The Weak Link?

The defending national champions were stripped of their entire starting secondary from a year ago -including three players that were first-round selections in the NFL Draft, - leaving an inexperienced and untested group to fill the void.

Sean Taylor, Maurice Sikes, Al Marshall and Kelly Jennings promise they're ready to step right in.

Instead of making himself available for the NFL Draft this past spring University of Florida quarterback Rex Grossman decided to stay in school for at least another year, delaying an increase in his bank account until next April. But there's a good chance the rifle-armed junior could not hold back a chuckle or two and rushed to the nearest calendar to circle Sept. 7 after finding out who was selected to turn pro.

Going up against the defending national champions isn't something that too many teams look forward to, especially in the season's second week. Only, Grossman might have another opinion right around 5 p.m. that afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville when he looks across the field and sees who remains in the secondary for the University of Miami Hurricanes.

That's just fine with Kelly Jennings, Alfonso Marshall, Sean Taylor and Maurice Sikes. Even if all eyes have been on them since the final whistle of the Rose Bowl with the focus increasing as the start of the 2002 season approaches with the date against Grossman sooner than later.

"We're going to hear it a lot before the season starts and even after the season starts. Everybody is going to consider us as the weak link on the team," said Taylor, a 6-3, 220-pound sophomore slated to start at free safety.

"But that is to be expected because all those guys were great players and we're getting our first shot together. I think we have as much talent now as before. We just have to get on the field and start proving it in order to open some eyes."

With all four starters of a year ago gone, including three All-Americans turned NFL first-round selections, the loss of Ed Reed, James Lewis, Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph has been a main topic of conversation all around Coral Gables and beyond as to whether or not the Hurricanes can make a push for a second straight national title.

The question most frequently being asked points toward Taylor, Jennings, Sikes and Marshall, not to mention the rest of the group: Can the relatively young and inexperienced defensive backfield fill the shoes of the one that departed shortly after the Rose Bowl in Pasadena?

And how quickly?

Miami defensive backs coach Mark Stoops doesn't know the answer as to how fast the current secondary unit will start making headlines of their own, but he agrees with his pupils on one thing.

"They're definitely talented," said Stoops. "We may not be at a level were these guys can be considered superstars on an individual basis, but as a whole this secondary can be as good as any at UM or anywhere else. Obviously, it's not going to happen overnight. It'll be a while."

Replacing perhaps the best secondary in school history will require a few things, starting with the development of the heavy-hitting Taylor who will step into the slot vacated by James Lewis.

Taylor, who recorded 26 tackles in nine games in a limited role as a freshman, was so impressive for most of the spring practice that he had earned the starting assignment by the beginning of April and was already drawing comparisons to Reed and former UM safety Bennie Blades.

Taylor asserted himself right away thanks to a display of speed and strength to go along with his size. During a practice the first week of spring, Taylor made a lot of friends on Greentree Field with two interceptions and a crushing hit on star receiver Andre Johnson. And by the time spring was over, Taylor had a new fan.

"Sean was one of the bright spot in the entire spring," said UM head coach Larry Coker. "Not only can he put a licking on you, but Sean is a hell of a cover and run support guy. He's very talented and is picking up everything just fine." Despite all the attention, Taylor is committed to continuing to learn the Hurricanes defensive playbook and getting stronger. Going from a three-position star in high school to one of the top Div. I football programs in the nation requires so, according to Taylor.

"I know I can play at this level and help this team win," said Taylor. "It's just a matter of getting a better grasp of the system and putting in a lot of work in the weight room."

Said Stoops: "Sean has incredible physical skills and the potential to be a superstar by the time he's through with college. Barring any injuries there is no reason why he just shouldn't get better and better."

Sikes has the most playing experience of any of the starters in the secondary despite being relegated to nickel and dime packages for most of his UM career. But the 5-11, 193-pounder is being called upon to replace Reed, who is considered by many observers the best ever at strong safety for the Hurricanes.

Before being made the first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, Reed left UM as the school's all-time leader in interceptions (21) and interception return yardage (389). Sikes, red shirted as a freshman in 1999, had eight tackles in nine games last season. As a sophomore, he recorded 15 tackles and a sack.

"I don't feel any pressure," said Sikes. "I like being put in this situation of having to perform. That's why I came to the University of Miami. I want to be the guy that makes plays."

Stoops is also expecting results from Jennings and Marshall, who are penciled in as starters at cornerback with sophomore Antrel Rolle providing back-up depth.

"Both Al and Kelly played at a high level in the spring," Stoops said. "They are both very sound and don't make too many mistakes considering their youth."

Jennings, a red shirt freshman, came on strong in the spring and won over the Hurricanes with prime coverage skills. The 6-0, 170-pounder has high hopes after forming part of UM's scout team last year.

"We go up against the best receivers in the country everyday in practice. I don't think you can really ask to get your feet wet in a better way," said Jennings. "Everybody might be surprised if it's the middle of September and we're playing well except us."

Marshall, taking over for Rumph at right cornerback, will also be entering unchartered territory after spending his first two years at UM as strictly a nickel and dime guy. Last season, Marshall played in 10 games picking up a career-high 26 tackles. He promises those numbers will go up in 2002.

"All we need is experience because the talent is there," said Marshall. "Going up against Grossman is going to be the kind of challenge that can only help us."

Miami hopes that's the case.

Canes Time Top Stories