Learning The Ropes Quickly

Just give this a thought for a second or two. The University of Miami football team entered the spring having to replace two of its starters on an offensive line from a season ago that protected the Hurricanes' quarterback all the way to a national championship game appearance.

Gone too was Ken Dorsey, the beneficiary of that same line which allowed a modest 15-quarterback sacks last season after keeping their signal-caller virtually untouched in 2001 on the way to a National Championship.

Yet faced with the reality of having a revamped offensive line and new quarterback, Hurricanes offensive line coach Art Kehoe shuffled his players around constantly in the spring in hopes that he would land the right combination. For most college football programs around the nation that would not be considered a wise move with the start of another season barreling down quickly on the calendar.

Thing is only one college football program in the country can claim they have Eric Winston on its side.

"Eric is a tremendous athlete who has a lot of potential. I think he's going to be a great (left tackle)," says UM Offensive Coordinator Rod Chudzinski. "The kid just has unbelievable knowledge of the game and he's just going to get better. But let's remember he hasn't done it yet."

Doesn't matter.

The Hurricanes' brass is so enamored with Winston's abilities that they not only switched him from tight end to offensive line in the spring but Kehoe and Coach Larry Coker decided that they would put him at left tackle, which just happens to be Brock Berlin's blindside and a position widely regarded as the most important on the offensive line.

Although the coaches haven't admitted to it publicly, the shuffling on the offensive line was ignited with the sole purpose of having Winston at left tackle, in the eyes of many observers. The Hurricanes' desire was such that Winston was immediately inserted at the position, bumping last year's starting left tackle Carlos Joseph.

Winston had never played on the offensive line before the spring but as a freshman last season he was used mostly as a blocking tight end coming out of the backfield and welcomes the challenge of having such grand responsibilities placed on his shoulders.

"I'm still learning the position a little bit," says Winston, who had a modest two receptions for 13 yards in 13 games last season. "But I don't feel consumed with the pressure of having to perform at all. I relish the fact that the coaches here believe so much in my abilities as a football player that they have put me in this spot."

Kehoe continues to guard his comments about Winston and has not committed to the former All-USA Today first-team selection as the starter at left tackle when the Hurricanes open the season at Louisiana Tech on Aug. 28th. But it's Winston who has taken most of the snaps in practice with the first-unit so far and Kehoe has indicated that Winston does give the team the best option right now at that position.

"I don't want to put him in the Hall of Fame yet but Eric brings a lot of qualities to the table," says Kehoe. "His footwork for a guy that hasn't played much is tremendous and the thing with Eric too is that he's a quick learner. You rarely have to tell the guy something twice. Having the kind of strength Eric has doesn't hurt either."

Says Winston: "I've always prided myself on being prepared and never being caught off guard. I believe that the better prepared you are in this game, the better chance you have of succeeding at it."

Given his strength and knowledge, Winston is being viewed as the next ‘great offensive lineman' at the school following in the footsteps of former Hurricanes like Bryant McKinnie, Leon Searcy and K. C. Jones. There is the question about Winston being able to play at 305 pounds after putting on a substantial amount of weight during the off-season. After playing last season at around 280, the 6-7 rapid talker shrugs off the potential concern.

"I don't feel it's going to be a problem. All the weight was natural and I'm going to lose some (weight) during the season anyway so I don't think it's a big deal."

Winston, a Midland, Texas native who was a member of three Class 5A state title teams at Lee High, has already started earning the respect of teammates and the coaching staff with a work ethic that goes above and beyond, not to mention a will to want to take a leadership role on the team. Already during the first week of practice, Winston has been spotted on occasion tutoring some of the younger players on the sideline.

"Why not?" says Winston. "If I can help the younger guys with anything that's going to make us better as a football team then so be it. I just think that I have to take it upon myself to try and help them with details, just like the a lot of the guys did with me."

"He just goes about his business and helps the guys with stuff like technique ad positioning," says senior offensive lineman Vernon Carey. "He's been a positive influence on all of us really."

Winston originally was somewhat hesitant to make the position switch and theories differ on what finally made him change his mind. Sitting behind Kellen Winslow at tight end? The prospect of starting right away? A future payday in the NFL? Nobody knows for sure but apparently Winston is ready to make a smooth transition. Kehoe related an instance in the spring in which Winston came into his office and told him that he wanted to be the ‘best offensive linemen at the University of Miami'.

"You shouldn't be out here if you don't have that attitude," says Winston.

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