All four starters on the University of Miami's secondary of a year ago could rarely open a sports section or turn on the radio last summer without hearing about what they were getting themselves into.
The Hurricanes had lost their entire 2001 secondary to the NFL, including Ed Reed, Mike Rumph, Phillip Buchanon, handing the task over to Rolle, Jennings, Sikes, and Taylor, who combined for 26 games of experience without a single start between them. That being the case, questions arose about the Hurricanes young and raw quartet: Can Rolle fill Buchanon's shoes? Is Jennings ready to play after sitting out a year? Who is Sean Taylor?
Today, all those questions have subsided and the entire nation has a pretty good idea who the players are that make up the Hurricanes' secondary after the unit stood up and silenced their critics right off the bat last season.
Tagged as perhaps the team's lone weakness the unit responded by leading all NCAA Division I teams in pass efficiency defense, allowing a completion percentage of 46.18 (163-of-353 passes), and pass defense. Miami's opponents averaged 119.69 yards a game passing. The Hurricanes tied an NCAA record for fewest yards allowed per completion for a single season (9.5) in helping the Hurricanes to a 12-1 finish and Fiesta Bowl appearance against Ohio State. Rolle, Sikes and Taylor went on to earn first-team All-Big East honors.
Now, those same players are ready for an encore.
"We never took all that stuff personally but in a way it was good because it helped all of us get on the same page and prove to everybody we could play at this level, said the hard-hitting junior free safety Taylor as the No. 3 Hurricanes prepare to open the 2003 season at Louisiana Tech Thursday night. "It was just a matter of getting out on the field and doing it. But there was no doubt in my mind we could do this."
The boys in the back didn't waste any time in making an impression limiting highly-regarded Casey Printers to 42 yards passing and eight completions in 22 pass attempts as the Hurricanes drilled Florida A&M 63-14 in the season-opener. A week later the unit held then-Florida quarterback Rex Grossman to 191 yards and intercepted him twice, including a 97-yard touchdown return by Sikes with the Gators driving in the third quarter. They capped the first month of season by allowing Boston College's Brian St. Pierre 138 yards passing.
"A lot of the credit should go to Coach (Mark) Stoops," says Rolle, who finished fifth on the team last season in tackles with 66 and added an interception. "He worked our tails off to make sure we would be ready when the time came."
Says Stoops: "I never doubted the abilities of these guys. It was a matter of getting everybody's feet wet and you guys saw the end result."
The Hurricanes' secondary accounted for 294 of the 1114 tackles recorded by the team and added 10 interceptions, spearheaded by Taylor with four. But those numbers are all in the record books. Taylor broke up a team-high 15 passes and forced a fumble. Sikes was fourth on the team in tackles, while recording three interceptions. Rolle added two sacks, six tackles for losses and an interception. Jennings had 25 tackles.
Yet the secondary could once again be out to prove themselves this season, especially after the loss to the Buckeyes in Tempe, Arizona last January. Leading 24-17 with the Buckeyes in possession of the ball in the first overtime the Hurricanes were one play away from claiming a sixth football national title.
But UM reserve defensive back Glenn Sharpe was called for pass interference on OSU receiver Chris Gamble after apparently deflecting a pass in the end zone. The Buckeyes eventually scored and went on to defeat the Hurricanes.
"That's over with and there's nothing we can do about it," says Jennings. "Our entire focus is on having a great season again and finishing our business. If we do that we're going to be alright."
Independence Stadium would be a good place to start, as the Hurricanes will meet up with a high-powered Louisiana Tech offense that features senior quarterback Luke McCown. Despite a 4-8 record last season, Louisiana Tech averaged 26.7 points and 418 yards a game with McCown throwing for 19 touchdowns and 3,539 yards. The 22-year-old bullet-throwing right-hander has 69 career touchdown passes and 18 games of 300 or more yards, including nine over 400.
"He's not afraid to squeeze it in there," says Sikes. "But we should have some opportunities against him even though were going to have to be smart and not get over anxious."
The Hurricanes should know.
As a freshman in 2000, McCown entered the Orange Bowl to face the Hurricanes admittedly scared and wondering what would transpire. Over three hours later, the Hurricanes had notched a victory but not before McCown threw for 418 yards, three touchdowns and set a NCAA freshmen record for pass attempts in a single game with 72.
Now McCown heads into his final year at Louisiana Tech as the country's most prolific Division I-A returning passer thanks to 9.420 yards passing and a shot at the Hurricanes. That alone has the attention of a secondary regarded as one of the best in the nation, if not the best.
"We're starting from scratch and we're not taking anybody lightly," said Taylor.
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