The Wright Stuff?

On Labor Day night in front of a packed house at Doak Campbell Stadium and a national audience watching on ABC, the Kyle Wright era begins at Miami as he gets under center for the Hurricanes against the Florida State Seminoles.

His arrival as the starting signal caller at 'the U' is one of the most anticipated in the programs storied history. Wright is perhaps the most important recruit of the Larry Coker era. He would sign a letter of intent with the University of Miami in 2003 after a glorious prep career at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California. Foremost among his numerous accolades was being named the 2002-03 Gatorade National High School Football Player of the Year.

Now, after two seasons where the Hurricane offense failed to live up to its lofty expectations with the beleaguered Brock Berlin at quarterback, all eyes will be on the 6'4, 220-pound redshirt sophomore.

The pressure will be intense. At Miami, anything less than a national championship season is looked upon as a failure. Being the starting quarterback at Miami is one of the most glamorous positions in all of collegiate sports. But one that comes with high expectations and scrutiny.

Both Steve Walsh and Gino Torretta know what Wright will be going through on September 5tThand beyond as he begins his journey as the Hurricanes' starting quarterback. Walsh, led the 'Canes to a mark of 23-1 over his two seasons as a starter and a National Championship in 1987. Torretta, like Walsh would lead the program to a title in 1991 and became the second Heisman Trophy winner that the program has produced in 1992. Both Walsh and Torretta earned numerous accolades during their run at UM and their names are splashed throughout the Miami record book.

Both played during an era where Miami stamped itself as 'Quarterback U'. From Jim Kelly, to Bernie Kosar, to Vinny Testaverde, to Walsh, to Craig Erickson to Torretta, nobody produced NFL-ready throwers like Miami.

Wright is hoping to re-establish that reputation but not much is known of him. Last season he got just a handful of throws (five completions in nine attempts with no touchdowns) and was hampered by drops and shoddy blocking upfront when he did play. Then a mid-season injury curtailed his progress, as he suffered a sprained ankle in practice in October and then suffered an allergic reaction to a bee sting in December that caused him to miss even more valuable practice time. It was an anti-climatic end to Wrights' first year on the field.

As much fanfare as Wright comes in with, he is still an unknown commodity.

But Torretta, who was a part of the broadcast crew for Comcast Sports that televised the spring game at Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, was encouraged by what he saw from Wright on April 9Th

"I thought he was very impressive, he started off and he struggled a bit, obviously the defense played really well and with the injuries to the offensive line, protection probably wasn't what it needed to be," said Torretta, alluding to the fact that Eric Winston and Tony Tella were held out of the scrimmage. "And Kyle, the first couple of drives he struggled but then really lit it up. I think he was 10 of 12, whatever he was, he made some very impressive throws."

After a rough start, Wright would show great pocket presence and the ability to see the field and deliver the ball accurately. It was the type of performance that gave Miami fans hope.

"I liked the way he came back after struggling early and played well," said Torretta, who finished his career with 11 school passing marks.

Shortly after spring practice, Coker would name Wright the starter over Kirby Freeman. Unlike what Torretta went through before the 1991 season- where he had to battle Bryan Fortay till the bitter end of fall camp- Wright has the peace of mind knowing that he will be the starting quarterback going into the season.

"Obviously, he was going to prepare as the starter, either way," Torretta says. "But he doesn't have to worry about a lot of things coming into summer ball, he knows he's been named the starter. So he knows he doesn't have to worry about competition for his job. He just realized, 'Hey, I gotta worry about preparing myself the best I can and getting ready for Florida State.'"

But even with that assurance, this will be Wright's first start at Miami- and it comes against FSU, not FAMU. It's akin to a young boxer being thrown into a 12-round championship main event without the benefit of cutting his teeth with a series of preliminary bouts.

Just how big is experience in this circumstance?

"It certainly helps from understanding your offense and what you're trying to accomplish," explains Walsh, who is perhaps the most cerebral quarterback that has ever played college football. "The fact of the matter that he hasn't had a lot of reps or hasn't been on campus a long time kind of clouds things,' OK, what does he really understand and know about what he wants to do within that offense?' That's the coaches' job to get him ready to do that and then he's got to be mature enough to handle it."

Back in 1987, Walsh's first start came under a similar set of circumstances. As Vinny Testaverde's incumbent he would face another in-state rival, the hated Florida Gators in his first start at the Orange Bowl.

