Coach Sol Breaks It Down: Part 4

Thanks to longtime UM coach Don Soldinger, it's time to break things down. Blessed with an opportunity to sit down and talk lots of football with him last week, I quickly realized what makes him such a quality man and a tremendous football coach. A hugely important part of this program's success over the years, Soldinger talked with me about a lot of things that will be quite interesting to read.

Mike Bakas: How close a relationship do you maintain with a lot of your former running backs at UM?

Don Soldinger: "Very close. (Clinton) Portis and (Willis) McGahee sort of do their own thing. I recruited Clinton personally. I just don't have his number. I don't really mess with them during the football season. I had all of them over to the house, (Najeh) Davenport and (James) Jackson, all of them. (Jarrett) Payton calls. Frank (Gore) calls. EJ will call sometimes. Devin (Hester) called tonight. I love those kids. There are the special teams players, too. Roscoe (Parrish), Buck Ortega, those guys stay in touch."

MB: One of the biggest complaints from the fans this year has been over the lack of playing time for Derron Thomas and Andrew Johnson. Can you comment on that?

DS: "The only thing I can say to that, and I tell it to them, is that this is a very serious game. If you wanna play, you have to do all three things. You've gotta block. I say that first because any mistakes made up front, a good back will take care of it. Look around the pros. Those guys can block. If you can't pass protect, you've got a major problem. Everyone wants to throw now. I always wanna run first and then do some play action. Let the play action and blocking take care of the blitz. Then, you have to be able to run. Derron had a nice game against Florida A&M. He just has to get his skill level right – running, catching, and blocking. You can't be a great runner and not be able to pass protect. One of the big reasons why so many guys are on the next level (is because of their ability to block). They talk about EJ, Portis, and McGahee as some of the best pass protectors in the league. Those kids played early here because they could block. There's where I think some people have to realize. Andrew can run. He's fast but he's gotta do to the other things. Derron can run. It looks like he bulked up, too. He came over to the house before the season. Derron's a smart kid. He just has to be consistent. Charlie's playing more because he does all three things when Derron may be a better runner."

MB: When evaluating running backs in high school, it seems like so few of them are asked to block so how can you evaluate that when looking at kids to recruit?

DS: "That's a great question. It's the toughest evaluation. If a kid's physical running, if he drops his pads, and if he trucks a tackler, you kinda project it. That's what you see in Javarris (James). EJ is the one who said Javarris is special. He's sharp. I went and watched him (in high school) and you know he's special. He's gonna be there with all of them in the end. I thought the (Graig) Cooper kid was special. I think Cooper's a cross between Clinton and EJ. There's a perfect situation of a bad luck deal. He's a great kid and just didn't make it in but he has a chance to be special for them one day."

MB: A lot of people seem to think Cooper's current backup, LeSean McCoy, was headed to Miami. What are your thoughts on him?

DS: "I visited with McCoy but there's something different about Cooper. This guy's a little more street tough. He reminds me more of Edgerrin. He's a street guy doing it right. The guy's a real special cat, really is. Javarris is too. A lot of people fell off McCoy because of grades. Here's a guy with tremendous athletic ability. He broke a foot (his senior year). He's a great athlete but he doesn't take care of his business. Cooper came down and visited us and I talked to him a couple different times. Cooper, that's a special cat."

MB: A lot of people have commented on how it seems like UM is recruiting too many athletes lately versus recruiting football players. The results can't argue against that so what are your thoughts on that?

DS: "We developed a sheet, back when Jimmy was here. There were seven or eight things on it that we had to prioritize in recruiting. First was athletic ability. You can't make a mistake on athletic ability. You couldn't make that mistake, period. You look at a lot of the kids in that book I mentioned, a lot of them would play in college but not at Miami. Then there was character, speed, other things. You might make a mistake here and there with athletic ability. Character has to be right up there. Work ethic has to be right up there. You had to have some form of rating guys. The biggest things were, was he good enough, academics, and things like. But the biggest thing is, if he's not a good enough athlete, he never graded well. That was the top priority. If you make a mistake on athletic ability, you make a mistake that will hurt you. If you make a mistake on character, you have a major problem."

MB: How is it that a school that's produced guys like Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, and Andre Johnson in recent years goes a couple years without signing a qualified wide receiver?

