Salivating To Prove Themselves

Seems like the University of Miami defense has been down this road before. Two seasons ago a young and raw linebacker unit took the field amid whispers that they were the Hurricanes' most glaring weakness. But by the time the 2001 season had ended the Hurricanes were celebrating a national championship as little-known linebacker Jonathan Vilma led the team in tackles during the regular season with 79.

Last season those same critics pointed to the secondary, which was breaking in four new starters, as the Hurricanes potential sore spot. What happened? The secondary tied an NCAA record for fewest yards allowed for completion on their way to leading the country in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.

Now, as the Hurricanes prepare for the 2003 season, UM is in the midst of replacing six defensive linemen, including four starters, that combined for 37 sacks and helped the unit hold the opposition to an average of 19.1 points a game to come within` seven points of another national title.

Five of those players (Jerome McDougle, Andrew Willliams, William Joseph, Jamaal Green and Matt Walters) were NFL draft packs last April, so naturally this year's crop of UM defensive linemen is under the gun to refute a perception that they are the team's weakness.

When the Hurricanes take the field at Independence Stadium Aug. 28 to open the season they will do so with a new first-unit defensive line and only three players (junior Vince Wilfork, sophomore Orien Harris and junior Santonio Thomas) that contributed extensively last season. The ends and the tackles on this year's squad have one start combined.

UM defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has already vowed to insert blitz packages with his linebackers and defensive backs in an effort to cause some commotion up front and free up some of the defensive linemen.

Thanks but no thanks, says Wilfork, a candidate for both the 2003 Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy after accumulating 43 tackles and seven sacks last season despite having to deal with the loss of both of his parents.

"I've already heard some things about how we're going to have some new guys in there and we might be struggling some," said Wilfork, who will start in the interior opposite a rotation that will include Harris and junior Santonio Thomas. "But all these guys are very talented and I expect them to step up. Its not like we're being thrown into the fire. We've been around for a while and we picked up a lot of things from the guys here last year."

Wilfork, projected as a high first-round selection in next year's NFL draft, finished 11th on the team in tackles, despite not starting a game, had eight quarterback hurries and 15 tackles for losses, while missing a lot of practice time during the regular season and being excused from a number of sessions leading up to the Fiesta Bowl because as he tended to his mother's passing.

By all accounts Wilfork understandably didn't live up to his potential last year. But that could likely change. Wilfork has worked all summer to trim down close to 20 pounds and appears to have renewed confidence.

"I can't imagine being so young and going through what Vince did last year," says UM Coach Larry Coker. "But Vince is mature beyond his years and I really think that has helped him deal with everything."

Harris, a 6-4, 298-pound sophomore, made the most of an opportunity in 2002 after moving into the rotation following an injury that sidelined Thomas. Harris finished the season with 36 tackles, 14 quarterback hurries and a sack. Thomas returns to the mix at tackle after missing most of the 2002 season with a torn muscle in his shoulder. He played regularly as a sophomore in 2001 recording 26 tackles.

"I feel good with the three guys in the middle," Coker said. "I don't think there's anything to be worried about there."

The same can't be said at defensive end. Coker has already expressed concern over a group that is talented yet still unproven. Junior end John Square, one of the projected starters, is coming off shoulder surgery although Coker says he will be ready for the season opener, while reserve John Wood is currently suspended and his return is unlikely. If Square is ready to go by the start of the season he will likely pair up with sophomore Thomas Carroll, Carroll's role on the line could be vital in large part because he can play on both sides.

Red-shirt Baraka Atkins, junior Alton Wright and sophomore Javon Nanton will also fit in prominently, according to Coker. Atkins could sneak into the starting line-up based on the ability he's shown in stopping the run, while Wright has also made strides. Nanton, former walk-on, has displayed an ability to get into the backfield that hasn't gone unnoticed by the coaches.

One of the common demeanors with the line, especially the ends is their lack of size. But Coker doesn't seem too worried.

"That seems to be the trend in football now - to have some speed guys," said Coker. "So I think we'll be fine."

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