Hurricanes Retooling Defensive Line

A good portion of the defensive front that terrorized opposing quarterbacks and helped the University of Miami football team to a fifth national championship and title game appearance last season is currently eyeing the NFL draft in April.

And with league executives salivating this time of year in hopes of landing quick, strong and agile defensive line players the Hurricanes could be well represented in the selection process with Jerome McDougle, William Joseph, Andrew Williams, Jamaal Green, Cornelius Green and Matt Walters waiting nearby.

McDougle, Joseph and Williams are prime candidates to have new jobs by the end of the draft's first day, while both Greens and Walters are projected as mid-to-late rounders at best.

Problem is none of those transactions will do any good for the Hurricanes this season.

"We got hit in a lot of areas but obviously the defensive line is one where we got hit the hardest," says UM coach Larry Coker, who has already started the task of replacing six defensive line players, including all four starters from a year ago. "It's never easy when you lose so much talent all at once. But one of the reasons why our quarterbacks have struggled a bit is that they've been under some pressure. Don't get me wrong, I never want to see the offense struggle but I can live with it, a little, if it's defense doing the damage."

At first it would appear that the Hurricanes defensive line, minus starters McDougle, Joseph, Walters and Jamaal Green, has plenty of work ahead in making up for a unit that combined for 48 sacks and 103 tackles-for-losses (379 yards) last season and ended up in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Despite a drop off in several defensive categories Miami still managed to hold opponents to 19.1 points and 169.4 rushing yards per game, which was good enough to bring the Hurricanes within a play of winning the national championship.

Walters led all Hurricanes defensive linemen in tackles (64) and added five sacks as the unit was a major factor in UM allowing just over 27 points twice in 13 games. McDougle (55 tackles), Jamaal Green (10 sacks, first on the team) and Vince Wilfork (15 tackles-for-losses, second on the team) were also consistent as Miami dispelled speculation of having a soft front with critical stops late in the season.

"More often than not those guys did the job when they really had to," said Coker.

But most of those guys are gone.

Two weeks into spring practice Coker rarely finishes a day without mentioning the pressure the defensive line is putting on the team's quarterbacks and has been overly impressed with the individual performances of several end and interior players, including Vince Wilfork, Orien Harris, Thomas Carroll and John Square.

And the Hurricanes are hoping the compliments continue -- right into the start of the regular season.

When the Hurricanes open the season at Louisiana Tech Aug. 30, they will have four new starters along the defensive line, with Wilfork being joined by a trio of relatively inexperienced players. And with the returning players on the defensive line having little experience starting, Miami will begin the season much the same way they opened it in their secondary last year -- raw.

If the season started today Coker has said that Wilfork, Harris, Square and John Wood, the returning players with the most experience, would likely take the field with the first team. Coker isn't set on a starting line-up. But he has a pretty good idea thanks to a crop of young and talented players that could lessen the blow of all the defections suffered from graduation.

"It's early but I would dare to say we'll be able to find a nice rotation," Coker. "I've really been encouraged by the intensity all these guys have played with so far. They have taken it to another level."

Wilfork, a 6-2, 350-pounder, drips with NFL potential in part because of exceptional strength and first-step acceleration and is being counted on to spearhead a group that consists of just one senior and five juniors. Wilfork's downside could be his ability to stay in games because of his stamina. But regardless another consistent season from the junior could bolt him into a top-5 pick in the 2004 NFL draft.

"I'll deal with that when the day comes," says Wilfork who finished the 2002-03 season tied for second in sacks (7) and tenth in total tackles (43) on the team while enduring the loss of both of his parents. "I'm not going to second-guess myself because I believe I made the right decision. I just have to go out and perform the way I know I can."

Harris began the spring with a good chance to start next to Wilfork. And he hasn't changed his status. He's improved it with a solid camp to date, including earning Coker's praise after the Hurricanes first scrimmage of the spring last Saturday.

"He's pushing the pile up front and creating some problems for the offense," said Coker.

The 6-4, 300-pounder took positives strides last season, moving into the playing rotation after a season-ending injury to Santonio Thomas and recording 36 tackles. 14 quarterback hurries and a sack. Thomas and senior Larry Anderson, who missed most of the 2002-03 season, will give the Hurricanes depth at defensive tackle. Most of the defensive ends have also played well in the spring. But the group also lacks game experience. Carroll, a quick player who is athletic, has impressed early on and is a good bet to start the opener at one of the end spots. Last season, the 6-5, 230-pounder played in seven games as a reserve, six tackles, three quarterback hurries and a sack.

Square has little experience, playing in just 13 games in two seasons, although the Hurricanes are pleased with his play a year after missing most of the spring with a bruised muscle in his sternum. Redshirt freshman John Wood, who battled an ankle injury last season, has also earned high marks.

Junior college transfer Alton Wright, redshirt freshman Baraka Atkins and former tight end David Williams are all expected to contribute at end.

"The potential is there to build something really special with these guys," said defensive line coach Greg Mark who as a UM player from 1987-89 won two national titles and formed part of a class that won 45 of 48 games. "You're right when you say that it might take some time for these guys to come around. But that's not to say Vince Wilfork, John Square, Thomas Carroll, Alton Wright and John Wood – to name a few- aren't going to be as good or better than those guys. Nothing is a given but I like our chances."

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