DS: "You have a priority list. Jimmy would have them rated one to 10. Sometimes you don't get the ones, twos, and threes. We really focused on those kids and maybe didn't push hard enough for the fours, fives, and sixes. Those were good players and they went other places too much. We probably put too much emphasis on the top kids. Maybe we didn't go after enough of the right guys and it left us short-handed. Some guys came out early, too. When you recruit these kids, you plan on them being there. You can't go into recruiting thinking they're only gonna be there for three years. I don't know how many guys came out. Other schools talk them into staying. We've always told them to take a look and weigh your options. Talking to Devin (Hester), he said he loves it and he's happy. People talk about reloading. How do you replace Andre (Johnson), Willis, Portis, Frank, it's unbelievable. We probably could have won a couple more national championships if kids had stayed in school over the years. Asking a redshirt freshman to fill the shoes of elite kids like that, it doesn't happen with success consistently. You're losing studs and it's hard to replace them."

MB: It seems like kids are often being misled by a lot of other schools who recruit down here. What do you think?

DS: "I tell high school coaches to be careful with this. Too many schools promise things that aren't there. If you don't hear it from the horse's mouth, you don't have a shot. I don't tell a kid he has a scholarship unless Butch, Larry, or Jimmy told me. Other schools will offer everyone. They don't have to come back to that school if they screw a kid. Like I said, one of the reasons that program has been so successful over the last 20-some years is because of the relationships we've built with high school coaches and the tradition that runs through the program. That's the backbone. That's why we have to be very careful, especially locally. We don't wanna screw kids. Others do it and you have to be real leery of that. Until the head guy tells you, you don't have a reason to offer a kid. Unless Larry said it, I wouldn't do it. This method allowed us to be very successful over a long period of time."

MB: A lot of recruits respond to my question about what they like most about UM with NFL type stuff. Many of them talk about coming and going in three years instead of talking about going in and helping UM win games and championships? Do you think that's become part of the problem recently?

DS: "Good question. On one respect, it attracts. Competition attracts good kids with competitive spirits. On the same token, when they're getting time to make a decision (whether to stay in school or leave early for the NFL), it can have an impact. McGahee comes to mind. I don't think he played the national championship game the way he played the whole season. I don't chalk it up as a bad game. I chalk it up as him going through the game and thinking about making a lot of money. I got on him during the game for it. He plays the way he had all year and the game might be different. I'm certainly not blaming Willis because it was a lot of people. Some guys, in the back of their minds, see dollar signs. Their approach may be different."

MB: With all the success and competition that this place breeds, does it make life easier when recruiting because there are kids trying to be the next great one?

DS: "The hardest thing about playing at Miami is to fill the shoes before you. There's a lot of pressure on those kids. They get it from all over. It's not easy. There's been a bar set unbelievably high. Everything you do, there's pressure. Some of the kids aren't ready for that. They're at Miami with high expectations. Some of those guys can't deliver it on what's been there before them. Some guys get wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. The FSU game comes and it's like, ‘wow, here I am,' and it's hard to deliver. Unless you're a polished guy who is real competitive and real confident, that's tough because of what's happened before you. Somewhere, one of those seven (characteristics that are evaluated in recruiting) is mental toughness. That's where this comes in. When you're at Miami, you must have tremendous physical and mental toughness. Look at Santana Moss and the success he had here. Then Sinorice was faced with ‘oh, is he like his brother?' and it has an effect. He did a real credible job. Now look at (Darnell) Jenkins. He's faced with stepping into the shoes of guys like Roscoe and Devin. That's not easy to do. Those guys were trying NCAA records. Now Jenkins is a phenomenal athlete but let's see how he handles it. It's hard to do and not for everyone and you have to do your best to evaluate that before bringing them in. If you do it, you can live up to it and become a first round pick. We've had a lot of them live up to it over the years."

MB: As a coach, did that ever change your approach being at a place where the bar is set so high?

DS: "Look at the linebackers who have come out of here – the Morgan's, the DJ Williams's. There have been some unbelievable linebackers, wide receivers, running backs, and even some of the linemen. It's hard for some of them to reach that bar. Look at (Reggie) Youngblood. He was supposed to be the second best offensive lineman in the country coming out. He hasn't done it yet. Will he? I hope so because he's a great kid. I try to be tenacious with the guys I coach. They don't understand it at first but I put the pressure on them in practice as soon as they get there. It's what they're faced with. When they get into the game, kids have told me it's easier than some of the practice time they had. It can't be easy for them at first. You gotta bust their balls from the beginning. You gotta put them in pressure situations all the time. All the backs, I like to throw a lot of backs at you. If the kids are close ability-wise, I'll play some. EJ may have been better than James Jackson but a fresh James is better than a tired EJ. I try to pressure them and make them ready. Payton put a four-year internship in here, only to become the first back to get back-to-back 100-yard games against Florida State. He was ready. He was a special cat. Because he was used to those pressure situations away from the actual games, he didn't have many problems. He ran for almost 1,000 yards and only started part of the year. You have to put demands on the kids and put them on early."

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