"I knew personally I was prepared and I knew what I wanted to do within my system," said Walsh, who would lead UM to a 12-0 record that season. "And if Kyle's got that down, he'll be fine. If he doesn't, I'll be a little nervous."

The question that always exists with rookie quarterbacks is always the same: just how much of the offense do you give them? Walsh believes it's imperative that offensive coordinator Dan Werner know exactly what Wright can handle going into his first start.

"Absolutely, you don't want to overload a young quarterback," he says. "You may not give him more complicated reads in a game plan You just want to keep it real simple and let the kids natural athletic ability come out because he's a very gifted quarterback. He's got good size, he throws a good ball, good velocity on it and very accurate. The more comfortable he gets, the more accurate he'll get."

And as the season goes along and Wright matures, Walsh expects to see a more diverse Miami offense as the unknowns about Wright are found out.

"I think that's just obvious," says the 1988 Football News College Player of the Year. "Because nobody knows, nobody knows what this young quarterbacks going to be, nobody knew what I was going to be, till you turn on the lights, if you will. At that point you're going to find out very quickly come Labor Day,' OK, how does he handle the blitz? How does he handle getting hit in the back of the head a couple times? How does he handle coming back after an interception?'

"All those things, you're going to find out and then you're going to know how to handle him as the season goes along as far as getting a little more aggressive in situations, maybe being more conservative in situations. So there's no question I think he's going to grow leaps and bounds as the season goes along."

But Torretta thinks that Miami should be dealing from a full deck versus FSU.

"I think they ought to give him all the offense," he states. "I think it's going to be a situation where you're going to see how good the offensive line is going to jell with the injuries to Winston and Tella and those guys are coming back. So if they're healthy and they feel comfortable, obviously you're going to go into the game and know what plays Kyle likes running and so forth, especially against Florida States' defense. But I don't think you can hold it back. You're going to have the whole summer to prepare for that first game. So I would think they would have a few wrinkles that Florida State has never seen before as well."

If anyone should know how tough it is to play for the first time in the land of garnet and gold, it's Torretta. In 1989, he would throw four picks as the Noles handed Miami it's only loss of it's third championship campaign by a score of 24-10.

"It's going to be very difficult and I had already had starting experience in my redshirt freshman year," said Torretta, who after taking over for an injured Craig Erickson against Michigan St. had started the following two games against Cincinnati and San Jose St.(where he set the school record with 468 yards through the air) before going up north to Tallahassee." It's a difficult place to play," he says of Doak Campbell Stadium. "It's going to be a night game, so it's going to be even that much louder. And the thing you have to realize when you play Florida State, especially in that situation with the lack of experience, is that you can get your team beat.

"As a quarterback you're probably not going to beat Florida State by yourself. But you can definitely lose the game by turning it over and so forth. So he'll realize that and I'm sure the coaches will drill that into him during the week of preparation. So I think he's just got to play consistent and you'll be conservative in those games because usually the defense ends up winning them."

But it won't be just the strong right arm of Wright that will take Miami's offense back to the upper echelon of college football. Every quarterback needs a strong supporting cast. Wright would be aided immensely with the return to form of wideout Ryan Moore, the health of Greg Olsen, the continued development of Lance Leggett and the re-emergence of running back Tyrone Moss.

But what may ultimately dictate how the offense runs will be the performance of an offensive line which struggled badly down the stretch without Winston last year.

"Well, with an offense they're trying to run now, it does," agreed Torretta. "They want to be balanced and they want to be able to run the football and without an offensive line you can't run the football. They're a two-back, pro-set team, so you've go to be able to block for your quarterback. But more so than that, you've got to be able to block, open up lanes for the running game, so that'll open up the play-action pass."

From 2000 to 2002, Miami had one of the nations most balanced and explosive offensive units in the nation. But since the departure of the record setting Ken Dorsey, the Hurricanes production has declined. Although, Berlin did rebound after a disastrous 2003 where his touchdown-to-INT ratio was a dismal 12/17. During that season Berlin was benched for a spell in favor of Derrick Crudup after a disastrous outing against Virginia Tech. However, in 2004, Berlin bounced back with a solid campaign where he threw for 2,680 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six picks.

