3. Virginia Tech
4. West Virginia
5. Boston College
Now consider this comment, made at the conclusion of spring drills, about the 2003 edition:
"I think we're going to have a fast team,'' said Coker. "In fact, it's probably the fastest team we've had since I've been here.''
That's why, once again, it will be difficult for the rest of the Big East to catch the Hurricanes.
The team has speed — and talent galore.
UM returns its entire secondary, which led the nation last season in pass defense, two stellar linebackers in Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, three strong offensive linemen and the nation's top tight end in Kellen Winslow.
Also, two key Canes passed spring tests nicely.
At running back, Frank Gore, a third-year sophomore, showed little rust after returning from major knee surgery. "We put Frank through everything,'' says Coker. "We had a conversation with Edgerrin James, who had the same injury. He said he felt it was a mistake not testing the knee until a game.''
Brock Berlin, meanwhile, beat out Derrick Crudup at quarterback. "Brock showed great leadership,'' says Coker. "I liked how he grew into the offense.''
The Big East seems to be growing as well — into a solid league. Last year, West Virginia jumped up and finished second. This season, look for Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech to give the conference a nice 1-2-3 punch.
Pittsburgh returns 15 starters from a 9–4 team that dismantled Oregon State, 38–13, in the Insight Bowl. Among those returning starters is quarterback Rod Rutherford, who earned second-team all-conference honors in his first season as a starter. Rutherford has one of the best wide receivers in the country in sophomore Larry Fitzgerald, who had 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman. The Panthers also have a favorable schedule, hosting Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Miami.
In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was simply thrilled with his team's recent work. He called it "the best spring practice we've ever had as far as both sides working together and improving.''
Perhaps "working together'' is the buzzword at Lane Stadium. Because that's exactly what Beamer's quarterbacks — Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick — have been doing. Although most expect Mike's little brother to emerge as the man, Beamer is keeping Randall afloat.
The issue, however, may not be as large as one would think. Beamer has all-world running back Kevin Jones, strong special teams and a rock-solid defense that centers around linemen Nathaniel Adibi and Jim Davis.
If another team is going to join the crowd, it will be West Virginia. Coach Rich Rodriguez turned in one of the country's finest jobs last season, improving the Mountaineers from 3–8 to 9–4. This season, Rodriguez will showcase blazing quarterback Rasheed Marshall, tailback Quincy Wilson and, perhaps, a surprise in junior college recruit Kevin "Kay-Jay'' Harris, a back built in the mold of Eddie George.
Not much has gone right for Syracuse of late. Last season, the Orangemen experienced their first losing season since 1987, finishing in a tie with Temple for next-to-last in the Big East.
This spring? Promising redshirt freshman Perry Patterson blew out a knee, sending SU coaches scrambling for quarterbacks. Senior R.J. Anderson is back as the starter. Sophomore Xzavier Gaines is next in line.
Virginia Tech defensive back DeAngelo Hall has turned into a three-way man, adding wide receiver duties to his regular defensive and special teams play. The team's top cornerback, Hall has been asked to add some speed to the wide receiver position. Beamer tried the same experiment years back with cornerback Ike Charlton.
Hart Holds On
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano challenged quarterback Ryan Hart this spring. The coach even gave wide receiver Chris Baker a shot at the job. But Hart, a sophomore, stepped up and re-established himself as the starter.