turned out tight ends Bubba Franks (now with the Green Bay Packers) and Jeremy Shockey ( New York Giants).
By his second week at Miami, Neanderthal had shown teammates he had the skills to match his imposing figure. But even as he revealed pass-catching ability as a backup to All-America tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Winston was most impressive as a bullish run blocker for 2002 Heisman finalist Willis McGahee. As a result, coaches began to view Winston as a potential standout at tackle. Winston couldn?t disagree. ?I had been fighting to keep my weight down, eating a few tiny meals a day, and it was really tough,? he says. ?I relaxed my diet, started lifting for really the first time in my life, and everything started to come together.? Through an intensified weight program and frequent trips to Flanagan?s, a well-trafficked trough for Hurricanes linemen, Winston has added 40 pounds without losing a step in his 40 time of 4.8 seconds.
Just as the added bulk came easily to him, so too did the interior line assignments. During 2003 spring practice Miami slid second team All? Big East selection Carlos Joseph from left tackle to right and moved Winston into the starting spot on the left. He was a bright spot in an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes, who had their second-lowest scoring average (27.8 points per game) in two decades. Many blamed the drop-off on first-year quarterback Brock Berlin, a junior transfer from Florida at the time, who turned in some shaky performances. But injuries to Joseph and fellow senior lineman Vernon Carey contributed to Berlin?s uneasiness.
Winston, for his part, neutralized All? Big East defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College and All-ACC defensive end Eric Moore of Florida State. He earned praise from Kehoe, who since 2001 has coached five players who went on to become NFL draft picks. Winston, says Kehoe, ?holds his line when players form a cup to protect the quarterback. He keeps his shoulders square, kick-slides real well and makes defensive tackles beat him to the outside.? If his top lineman has one fault, it?s that his assignments come so easily to him that now and then he loses focus. ?He has mental lapses sometimes in practice,? says Kehoe. ?He?s so talented that he can?t just be O.K. He has to be exceptional.?
Exceptional play by all the linemen from the outset this season would give Berlin more time and, by extension, some much-needed confidence. It will also boost the prospect for a run game that will rely on speedy sophomore tailback Tyrone Moss, who gained 511 yards in limited duty last season, and junior Frank Gore, an immense talent who is attempting yet another comeback after missing all of 2002 with a torn right ACL and most of ?03 with a blown left ACL.
The linemen believe that if they can avoid injuries and cut down on the high number of penalties (34) that plagued them in 2003, there?s no reason they can?t dominate the way the Hurricanes? line did in Miami?s back-to-back undefeated regular seasons of ?01 and ?02. In addition to Myers and Winston, experienced returnees along the line include senior center Joel Rodriguez and junior right tackle Rashad Butler, who started three games last year. Completing the starting lineup is junior left guard Tony Tella, whose athleticism turned coaches? heads in the spring. ?We?re not huge,? says Myers of a line on which only Winston exceeds 300 pounds, ?but we?re exceptionally fast. We have more game-breaker-type talent than I?ve seen on any line I?ve been on at Miami.?
In explaining the line?s motivation, Winston shows just how far he?s come since he was catching slant passes and good-natured grief as a freshman. ?I think a lot of us grew up last year,? he says. ?We used to do a lot of talking about how we needed to tighten up. It?s now time to stop the talk and just start doing it.? --K.K.