"A couple of years ago I think Brock struggled a little bit," said Torretta, who's brother Geoff, also played quarterback at Miami in the mid-80's."I think last year he took some undue criticism, I thought he played really well. I thought that the offense as a whole was inconsistent. When he played well, maybe the receivers didn't play well. And then when the offensive line played well, maybe Brock didn't have his best game. But I though he was very good."

In Werner's first year as offensive coordinator, Miami's pass offense would rank first in the ACC with 234 yards per game, but just 43rd nationally. Overall, the total offense at 365 yards per game was fifth in the league and 66th overall. Not bad in-conference but really just middle-of-the road across the country.

But under Werner's guidance, the offense made progress.

"I think they did a good job," said Walsh, who's playing days at UM coincided with Werner's first stint at Miami as a graduate assistant in '87 and '88."They focused in on the things that Brock did really well, tried to avoid the things that got him in trouble. They got him to protect the football a little bit more and sometimes maybe too much. But I think Dan was really able to have a good relationship with Brock. He was able to identify his strengths and weaknesses and your game plan, it's a lot easier for the quarterbacks coach and coordinator to say,' Ya' know what? I just want to stay away from that because that's going to cause us some problems' or 'Ya' know, we really need to do this because this is what he does well."

Wright and Werner have a golden opportunity to reverse an alarming trend that has taken place at the Miami program for over a decade. While UM was once thought off as 'Quarterback U', since the graduation of Torretta in 1992, programs such as Michigan have long surpassed UM as the premiere developer of signal callers. Outside of Dorsey, Miami has had many more misses than hits at the position since highly regarded quarterback guru and coordinator Gary Stevens left the program following the 1988 season.

"I think there's definitely some things that Gary had ingrained in the system and you have to keep in mind that that offense didn't change for many years there as Gary was running the offense," said Walsh, who has said in the past that he would have returned for his senior season in Coral Gables in 1989 had Stevens been given the head coaching job after the departure of Jimmy Johnson. "So when you get a system in place and you get buy-in from all your teammates, it's much easier on the quarterback to be able to go in and be effective.

"When Dennis Erickson came along, it was all of a sudden a whole new different philosophy- and I wasn't really there to make an educated comment on it- but at the same point, I don't know if everyone necessarily really understood what their roles were in that offense and had buy-in.

"And therefore I think you saw the play of the quarterback deteriorate- even though Gino Torretta won a Heisman Trophy- they were putting up numbers, it wasn't the same. It was a different type of passing offense and then I think when you see high school quarterbacks looking to see where they want to go to the next level, maybe they don't feel comfortable watching that system. I think the recruiting dropped off a little bit."

In looking at some of the quotes from various offensive players and Werner himself, they seem to hint that perhaps we'll see a more wide-open expanded offense, less reliant on the ol' Coker-T and more on multiple receiver sets.

It's something that Torretta would like to see: "I think mixing up personnel wise and things like that, I would do a little bit more in formation variations and such based on the talent we normally have at the skill positions. I think we have a limited amount of time and hours you can put in during the work week in college football now, it hurts teams like Miami that have that much talent and probably could use those things.

"But with the limited number of hours you can get in practice and so forth, maybe you can't prepare those kids for all those situations."

But perhaps we'll just see more of the same.

"I think it'll be the same as we've seen in the last few years," Torretta says. "I think it's going to be a pro-set, run first to open up the play-action pass and try to be as balanced as possible. Being an ex-quarterback I would like to see it skew onto throwing the ball, but I'm not the one calling plays," he added with a laugh.

Like every other quarterback that wears the orange-and-green, Wright will be closely scrutinized and critiqued. And how he handles that, could determine just how successful he is in the future.

"The pressure is just the pressure to win and Brock didn't always do it the best looking, but he won his fair share of games," said Walsh, who like Kosar, Testaverde and Walsh won his first career start versus FSU. "Granted, it wasn't up to the standards that Ken Dorsey had set and therefore he took a lot of heat. So Kyle, coming off a season where they lost three games last year, the pressure of coming off a national championship season aren't there. But at the same point, Miami normally competes for the championship and that's what they expect year in and year out.

"So the pressure is just to win and whether you win ugly or you throw for 300 yards a game, the pressures going to be there."

And it starts September 5th.

(Steve Kim is a regular contributor to Canes Time and runs his own website at MaxBoxing.com. For questions or comments, he can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com)

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