All springs bring optimism

After taking one look at his offensive backfield, University of Miami Larry Coker must have wondered if luck wasn't on his side. Although, healthy running backs or fullbacks aren't exactly at a premium these days at the University of Miami, but the reshuffling in the Hurricanes backfield hasn't caused head Coker to reach for the panic button.

Not yet, anyway.

"Obviously, you always want all your players in there and healthy, but this is just part of football and something we're going to have to deal with," said Coker. "We've had to move some guys around a bit and some young guys are getting a chance to get their feet. We have talent back there, it's just a matter of how fast they develop and are ready to play."

Injuries to several running backs, including projected starter Frank Gore, and starting fullback Kyle Cobia, who is out with a left knee strain until at least this week's Florida game, has resulted in three members of the Hurricanes backfield being sidelined and a reshuffling at both positions.

Result: The Hurricanes currently have two running backs and no fullbacks with college game experience at their respective positions.

Gore, who said earlier this month he expects to return in October from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the spring, was slated to open the season as the team's starting running back. Junior Jarrett Payton, originally slated to back-up Gore, has been slowed by back spasms and unable to participate in training camp.

The Hurricanes will go into the season-opener against Florida A&M with sophomore Willis McGahee in place of Gore at tailback and junior-college transfer Talib Humphrey and redshirt freshman Quadtrine Hill splitting time at fill back. Junior Jason Geathers, who played running back in a limited role as a freshman, has been switched back to running back and will back-up McGahee. Hill will also split time at running back.

A lot is being expected of McGahee, who will get a chance to excel with Gore sidelined. His combination of speed, size, strength and agility were several of the reasons McGahee was anointed the starter as soon as Gore went down. As a freshman last season splitting carries with Gore and former starter Clinton Portis, McGahee rushed for 314 yards on 67 carries. But despite his limited role to date, McGahee arrived at Miami as a hot commodity. Despite knee problems that allowed him to play in just five games as a senior at Miami Central, McGahee had 677 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.

Cobia had six carries for 16 yards, along with three receptions and 15 yards, last season.

"Humphrey is going to be alright and I think Willis is in for an outstanding season," said Coker.

Humphrey, a former standout at Miami Southridge High, said that he knew coming in for spring practice that he was going to have plenty of responsibilities on the team. His promotion at fullback- be it temporally or not- isn't going to change that.

"From the first day I walked in here the coaches told me I was in the plans," said Humphrey, who signed with UM in December of 2001 after rushing for 400 yards at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. "This just adds a little more responsibility on my shoulders at fullback. That's why I came here. I just learning and trying to cut back on the mistakes."

Said Running Backs coach Don Soldinger: "Right now he's just learning, but I feel comfortable with his ability as a football player. He's a tough kid."

Before the rash of injuries to the running backs, Geathers was being looked at as a potential third receiver in the Hurricanes rotation. But now, Geathers will play being McGahee. The 6-3, 210-pounder was in 10 games as a reserve last season, totaling nine catches and 112 yards. He had his first career reception for the Hurricanes in the season-opener against Penn State. Geathers added two catches for 26 yards in a victory over Florida State.

Hill, from Piper High in Sunrise, was listed as the second-team fullback entering the spring and was quickly elevated after the injury to Cobia. Hill, who rushed for 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns as a high school senior, is already drawing comparisons to James Jackson and Edgerrin James.

"I'm going to do whatever is best for the team," said Hill. "If that means playing running back I'll do that and if it mean's playing fullback I'll do that."

Payton, who has been hampered by ankle and knee problems in his three seasons at UM, has yet to fulfill the potential he brought as a freshman in 1999. As a freshman, Payton saw action in seven games and rushed for 263 yards on 53 carries for a 4.9 average. But Payton sat out the 2000 season although it wasn't medically related. In 2001, as a sophomore, Payton was out for all of spring practice after cutting his foot while scuba diving. He went on to play in eight games, accounting for 26 yards on 14 carries.

"I don't feel my career is over by any means," Payton. "I've had a lot of time to reflect on everything and that's going to help me. There are a lot of people that are counting me and I can't let them down."

Coker added that the possibility still exist of using tight ends David Williams, Eric Winston, along with Hill, as H-Backs coming out of the backfield. Coker said that having those players in the backfield would not be out of the ordinary.

"They just have to know the plays," said Coker.

Winston, 6-7 and 270 pounds, said after practice that he only carried the ball two times in four years of high school football. Still, he would accept any role if it benefits the Hurricanes.

"It's the same set and the same plays even though I don't think they will be handing the ball off to me," joked Winston.

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